George Washington and John Adams: A Comparison of America's First Presidents
George Washington and John Adams were America’s first two presidents and two of the most vital men that created the American republic. It's not overstating it to say that if both of these men had not been at the forefront of the political affairs of their day, our republic would be very different or not exist at all. But they were important for different reasons, reasons as distinct as night and day.
Many of the differences between these two men had more to do with their personality and less to do with their character. Both men were men of principle and had a reputation for being such, especially in matters of determination and a willingness to hazard much for the sake of their country. Both men committed to the cause of American independence early and had much to lose should they fail. Both were Federalists which means they favored a stronger national union and tended toward being anglophiles. They desired that America stay neutral regarding European wars and were adamant that America not be dragged into European intrigue (although Washington was more successful realizing it than was Adams). Neither man was wealthy, but each was well-established and largely responsible with his finances. They were old men when they departed this life and died peacefully at home, which is remarkable given that they were both leading revolutionaries.
Washington and Adams had an Augustinian view of human nature: man is a fallen creature. Adams tended to be more vocal about his dismay over mankind, Washington less so. But both believed in a government that would check the passions and interests of their fellow citizens.
But the fact is that Washington and Adams were very different and some of that difference originates with their origins. Washington was a Virginian, a southerner and a slave owner; Adams was from Massachusetts and opposed slavery on principle and one of the few founding fathers never to own them. Washington was a planter, soldier and surveyor. While still early in life, Washington saw first-hand much of the American nation. And while Washington was more of a man of the outdoors, Adams was a schoolman. He went to Harvard and considered himself a thinker. Adams was a miserable farmer, but was a respected attorney—vital in standing for the law in spite of public opinion. Adams fanned the flame for independence among America’s colonial leaders; Washington led the men to battle to defend the drive toward independence. Adams was (in his own words) “obnoxious”, but was respected. Washington, on the other hand, was both respected and affable.
Also, some of those differences between the two men are rooted in their personalities. Adams was impulsive, abrasive, a man that wore his feelings on his shirtsleeves. One need not be in the presence of John Adams for long to know what he was thinking and feeling, some of which he left for posterity in his written work. George Washington, on the other hand, was more aloof. Washington measured things, including his words. At the Constitutional Convention, Washington spoke rarely; it's hard to imagine John Adams doing the same had he been there. In the end, Adams can be characterized as a rash pessimist; Washington, a cautious optimist.
It's a textbook example of the ironies of history that these two men, both leaders in the effort to sever the tie that bound Great Britain and America both made a name for themselves in assisting the British. For Washington, it was in warring with the British against the French and Indians on the American frontier during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). As for Adams, he would do his battle, not on the American frontier, but in a Massachusetts courtroom, defending British soldiers against accusations of murder during the infamous Boston Massacre of 1770.
George Washington has been called the “indispensable man” by historians and I think they're right. It's hard to imagine a successful American Revolution that resulted in a British surrender had not Washington been at the forefront of the matter. Very often, the Congress was too divided and unresolved. Washington had to beg them for money and supplies. And along with having to deal with the British, Washington also had to deal with the criticisms of his command and the attrition taking place in his army due to death, injury, desertion and resignation.
But Washington did very little to shape the actual design of the new republic. He does not appear to have been highly interested in the details of government. Like Ronald Reagan, he was content to hand the details of governing over to subordinates. The actual details of our Constitution, therefore, would be left to other men. So while Washington was instrumental in waging the fight to ensure an American republic, Adams was more instrumental in shaping it.