Documentary Editing, Association for


Date of this Version


Document Type



Documentary Editing, Volume 20, Number 1, March 1998.

ISSN 2476-1796 (electronic); ISSN 2167-1451 (print)


1998 © the Association for Documentary Editing. Used by permission.


In 1774 John Adams was a thirty-nine-year-old Massachusetts lawyer of modest means, middling height, and portly physique, who was ambitious, argumentative, over-earnest, direct to the point of rudeness, and intolerant of fools. How did this man, seemingly unsympathetic and ordinary when compared to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, become by 1776 Congress's most influential member? Why was he named president of the Board of War and appointed to the committees that drafted the Treaty Plan of 1776 and the Declaration of Independence? Why was he then chosen to serve as a diplomat in Europe and later elected vice president and president of the United States? What was it about John Adams that inspired confidence and led people to place the fate of the new nation in his hands? These questions have never been adequately answered by John Adams's many biographers, largely because Adams emerged as a major historical figure through his interaction with other people, the most thorough record of which is his own correspondence. But Adams's character cannot be determined solely by reference to his papers and may, in fact, be unknowable. For editors and biographers there are really two men to be considered, both of them named John Adams.