“We live, my dear soul, in an age of trial. What will be the consequence, I know not.”-John Adams, 1774.
The hardest thing in the world, and
maybe the most important thing of all in writing and teaching history, is to convey the fundamental truth that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened. The tendency when one teaches and writes history is that this followed this, and that followed that; therefore that’s the way it was preordained. But it never, ever was. The Founding Fathers did not know what was going to happen next, what the outcome of this very dangerous path they were taking-to stage a revolution against the most powerful nation in the world-was going to mean for the country and for themselves.
John Adams’s marvelous wife Abigail wrote back: “You cannot, I know, nor do I wish to see you an inactive spectator. We have too many high-sounding words and too few actions to correspond with them.”
On 2-3 March, in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall – in the ‘same room where the Declaration of Independence was voted on much later-the Congress took a momentous step, to permit the outfitting of privateers, “armed vessels,” to prey “on the enemies of the United Colonies,” a move roundly supported and led by the delegate from Massachusetts, John Adams.
The previous fall, he’d urged the creation of an American Fleet. To some, like Samuel Chase of Maryland, this had seemed the maddest idea in the world. It was not until 13 October that finally the building of two small swift,sailing ships was voted by Congress, and thus the beginnings of a new navy.
It was John Adams who drafted the first set of rules and regulations for the new navy-a point of pride for him as long as he lived. Indeed, in the 25 years that John Adams served his country, and especially as President, in his advocacy of a strong navy he stood secondto none.
Imagine, if you will, a bitter cold morning in Massachusetts during which the snow is blowing, the wind is howling, and two figures are seen coming down a rather bleak and windswept stretch of ocean shore. They are all bundled up, of course, hats pulled down. One is a man, a rather stout, short fellow. The other is a little boy, John Quincy Adams, ten years old. And he and his father are about to sail for France in the midst of the Revolutionary War. It is 1778, and John Adams has been dispatched to
France to meet with Benjamin Franklin to help encourage the French to finance our battle for freedom and independence, and to supply arms and maybe actual military force.
There’s every reason in the world why Adams should not go. Nobody ever went to sea in the North Atlantic in the dead of winter, if it could possibly be avoided. He also was sailing in the midst of war, with British ships just lying in wait for somebody trying to escape. Boston was full of spies, and as a consequence, it was unsafe for him to board the new frigate, Boston, which had been recently commissioned. It was arranged that he would be picked up off the shore about dusk and taken out to a ship.
John Adams had never been to sea, even though he’d lived his whole life within a mile of it. He had never been on a boat, never been farther out than Cohasset Rocks, where he went fishing from time to time. And he was taking his son, because Abigail was sure that this was one of the great chances for this young man to have experiences such as nobody of his generation would ever be able to claim. And, of course, John Quincy Adams is going to become President himself, the President who recommends the establishment of a naval academy.
John Adams was to travel farther in the service of his country, during and after the Revolution, than any major figure of his time. He took this chance because of what he felt in his heart. Adams was leaving his wife, children, friends, his home, his livelihood, everything he loved; all to begin a new business for which he felt ill suited, knowing nothing of European politics or diplomacy, and unable to speak French, the language of diplomacy. He had never, in his life, laid eyes on a king or queen, or the foreign minister of a great power. He had never set foot in a city of more than 30,000 people. At age 42, he was bound for an unimaginably distant world, with little idea of what was in store, and every cause to be extremely apprehensive.
But with his overriding sense of duty, his need to serve, his ambition, and as a patriot fiercely committed to the fight for independence, he could not have done otherwise. There was never really a doubt about his going. If he was untrained and inexperienced in diplomacy, so was every American. If unable to speak French, he could learn. Fearsome as the winter seas might be, he was not lacking in courage. The voyage could also provide an opportunity to appraise the Continental Navy at first hand, a subject he believed of the highest importance.
“The wind was very high and the sea very rough,” he would record in his diary. “But by means of a quantity of hay in the bottom of the boat, and good watch coats, in which we were covered, we arrived aboard the Boston about five o’clock, tolerably warm and dry.” The Boston was a 24-gun ship, 114 feet on deck. It was filled with people, many of them French officers returning from the Revolution back to France, and some young naval officers as well as the crew.
It was a terrible trip. Almost everything that could go wrong went wrong. What is so important about this voyage-which has, to my mind, been sadly neglected by historians and biographers-is that later, Adams told Thomas Jefferson that it was a metaphor for his whole life.
Among the things it revealed was that Adams loved action. He loved leadership. He was very distraught when they had days of good sailing, which bored him tremendously. He started wishing that they might take captive of a British ship, which might possibly have a London newspaper on it that he could read.
They were hit by a storm that blew them more than 200 miles off course, hit by lightning, which struck very near to where the powder was stored, split the mainmast, killed one man on board and injured about 20 more. They also had a run-in with the British merchantman, the Martha. Adams was ordered to go below, by Captain [Samuel] Tucker. In the midst of shot flying everywhere-some of it hitting the ship, some of it hitting the mast not far above the heads of everybody - Captain Tucker saw Congressman Adams standing there with a rifle, accoutered, as Tucker later said, “as one of my Marines.” Tucker later testified before a Navy board, in no uncertain terms, about the valor, the courage of John Adams.
The voyage, I think, also prepared Adams for the realities of war. One young naval officer was severely injured when a cannon exploded in a test operation. Adams and the captain held this young man in their arms, while a French surgeon on board amputated the leg in the very crude fashion of the day. Almost alone of the members of Congress, Adams foresaw that this was not going to be a quick and easy war. He saw that it was going to be long, costly, difficult, and an uphill struggle the whole time.
One of the most important things that John Adams did was to persuade the French to commit their navy to the Revolution. Late in the summer of 1778, there was a French naval expedition under Admiral Valerie d’Estaing, combined with an American land assault against the British at Newport, Rhode Island. It was a fiasco. When the news reached France, Adams characteristically went to [Foreign Minister Charles Gravier, Comte de] Vergennes and demanded that the French do more.
In a paper submitted to the French government, Adams wrote: “Nothing would bring the war to a more speedy conclusion more effectively than sending a powerful fleet sufficient to secure naval superiority in American waters. Such a naval force, acting in concert with the armies of the United States, would in all probability take and destroy the whole British power in that part of the world,” which is exactly what happened at Yorktown.
When Adams kept pressing Vergennes for still more naval support, Vergennes wrote an angry response, saying of Adams: “His pedantry, stubbornness, and self-importance will give rise to a thousand vexations.”
Adams wrote in reply: “Thanks to God, that he gave me stubbornness when I know I am right.”
Shift forward to the year 1798, a different time, a different prospect for America. The country has formed, but the struggle to keep the union is paramount in every thinking American’s mind. It was not just that the war was won and suddenly this wonderful new country blossomed. It was a very precarious, difficult time, particularly after George Washington retired and Adams became President.
Ask most Americans, “Did the United States, at any period since the French and Indian War, ever go to battle with France?” and they will say no. But, of course, we fought a very real but undeclared war with France, at sea, during John Adams’s administration. To be sure, there were many in America who wanted it to become a larger war. It was politically expedient for those in the Federalist Party, particularly, if there were such a war. The opposition, the Republicans, led by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, were all together against any war with France.
John Adams, I should point out, was one of the first of all Americans to say that the French Revolution is going to lead to hideous bloodshed and will eventually give rise to a dictatorship. The concurrent voice was Edmund Burke, in England. They were saying much the same thing at exactly the same time.
Adams was determined to make peace, but he faced the old problem of impressment. And the problem, of course, was political and ideological. The Federalists, in general, favored Britain and distrusted France. The Republicans, later to become the Democratic Party, favored France and greatly distrusted Britain.
But Adams had a novel idea. “We will make peace with all our might and we will build up the military.” But members of the opposition – Jefferson in particular – were unable, unwilling, and in some ways incapable of understanding how this could possibly work. You either make peace or you make war. You don’t build up this costly luxury of a navy while you are trying to make peace with the French.
Adams was convinced that peace would never be made with the French without military might on the waters. And in May of 1798, Congress passed a bill empowering U.S. warships to begin to capture any French privateer or cruiser found in American waters. This was the rebirth of the Navy; “the wooden walls of America,” as Adams called it; and the first new Department of the Navy, a separate department from the War Department, was the President’s pride and joy. Little that he achieved as President would give him greater satisfaction. With his choice of the first Secretary of the Navy – the very able and very energetic Benjamin Stoddert, of Maryland-he brought into his administration the one truly loyal ally he had close at hand.
Advance again to December of that year. The streets of Philadelphia are snowbound after a heavy storm, and sleigh bells are ringing. The President of the United States, his Cabinet, and his Secretary of the Navy gather around large maps in the President’s house, a building that no longer exists. They are perusing these maps because four squadrons, 21 ships in total, virtually the whole American Naval Force, are now assigned to the Caribbean. The largest squadron, which included the heavy frigates United States and Constitution, was under Commander John Barry, who was admonished in his orders that, “A spirit of enterprise and adventure cannot be too much encouraged in the officers under your command. We have nothing to dread but inactivity.”
By the second week of March, as Adams was prepar, ing to go home to Quincy, word reached Philadelphia that the American frigate Constellation, under Captain Thomas Truxtun, had captured the French frigate Insurgente, after battle near the island of Nevis, in the Leewards. It was the first and perhaps the most important engagement of the undeclared war at sea.
In Philadelphia, people were either cheering or they were absolutely distraught that this madman who was President was leading the country into a mistaken, terrible war with France. Where would it all end, people were asking in Philadelphia. But Adams was anything but alarmed or displeased. Of Captain Truxtun he wrote, “I wish all other officers had as much zeal.”
In less than two years, the U.S. Navy, under John Adams, grew from almost nothing to 50 ships and more than 5,000 officers and seamen. This bore heavily on the outcome of the nego~ tiations with France. Indeed, Adams’s insistence on American naval strength proved decisive, achieving peace with France in 1800. A war would have been a colossal mistake. Remember, this is the time of Napoleon at his peak. But the crisis passed, and it had a lot to do with the United States Navy.
Had we gone to war with France, it’s my belief that there might never have been a Louisiana Purchase, which came shortly thereafter. The Louisiana Purchase was possible because Napoleon wanted to unload Louisiana. He’d had a terrible time in Haiti, mainly because of malaria and yellow fever. It was a fire sale, and one of the great events in U.S. history, because it more than doubled the size of the nation.
Jefferson and Adams had become enemies politically, but when the Navy was performing with spectacular success in the War of 1812, Jefferson resumed correspondence: “I sincerely congratulate you on the success of our little navy, which must be more gratifying to you than to most men, as having been the early and constant advocate of wooden walls.”
John Adams was the American patriot who defended the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre; a very brave act, which he thought might destroy his political career; and was made the more difficult for his popularity in that he got them off. They were not convicted.
As Jefferson and innumerable people like Benjamin Rush attested, John Adams was the man on the Floor of the Congress who drove the Declaration of Independence through.
John Adams was our first ambassador to the Court of Saint James’s. It is John Adams, a farmer’s son from Massachusetts, who stands before King George III, for the first time, to declare that he is there to represent the new, independent United States of America – one of the great scenes in American history.
He was then the first Vice President, second President, and the first President to occupy the White House. He was also – and I think this is very important, as an illustration of his hidebound convictions – the only one of the Founding Fathers who never owned a slave, as a matter of principle.
When he retired, he went back to Quincy and lived out a long, quiet, and largely satisfying life, for all of the tragedies that beset Abigail and him. He lived longer than any President in our history, and died on the same day as Thomas J efferson, who was more than eight years younger. And he died, not just on any day, but the day, their day – July 4th, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence; which, to many Ameri~ cans and to his son, seemed the clearest evidence yet that the hand of God was involved with the destiny of our country.
Was he a great man? Absolutely. Was he a good President? Certainly. Was he a brave President? Absolutely. Was he honest? Almost to a fault. And I believe that his part in the creation of the Navy, his belief in the idea of the Navy as a form of balance in the order of things in the world, is paramount.
As a very young man, he began writing and wrote all his life. Much of what he said survives today in hundreds, indeed thousands, of letters, diary entries, cases argued before courts in Massachusetts, and in what he wrote in his Presidential papers. Some of it is familiar, such as: “We must be a government of laws and not of men,” and “Facts are stubborn things,” as he told the jury trying the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre.
But one of the most moving passages, in all that he wrote, was written when he was 30 years old – in 1765, ten years before Concord and Lexington-in something called A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law. The last sentence of it is the chosen motto of the U.S. Naval Institute. He wrote: “The true source of our suffering has been our timidity. We have been afraid to think.” And here’s the sentence, which I dedicate to all of you: “Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.”
This post was an edited exerpt from the remarks that author & historian David McCullough delivered at the U.S. Naval Institute’s 127th Annual Meeting. It was published in the October 2001 issue of Naval History magazine