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Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams Paperback – February 17, 2001

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Decreeing our second president the "most misconstrued and underappreciated 'great man' in American history," Ellis, a history professor at Mount Holyoke College, sets out to recover the Adams legacy obscured by the "triumph of liberalism." His notable study focuses on Adams (1735-1826) in retirement in Quincy, Mass., starting in 1801. Drawing on Adams's correspondence, his journalism and his marginalia in the books he read, Ellis shows the one-term president during his first 12 years of private life fulminating over the country's direction, then mellowing. But Adams would remain oppositional and tart: "Was there ever a Coup de Theatre that had so great an effect as Jefferson's penmanship of the Declaration of Independence?" Ellis argues that Adams, incapable of political self-protection and with an insufferable personal integrity, internalized what he viewed as the nation's failings--ambition, lust for distinction, etc.--and struggled to keep a check on such qualities within himself. He and Jefferson differed fundamentally on the meaning of the American Revolution; their disagreement, according to Ellis, was not about means but about ends: Jefferson made "a religion of the people," Adams proposed that democratization should be evolutionary. Photos.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

Of all the brilliant cast of characters who brought the United States into being, none is more noteworthy or more controversial than John Adams. In this biography, Ellis (history, Mount Holyoke) focuses on the last part of Adams's life in an attempt to dissect and illuminate the contradictory nature of this great man. In this detailed yet readable account, the reader is told that "Adams did not just read books. He battled them." One of his favorite authors was Bolingbroke, but he considered Voltaire a "liar." A man like Adams is heard loudly through the centuries; collections of his letters will always be invaluable, but Ellis's work is an appropriate and well-researched adjunct to the original sources. Recommended for academic and larger public libraries.
- Katherine Gillen, Mesa P.L., Ariz.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 277 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (February 17, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393311333
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393311334
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #342,898 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Joseph J. Ellis is Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke and author of the National Book Award-winning American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Founding Brothers, and The Passionate Sage (Norton).

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

55 of 57 people found the following review helpful By UPS student on October 13, 2000
Format: Hardcover
John Adams, following his death in 1826, has been essentially a non-entity in the eyes of the general American public. While nearly any school child can tell you about George Washington and his cherry tree, and any middle-schooler can tell you about Jefferson and his contention in the Declaration of Independence that ALL men are created equal, Adams remains obscure. In fact most Americans know him as the Founder who by some "twist of cosmic fate" died on the same day as Thomas Jefferson, exactly fifty years following the Declaration of Independence. Beyond that however, if they know anything, it was that he was a wild and eccentric man, prone to irrational behavior. In writing and language that is equally accessible to the historian and the casual reader, Joseph Ellis reexamines the life of Adams primarily after his retirement to his family home in Quincy, Massachusetts. In doing so, Ellis brings a fresh perspective in understanding the legacy of one of the most misunderstood men of American history; a perspective that can help reform not only the historian's view, but the public's perception as well. Ellis dedicates merely the first chapter to the years that preceded Adams's retirement to Quincy. It is the essential background that one needs to know and understand in order to realize the full extent of the torment and bitterness experienced by Adams in the early years of retirement. During his years as President he suffered bitter attacks from both the High Federalists and the Jeffersonians for his attempts to "carve out a centrist political position from which he might better implement policies that served the long-term national interest" (Ellis 30). Unfortunately, most of his career as President was characterized by criticisms, just and unjust, of his temperament.Read more ›
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36 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Dana Keish on December 31, 2000
Format: Paperback
Of all the Founding Fathers, Adams is perhaps the least respected. Washington and Jefferson are safely memorialized on Mount Rushmore and Franklin is regarded by all as the quintessential American. Yet even a cursory reading of a history of the founding of America shows time and again of the importance of Adams. Very early in the debates regarding the future of the colonies, Adams knew reconciliation would be impossible. He worked on over 30 committees of the Continental Congress, was a foreign minister to France and then later served as our second president. Yet popular history has not served him well, something Adams was quite aware of even in his own lifetime.
Author Ellis does an admirable job of portaying Adams as probably the most human of the Founding Fathers. Unable to control his temper or hide his true feelings, Adams always seemed to do the right thing yet in such a way that he received no credit for his actions. Ellis points out how Adams seemed to divine the future better than his contemporaries but his personality was such that few could admit he was right.
The book is not a biography but a thought provoking character study. The only quibble I have with the book is that the relationship between Adams and his nemesis, Alexander Hamilton is never fully developed. Adams only truly despised one person and even after the death of Hamilton was unable to write about him in any kind of conciliatory manner. I wished this relationship would have been explored further. Otherwise, I gained a great deal of respect for Adams and even began to like him. It is easy to identify with Adams, a work horse who said what he thought, no matter how unpopular. Studies like this will hopefully resurrect his reputation and restore him to his proper place in the history of the United States.
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35 of 37 people found the following review helpful By R. Albin TOP 1000 REVIEWER on June 23, 2001
Format: Paperback
The felicitously written book has done a great deal to raise John Adams' reputation among the general public. Ellis concentrates on Adams' retirement years with chapters on his political writings, his correspondence with Jefferson, his other friendships, and his family life. While Ellis' goal is to explore Adams' character, this book necessarily covers Adams' remarkable achievements and explains clearly Adams' contributions as a political thinker. Adams was a complex figure; warm-hearted, sometimes vituperative, an unsystematic thinker and writer and thinker with remarkable insights. Adams refusal to accept the somewhat facile conventions of Jeffersonian liberalism made him an anachronism but his skepticism about American exceptionalism proved prescient. Adams was also remarkably accurate in major policy decisions. Over and over again, he made the right choice, even when his choices were unpopular. His pursuit of neutrality during his Presidency, for example, left him politically isolated but was undoubtedly the correct policy. As Ellis points out, Adams' reputation among scholars has risen steadily over the last fifty years. Today, he stands second only to Washington in the Pantheon of the Founders. Ellis's book and the just published biography by David McCullough are boosting awareness of Adams' achievements among the general public. An interesting corollary of this phenomenon is a corresponding fall in the reputation of Adams' political rival, intellectual antagonist, and friend; Thomas Jefferson. To scholars, Jefferson's achievements seem less than they did a generation ago. Pauline Maier summarized this clearly when she described Jefferson not as the author of the Declaration of Independence but rather as its draftsman; emphasizing the collective production of that great document.Read more ›
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