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John Adams Gets Snarky About George Washington


Perhaps John Adams can be forgiven for resenting George Washington, the man he had nominated as commander-in-chief of the continental army even before the decision to revolt had been made. Adams defended Washington despite his early losses. Washington’s success at Yorktown allowed Adams to succeed at the bargaining table with the British.

John Adams

John Adams

By the end of the war, however, Adams had grown critical of the idolatrous worship of Washington. Adams, a Harvard-trained lawyer, considered Washington ‘too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station.’

The situation grew worse when Adams served as Washington’s vice president.  Washington was beloved for qualities that Adams lacked: He was tall, graceful, calm and commanding, while Adams was small, short and irascible.

When Adams was elected president, Washington further infuriated him. Adams appointed Washington to lead the army during the Quasi-War with France, but Washington appointed Adams’ bitter enemy Alexander Hamilton as No. 2. Washington was aged and infirm, which meant the de facto commander of the army was Hamilton. Here is John Adams on Alexander Hamilton:

That bastard brat of a Scottish peddler! His ambition, his restlessness and all his grandiose schemes come, I’m convinced, from a superabundance of secretions, which he couldn’t find enough whores to absorb!

Adams still nursed a grudge against Washington seven years after his death and six years after he left the presidency. In 1807, Adams wrote a letter to his best friend Dr. Benjamin Rush that included a snarky description of Washington’s talents, including a handsome face, a tall stature, inherited wealth and Virigin1a birth. Wrote Adams:

…our Hero was much indebted to his Talents for ”his immense elevation above his Fellows.” Talents? you will say, what Talents? I answer.

1. An handsome Face. That this is a Talent, I can prove by the authority of a thousand Instances in all ages: and among the rest Madame Du Barry who said Le veretable Royaute est la Beaute.

2. A tall Stature, like the Hebrew Sovereign chosen because he was taller by the Head than the other Jews.

3 An elegant Form.

George Washington

George Washington

4. graceful Attitudes and Movement:

5. a large imposing Fortune consisting of a great landed Estate left him by his Father and Brother, besides a large Jointure with his Lady, and the Guardianship of the Heirs of the great Custis Estate, and in addition to all this, immense Tracts of Land of his own acquisition. There is nothing, except bloody Battles and Splendid Victories, to which Mankind bow down with more reverence than to great fortune. They think it impossible that rich Men especially immensely rich Men, should Submit to the trouble of Serving them but from the most benevolent and disinterested Motives. Mankind in general are so far from the opinion of the Lawyer, that there are no disinterested Actions, that they give their Esteem to none but those which they believe to be Such. They are oftener deceived and abused in their Judgments of disinterested Men and actions than in any other, it is true. But such is their Love of the Marvellous, [struck: that they will believe] and such their admiration of uncommon Generosity that they will believe extraordinary pretensions to it and the Pope says, Si bonus Populus vult decipi, decipiatur. Washington however did not deceive them. I know not that they gave him more credit for disinterestedness than he deserved, [inserted: though they have not given many others so much.]

6. Washington was a Virginian. This is equivalent to five Talents. Virginian Geese are all Swans. Not a Bearne in Scotland is more national, not a Lad upon the High Lands is more clannish, than every Virginian I have ever known. They trumpet one another with the most pompous and mendacious Panegyricks. The Phyladelphians and New Yorkers who are local and partial enough to themselves are meek and modest in Comparison with Virginian Old Dominionisms Washington of course was extolled without bounds.

7. Washington was preceeded by favourable Anecdotes. The English had used him ill, in the Expedition of Braddock. They had not done Justice to his Bravery and good Council They had exaggerated and misrepresented his defeat and Capitulation: which interested the Pride as well as the compassion of Americans in his favour. President Davis had drawn his Horroscope by calling him ”that Heroic youth, Col. Washington. Mr. Lynch of South Carolina told me before We met in Congress in 1774 that ”Colonel Washington had made the most eloquent Speech that ever had been Spoken upon the Controversy with England, viz. That if the English Should attack the People of Boston, he would raise a thousand Men at his own expence and march at their head to New England to their Aid.” Several other favourable Stories preceded his appearance in Congress and in the army.

8. He possessed the Gift of Silence. This I esteem as one of the most precious Talents.

9. He had great Self Command. It cost him a great Exertion Sometimes, and a constant Constraint, but to preserve So much Equanimity as he did, required a great Capacity.

10. Whenever he lost his temper as he did Sometimes, either Love or fear in those about him induced them to conceal his Weakness from the World. Here you See I have made out ten Talents without saying a Word about Reading Thinking or writing, upon all which Subjects you have Said all that need be Said. – You See I use the word Talents in a larger Sense than usual, comprehending every advantage. Genius Experience, Learning, Fortune Birth, [inserted: Health] are all Talents, though I know not how, the Word has been lately confined to the faculties of the Mind.


Clare Silliman November 12, 2014 - 8:38 pm

I like that word snarky.

Daniel C. Purdy November 12, 2014 - 9:05 pm

Cousin John, what a butt you could be.

Ashley Adams November 12, 2014 - 9:11 pm

Direct descendant and proud!

Cecily Muller November 12, 2014 - 10:03 pm

I believe is one if not only misunderstood and underrated presidents. I think the man was a wonder and we are the country we are today because of Mr and Mrs Adams <3

Peter Jr Hanley November 13, 2014 - 8:55 pm

And Jefferson got us the Louisiana purchase… Would another term of Quincy?

Des Glorio November 14, 2014 - 4:51 pm

Love the John Adams story perhaps one of our greatest .

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