I don’t know anything about John Adams, except that he died on 4 July 1826, muttering ‘Jefferson lives!’, unaware that his once close friend and colleague, and later political opponent, had died a few hours earlier. This must be true, because I got it from that supreme exemplar of all that is good about American culture, The West Wing. I could have learnt more from the recent television series starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, but Channel 4 put that out in such an odd slot (Saturday teatime) and with such variations in time (just like they treated The West Wing, come to think of it) that I caught only a few episodes.
As a consequence, my enthusiasm at the prospect of the ten fat volumes of The Works of John Adams, Second President of the Unites States, published between 1850 and 1856, was muted – which just shows how wrong you can be. Just turning over the pages of the advance copies, I kept wanting to stop and read: the letter from Abigail to John on the day he was elected President (Vol. 1, page 496); the amputation at sea of a sailor’s leg, recorded in his diary (Vol. 3, page 110); his works of political theory, in which the history and workings of democracies and republics both contemporary and ancient are analysed in great depth and with remarkable learning (Vols. 4 and 5); his musing, on 3 July 1776, about the appropriate way to mark ‘the most memorable epocha in the history of America’, i.e. 2 July (Vol. 9, page 420); his views on Napoleon, expressed in a letter to Jefferson in July 1814 (vol. 10, page 100) or his amused indignation at the morass of pettifogging regulations, ‘mincing laws’, by which the British government had attempted to restrict American trade and industry before the revolution (Vol. 10, page 350). All this in flowing and elegant prose which characterises not only the works intended for wide circulation but even the tersest of diary entries.
I can’t claim that I will read the lot, but I will certainly read the whole of Volume 1, the inevitably hagiographic biography (begun by John Quincy Adams (sixth President) and completed by Charles Francis Adams, his son, the editor of this edition), which is enlivened by extensive quotations from Adams’ own letters, and concludes (pages 643–4) with the moving epitaph inscribed on his grave.