“Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams” by Joseph J. Ellis was published in 1993. Though it remains a relatively well-read title on our second president, in terms of sheer popularity and acclaim it has been overshadowed by more recent John Adams biographies. Of the modern books on Adams in my library (everything since Page Smith’s series) “Passionate Sage” is one of the oldest and seemingly the most unique.
Somewhat to my surprise, “Passionate Sage” is not actually a biography at all. Instead, it is more a character analysis of John Adams and, at times, almost as much a book of philosophy as of history. That fact alone makes it no more or less interesting to me than the traditional Adams biographies I’m reading, but does make it difficult to directly compare this work to the others.
Ellis’ key thesis is quickly proposed: that John Adams (at least as of the date of publication) remains one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated of American’s Founding Fathers. In defending this thesis, Ellis uses his book to examine, explore, dissect, analyze and penetrate the character of Adams principally through his writings – to his wife Abigail, with his son John Quincy, with Thomas Jefferson during his retirement years and with multitudes of others. Also used as evidence are his publications such as his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America published in three parts in 1787 and his Thoughts on Governments which he wrote in 1776.
The first third or so of the book is essentially a compendium of the author’s conclusions on Adams – almost a summary I would expect to find at the end of a traditional biography. This portion of the book often presumes a degree of familiarity with Adams which some readers may not possess. Mitigating this somewhat is the fact that the author’s line of reasoning is laid before the reader in significant detail, with reference back to primary sources.
The mid-section of the book was a thoughtful, but often dry and overly academic, discourse on Adams’ political philosophies as revealed through his “retirement years” letters with Thomas Jefferson (written between 1812 and 1826, when they both died) and his correspondence with (and reaction to) John Taylor who in 1814 wrote a comprehensive critique of Adams’ three-volume Defence work nearly thirty years earlier. Though quite interesting at times, this portion of his book often leaves the casual reader bogged down in detail which seems unnecessary to all but the doctoral-level history (or philosophy) student.
The remainder of the book covers the last decade or so of John Adams’ life, focusing particularly on his political philosophies and core principles as evidenced by his letters to son John Quincy and daughter-in-law Louisa Catherine, who in later years almost seemed to serve as a surrogate Abigail (before her death in 1818 she had been John’s most reliable correspondent).
Overall, “Passionate Sage” proves to be a successful, thought-provoking analysis of John Adams, published a decade before the better-known McCullough book and some fifteen years before the HBO mini-series which popularized this early American hero. Though it is not a biography of Adams, at its core it is an interesting and convincing book. Unfortunately, it often wandered a bit within chapters and explored tangents with unnecessary fervor. In addition, I often had the sense when reading this book of being in class, taking notes furiously while listening to a lecturing professor, hoping for everything to become clear in the end. And in the end, the core message is clear, but the journey was not carefree or unobstructed.
For the serious student of political philosophy or someone wishing to more finely calibrate Adam’s political perspectives against those of his peers, “Passionate Sage” is a well-argued and thorough analysis. For its purpose it is, without a doubt, an excellent book. But for the more casual reader of history, or someone seeking a good introduction to the life and times of John Adams, there are several better places to begin the journey.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars