The Health Of The President: John Adams

John Adams (1735 — 1826)

Panegyrical romances will never be written, nor flattering orations spoken to transmit me to posterity in brilliant colors,” wrote John Adams.

He must have felt that he lacked glamor. John Adams succeeded to the Presidency the towering figure who had become a legend in his own time, George Washington; and was followed by one of the most colorful personalities in American history, Thomas Jefferson. Through the veil of history it is hard to discern the true measure of John Adams’ own impressive stature beside these giants.

The second American President was a short fat man with a stern face, in contrast to the imposing figures and benign looks of Washington and Jefferson. The serene, paternal countenance of Washington inspired confidence. Jefferson’s face expressed humanity and wisdom. Both Presidents represented to the people the ideal of a father—strong, calm, and benign—the image which a nation looks for in its leaders.

There was strength but no serenity in the face of John Adams. Even in repose his jaws seemed to be set in defiance. The smooth brush strokes of the fashionable portrait painters of the time could not completely efface the truculence which tightened his lips.

All his life John Adams carried a chip on his shoulder. He was born with a burning ambition and secret craving for the approval and esteem of his contemporaries, accompanied by an extreme sensitivity and vulnerability which predisposes a person to neurotic reactions. All his life he was oversensitive to the needle pricks and brickbats to which he was exposed in the free-for-all of politics, the career forced upon him by the currents of the time.

With Washington and Jefferson towering above him, John Adams was doubly self-conscious of his own small size. And his pride was stung when he compared his humble origin as the son of a Massachusetts dirt farmer with their social prestige as Virginia landowners. He was always on guard, ready to pounce upon any possible antagonist with sarcasm and invective before the other had time to strike the first blow. His short temper, sharp tongue, and belligerence won him enemies all his life.

Contrary to his own often expressed opinion, John Adams had a rich and successful life by any standard. His temperament made him exaggerate his failures and troubles and minimize his rewards and blessings. He had grown up on a farm in Braintree (later named Quincy), Massachusetts, in modest circumstances. At fifteen John entered Harvard where at the time the college catalogue ranked students according to their social standing. John was ranked fourteenth in a class of twenty-four, in spite of his excellent grades, an experience never forgotten, that deeply wounded his pride and aggravated his sense of inferiority. After his graduation at twenty, John’s father wished him to enter the clergy, then the most honored profession in New England. By this time John Adams had come to the conclusion that Christianity was encumbered by “whole carloads of trumpery,” and that he was not suited for the pulpit, though he believed all his life in the fundamental principles of Christianity.

Always a voracious reader, Adams at twenty had come across a book by the great Dutch physician, Boerhaave, and for a short while considered becoming a doctor. Upon further reflection he decided that he was better fitted for law. He was admitted to the bar of Massachusetts at the age of twenty-three.

His choice of the legal profession conflicted with Adams’ craving for social prominence because lawyers in colonial times were held in low esteem. Socially they were on a par with mountebanks and actors. In 1698, in Connecticut, lawyers were included in discriminatory legislation along with drunkards and keepers of brothels; in Rhode Island in 1730 a law was enacted excluding them from membership in the legislature. Men of John Adams’ integrity were responsible for the improvement of the reputation of the legal profession.

In 1774 and 1775 he was elected a delegate to the Continental Congress where he was instrumental in having Washington appointed Commander of the Continental Army. In 1776 Adams served on the committee which drafted the Declaration of Independence, and in Jefferson’s words, “was the pillar of its support on the floor of Congress.” One year later he was sent to France as Commissioner and assistant to the aging and gout-ridden Benjamin Franklin.

John Adams’ greatest service to his country, for which he received the least gratitude, was his prevention of an unnecessary war with France during his term as President. This war was the favorite project of his nemesis, Alexander Hamilton, who virtually controlled the Federalist Party and was to become the field commander of the American Army. Hamilton and his followers had succeeded in stirring up a war hysteria in the American people, which demanded a declaration of war with France. John Adams dared to defy public opinion, as well as his own party, and avoided open warfare through his personal efforts. Fuming with frustration, Hamilton circulated a letter among the Federalist politicians which declared Adams unfit for the Presidency; Adams retaliated by calling Hamilton such descriptive names as “Creole adventurer” and “Creole bastard.”

Adams’ courageous action brought about the final split in the Federalist Party between him and Hamilton, and cost him reelection to the Presidency. In spite of this cruel blow to his ambition, he was always proud of his accomplishment, which he considered “the most meritorious” of his life. Long years afterward he wrote, “I desire no other inscription over my gravestone than ‘Here lies John Adams who took upon himself the responsibility of the peace with France in the year 1800.'”

Outstanding as a statesman, John Adams was found wanting in the qualities indispensable in a good politician and diplomat. Not only did he lack the tact and self-control, but also the showmanship which a diplomat needs to disguise his thoughts and feelings. Besides this, his inferiority complex made it difficult for him to yield a point or to compromise.

In 1779 he was sent on his second mission to Paris as plenipotentiary to negotiate a peace with England as soon as an opportunity should arise. At this time Benjamin Franklin was the sole American representative accredited to France. Adams disapproved of Franklin’s easygoing ways but had no authority to interfere with his affairs. Like a busybody, Adams took it upon himself to begin the exchange of views directly with the Count of Vergennes, Foreign Minister of Louis XVI, completely ignoring Benjamin Franklin’s existence.

Apparently he used more vehemence than diplomatic finesse in his discussions with Vergennes. For, at length, Vergennes became annoyed and wrote Adams in plain, undiplomatic language that “all further discussion between us on the subject will be needless.” And he asked Franklin to transmit to the Congress the entire correspondence with Adams in order to let them judge for themselves whether Adams possessed the qualifications “necessary for the important and delicate business with which he is entrusted.”

The qualifications of John Adams for the delicate business of diplomacy were also challenged at a later date during the peace negotiations with England. The British envoys resented his bluntness and bad temper. One of them remarked to another American representative, “Your Mr. Adams that you represent as a man of such good sense . . . is the most ungracious man I ever saw.”

Most ungracious, certainly, was his behavior on the occasion of the inauguration of his successor, Thomas Jefferson, after Adams had lost the election to a second term. At dawn on March 4, 1801, the day of Jefferson’s inauguration, Adams left the capital in a huff, unable to bring himself to shake the hand of his old friend. John Adams may have been recalling with bitterness his own inauguration when all eyes were turned on the colorful figure of the outgoing President George Washington, and no one paid any attention to the new Chief of State, paunchy little John Adams. And he could not bear the prospect of being again ignored.

No distinct line can be drawn between the frontier zone of normal behavior and the wilderness of psychopathy. The extreme sensitivity and explosive irascibility of Adams straddle the imaginary fence of normalcy. Other mental reactions of his seem to extend beyond it into the shadows of neurosis—his exaggerated opinion of his own importance evidenced by his constant suspicion of being persecuted, and his conviction that his services were not duly appreciated.

The behavior of Adams at different times was so contradictory that it suggests cyclic episodes of a manic-depressive character. There were times when he appeared excessively timorous, others when he would be rashly impulsive. For many months he would make the greatest effort to express himself cautiously in his speech and writings, then suddenly, without apparent reason, he would explode like a bombshell. Franklin wrote to the Secretary of Foreign Affairs in Congress that Adams “is always an honest man, often a wise man, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.” Jefferson in a letter to Madison quotes the same remark, and agrees with it.

When Adams was only twenty-six years old and had become a person of some consequence in the little town of Braintree, he made an entry in his diary expressing his belief that he was hated by everybody in town, which implied his exaggerated opinion of his own importance. He complained, “I am creating enemies in every quarter of the town. The clerks hate Mother Hubbard, Thayer, Lamb . . . this is multiplying and propagating enemies fast. I shall have the ill will of the whole town.”

To the same personality pattern belongs Adams’ tendency to hold what is called “ideas of reference”—delusions that events of general impact and having no immediate relation to him were directed against him personally. At the age of thirty he wrote in his diary, “Thirty years of my life are passed in preparation for business; I have had poverty to struggle with; envy, jealousy and malice of enemies to encounter, no friends, or but few, to assist me; so that I have groped in dark obscurity, till of late, and had just become known and gained a small degree of reputation, when this execrable project was set on foot for my ruin as well as that of America in general, and of Great Britain.” The “execrable” project alluded to was none other than the Stamp Act, which required all legal papers to bear a stamp indicating the tax paid upon it. The Act immediately evoked passive resistance in the colonies and brought all legal business virtually to a standstill. Adams seemed to feel that the Stamp Act was first of all directed at him to ruin him as a lawyer.

Feelings of persecution and of lack of appreciation never entirely left John Adams. In his seventy-sixth year he wrote, “From the year 1761, now more than fifty years, I have constantly lived in an enemy’s country.” And thinking of his death, he added, “By the treatment I have received and continue to receive, I should expect that a large majority of both parties would cordially rejoice to hear that my head was laid low.”

This dirge came from a man who had risen from farm boy to the Presidency of the United States, had retired with honor at the age of sixty-five, to his farm where he lived in comfort in the midst of his devoted and growing family, and among his beloved books. And from the peace of the countryside he would watch his eldest son, John Quincy, follow in the footsteps of the father and bring added fame to the name of Adams.

Believing that his own services for the cause of the United States did not receive their deserved recognition, Adams felt that Washington and Franklin were highly overrated. His primitive reaction was bitter envy of both men. It is a sign of the complexity of Adams’ character that on occasion he was able to brighten his expressions of jealousy with sparks of witty sarcasm and unsuspected humor. In this vein he wrote to his friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, “The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod—and thenceforward these two conducted all the policy, negotiations, legislatures, and war.” Franklin, he thought, had a great genius, original, sagacious, and inventive; but his vaunted excellence as a legislator, politician, and negotiator was a fable. From day to day he sat in silence at the Continental Congress, “a great part of his time fast asleep in his chair,” and in France he was too self-indulgent to attend regularly to the business of the Embassy.

When Dr. Rush asked Adams to what talents Washington owed his “immense elevation,” Adams replied—to a handsome face, a tall stature “like the Hebrew sovereign chosen because he was taller by the head than the other Jews”; graceful attitudes and movements; the gift of silence; a large, imposing fortune; and the fact that he was a Virginian, and “Virginian geese are all swans.”

John Adams looked upon Washington as his own creation and was angry that he, a mere soldier whom Adams considered his puppet, received all the limelight. Nobody talked about John Adams who, according to John Adams, was really the brains behind the Revolution. In June 1775 he wrote to his wife concerning the farewell given to the General: “Such is the pride and pomp of war. I, poor creature, worn out with scribbling for my bread and for my liberty, low in spirit and weak in health, must leave others to wear the laurels which I have sown, others to eat the bread which I have earned.” This jealousy led Adams temporarily to join the anti-Washington faction after the defeats of 1777.

It is surprising to find in Adams’ diaries so many complaints of “feeble health” and “fatigue” coming from so wiry and healthy a man who was to live to the age of ninety. Such an entry is found when he was only thirty-four years old, and at the age of thirty-seven he speaks of himself as “an infirm man.” In the following year he is again worried about his “infirmities,” yet wrote that he rose at five o’clock and walked three miles, which shows that his complaints were of a psychosomatic nature.

In the medical history of John Adams we encounter three prolonged periods during which he felt sick, tired, and barely able to work. At the same time we have no record of specific symptoms of any somatic disease. All these spells followed experiences of unusual stress and frustration, and can be interpreted as depressive reactions to environmental stress in a vulnerable person.

The first episode occurred in 1781 at The Hague while he was negotiating with the Dutch for a loan and for recognition of the United States. It was a laborious and frustrating task, trying the tenuous patience of Adams to the utmost. Under the strain and the restraint, he broke down. For several months he felt so low that he could not take “a pen in hand to write anybody.” Finally, in the beginning of the next year he was aroused from his gloom when his labor of two years bore fruit and he won the first official recognition of the United States as an independent nation, together with a loan and a treaty of commerce with the Dutch.

His second breakdown occurred following the signing of the Peace Treaty of Paris in 1783. Adams had hoped that he could return home after four years of separation from his wife and family, when the unexpected news arrived that he had been appointed Minister to the Court of St. James in London, and could not return to America. As he was about to set out on his journey to England, he suffered a complete collapse. This was possibly due to physical and nervous exhaustion from the strain of the difficult negotiations and from personal disappointment. Adams had been shut in for several months in stuffy rooms, working day and night, studying and writing lengthy reports by candlelight, and engaging in fierce discussions during the day. He was advised by an understanding physician to move to the suburb of Auteuil, and there long daily walks in the Bois de Boulogne soon restored his mental balance and physical strength.

Obviously Adams was also suffering from a depressive reaction during his peace negotiations with France in 1799, precipitated by his singlehanded struggle against the intrigues of Hamilton and the pressure of public opinion.

In March 1799 he issued an executive order to send a peace mission abroad; then, without waiting for the implementation of his directive, he disappeared and retired to Quincy. As was to be expected, Hamilton and his stooges in the Cabinet did everything in his absence to sabotage the President’s plan. Benjamin Stoddert, the Secretary of the newly founded Navy and the only member of the Cabinet loyal to Adams, sent him message after message urging him to return and personally to enforce his order. Adams could not be aroused from his mental torpor. By his panicky flight from his post of leadership and his temporary inertia of depression, Adams jeopardized the peace with France, for which he had worked so hard.

Adams was passing his time in Quincy reading the literary miscarriages of Frederick II, King of Prussia (a better general than an author), and penning angry notations on the page margins. These notes of Adams’ almost leap from the pages, so full are they of furious denunciation and hostility. Books cannot talk back. Adams was exhausted from his struggle with Hamilton and the other warmongers in the Federalist Party. Frederick II in his writings, contemptuous, cynical, and hypocritical, was identified by Adams with Hamilton. Adams could annihilate his enemy on paper with the strokes of his pen, as he would have liked to annihilate his enemy, Hamilton, in the flesh.

It took Adams seven months to recover strength for the final showdown. In October he suddenly reappeared in Philadelphia and peremptorily ordered the sailing of the Peace Mission.

We wonder how a man as undiplomatic, as unbalanced and unpredictable as John Adams could ever have become so eminently successful in public life—that he could have been elected to the Congress, entrusted again and again with the most important missions abroad, and that his opinions carried so much weight in the formulation of the State and Federal Constitutions. And how could such a man finally be elected to the Presidency of the United States?

The answer lies in the fact that Adams’ weaknesses and faults were far outweighed by his mental powers and his virtues. Theodore Parker, American preacher and social reformer, thought that “John Adams possessed such virtues that he can afford to have his vices told and subtracted from his real merit.”

In the sphere of pure intellect and abstract thinking, Adams was the equal of Franklin and Jefferson. What Adams lacked was their versatility, their scientific genius, and the graceful balance of their personalities. His sharp intellect was combined with a keen memory and tireless energy. Because of his willingness to work hard and conscientiously, even on the most thankless tasks, he excelled in any public office to which he was chosen. In the Continental Congress of 1775 these qualities won him immediate recognition and a fast-growing influence. In the records of the session his name appears as chairman of twenty-five committees and as a member of many others. His working day lasted fifteen hours or more.

Believing as he did in the American Revolution, John Adams was always ready to take risks for the cause. In November of 1777 he felt all worn out from almost four years of arduous labor in public office, and guilty of neglecting his family and business. He asked for a leave of absence from Congress, with the intention of resigning. He had hardly returned to his home when he received from Congress the appointment as Commissioner to France, accompanied by an appeal not to decline. Twenty-four hours later he wrote a letter of acceptance. Travel then was far from safe; ships were frequently captured. In such an event the new Commissioner knew that he would be tried in England for high treason, and possibly hanged. In February of 1778 he embarked for France on a small frigate, accompanied by his ten-year-old son, John Quincy, subjecting himself to the dangers and hardships of a six-weeks’ sea voyage.

Corresponding to the unselfishness which Adams showed as a public servant was his detachment of personal feelings in the interest of the common good. Jefferson remarked that Adams “was as disinterested as the Being who made him.” The good of the country as he saw it transcended the program of his political party. As the nominal head of the Federalists, Adams bolted the party in making his French Treaty. Ten years later he antagonized them forever by favoring the embargo against England. He wrote, “I am determined to support every administration whenever I think them in the right. I care not whether they call me a Federalist, Jacobin, or Quid.” His proud independence cost him not only the acclaim of his own time, but the fame of posterity. Jefferson and Jackson on one side, Hamilton and Marshall on the other, have become the idols of the present-day Democratic and Republican Parties—but no party has claimed John Adams.

Whereas some of the mental traits of John Adams belong in the realm of psychopathology, he was physically one of the healthiest of the American Presidents. The average age of the first fifteen Presidents who died a natural death was close to seventy-one. Adams reached ninety, far beyond the average male life expectancy even today. The explanation is that the earlier Presidents averaged almost sixty-one years at the time of taking office. At this age they had successfully passed the trial of natural selection by the most prevalent infectious diseases; only the healthiest had survived.

John Adams came from sound stock; the medical history of his family was much more favorable than the records of Washington’s and Jefferson’s families showed. Tuberculosis, the scourge of Washington’s family, apparently did not occur in the Adams family. Malaria, which was ravaging the Southern colonies, appeared in Massachusetts only sporadically, and in milder form. There is no record that John Adams ever suffered from it.

In 1775 Adams was stricken with a “fever” on his way to the Continental Congress. The sickness was of short duration and may have represented a mild attack of a gastrointestinal infection. Such mild cases often are the forerunners of a severe epidemic. We know that in the summer of the same year an epidemic called dysentery raged through New England and reached a crescendo along the coast of Massachusetts. Most of the Adams family caught the disease, and one of John’s brothers died from it.

An epidemic of smallpox attacked Washington’s army in 1776, killing hundreds of soldiers before the General arrested it by ordering compulsory inoculation. The people in nearby Philadelphia, where Adams was then attending the Continental Congress, were in a panic and had themselves inoculated with the matter from the blisters of human pox. Adams had himself inoculated, as well as his entire family back in Massachusetts, without any ill effects.

Another sickness to which John Adams was occasionally exposed without ever contracting it, was yellow fever. Imported from the West Indies, this disease was the summer scourge of Philadelphia when, in 1793, it killed 4,044 persons, and 3,900 in 1803. It even reached New York, where 606 persons died of it in 1803. The last great epidemic in the country occurred in 1878 in New Orleans, when it caused 4,046 deaths. Yellow fever, a virus disease transmitted by a species of mosquito different from that which carries the germs of malaria, derives its name from its most striking manifestation—the deep jaundice caused by a severe inflammation of the liver. The average mortality used to be above 50 per cent among white persons—lower among the less susceptible colored peoples whose contact with the virus for generations gave them a degree of immunity.

It has been suggested by his detractors that John Adams fled Philadelphia in the spring of 1799, staying away for seven months, in fear of yellow fever. The truth is that Adams left the city in March, five months before the usual onset of the epidemic, and that in the midsummer his Cabinet took refuge in Trenton. In physical courage Adams was the equal of his archenemy, Alexander Hamilton, who reappeared in Philadelphia in July of that year during Adams’ absence.

In 1785 Mrs. Adams and daughter Abigail went to Europe and were reunited with John in London after a separation of seven years. While living in England, Adams suffered apparently from the only serious illness of his life, accompanied by a protracted fever and followed by a long convalescence. It was probably the “pestilence of London,” typhoid fever. Typhoid used to be endemic in cities like London and Paris. The bacteria of the disease, deposited with the flotsam of the sewers, hibernated in the swamps bordering the sluggish rivers from which some of the water supply of the cities was drawn. The plague reached its peak during the late summer and fall when the warm weather favored the multiplication of the bacteria in water and milk.

In November 1800, Adams had barely recovered from his disappointment at not being re-elected to a second term as President, when he received the melancholy news of the death of his talented son Charles. The young man had succumbed to an unknown “fever,” leaving a wife and two young children to the care of the grandparents. John Adams had to carry his grief alone. Because of bad health, Mrs. Adams had been unable to join her husband in Philadelphia.

Early in 1812 Adams’ only daughter, Abigail, was operated upon for cancer of the breast and died one year later at the age of forty-nine. Adams had the consolation that two of his sons survived, and not less than thirteen grandchildren, to whom three years later four great-grandchildren were added.

In the last years of his life Adams kept remarkably healthy. In 1811 Dr. Benjamin Rush, a mutual friend of Adams and Jefferson, brought about a reconciliation between them. For the fifteen remaining years of their lives (both died in 1826) the two retired Founding Fathers of the nation kept up a lively correspondence with each other between Massachusetts and Virginia. Age had somewhat mellowed the intransigence of Adams, and in spite of differences in their conception of government, the two great intellects were in complete rapport on most other questions of politics, philosophy, religion, and in their mutual admiration for the classics.

At times Adams complained of sciatica and rheumatism, and his eyesight troubled him. He had a “quiveration of the hands,” a senile tremor which he painfully controlled when he wrote to Jefferson. Adams retained the use of his limbs for a long time. At seventy-eight he took long rides on horseback, and at the age of eighty-five his short legs still carried him over four or five miles of rocky hills in his walks around Quincy. A time came, at length, when he had to resort to the hand of an amanuensis to write his letters, and Mrs. Adams often acted as his secretary. Following her death in 1818, the grandchildren rendered him the same service and read aloud to him when his eyesight had become poor. This was most unsatisfactory to Adams, for many things had to be left unsaid when the secretary would be a young, lady, and many books had to be left unread—French books particularly.

Adams’ mind remained fresh and vigorous as ever. A selection of his letters that appeared after his death gave evidence of his wide knowledge, which ranged from Plato to Pythagoras, from Cicero to Lucretius, from Voltaire to Dr. Johnson.

At the beginning of 1826 Adams showed signs of decomposition of the heart, the consequence of hardening of the arteries. He was forced to give up his walks, even in the garden, and spent long afternoons sitting erect, supported by cushions, in an armchair near the window of his study, surrounded by his papers and familiar books. Although he breathed with difficulty, he suffered no particular pain, and his mind remained clear.

Gilbert Chinard described John Adams’ last days as follows:

On the morning of July 4 as the town was preparing for the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Adams’ physician, Dr. Holbrook, predicted that his patient would not last beyond sunset. The opening salvos, the strains of the military bands, the huzzas of the crowd did not penetrate the dimming consciousness of the patriot. All day he remained in his big armchair, attended by the doctor and his grandchildren, sometimes struggling to utter words hardly intelligible, but among which some of the attendants could recognize a last thought and a last farewell to his old friend—”Thomas Jefferson still survives.” The people of Quincy had not yet heard the news that Jefferson had expired at one o’clock on the same day.

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