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What Did the First Vice President Think of the Job? Spoiler: He Hated It

By BETH HARPAZ

There’s a lot of excitement about Kamala Harris running for vice president. But it’s a good thing Founding Father John Adams isn’t here to put a damper on things. Adams made history as the nation’s first vice president under George Washington. But he hated the job, calling it “the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived.”

“He was the office’s first victim, injured by his and his countrymen’s confusion about what the vice presidency was or should be,” writes Richard Bernstein (City College) in The Education of John Adams. The book explores why Adams has been “consigned … to the margins of history” compared to more famous peers like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

A New Englander, Adams was alone among the first five presidents to own no slaves. But Bernstein questions Adams’ reputation as a “foe of slavery.” Adams never publicly denounced slavery, deferring instead to white Southerners’ “expertise” on the issue. As a lawyer, he sometimes advocated for slaves seeking freedom, but he argued those cases on the basis of legal precedent, rather than “the rights of man.” Adams also played what Bernstein called “the race card” in defending British soldiers accused of killing the Black sailor Crispus Attucks in the Boston Massacre: Adams told jurors Attucks’ appearance was “enough to terrify any person.” Adams also blamed “black Licentiousness” for the biracial offspring of white slave owners, rather than seeing enslaved Black women as victims of rape.

Adams’ accomplishments included negotiating the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which ended the war with England; serving as the first diplomat to represent the U.S. before the king; persuading the Dutch to recognize the U.S. as an independent country; and as president, averting war with France.

His treatise, “Thoughts on Government,” was a “how-to manual” for creating state legislatures with two houses and a governor. But whereas he conceptualized the upper house as representing “aristocracy,” framers of the U.S. Constitution instead created the U.S. Senate to give small states equal representation with big states.

The “most serious charge leveled by posterity” against Adams’ presidency was his signing the Sedition Act, which “violated freedom of the press” by banning criticism of the president and federal government. He also signed acts into law limiting citizenship to free white men and allowing deportation of non-citizens deemed dangerous.

As the second president, Adams made history in three ways. He proved that someone other than Washington could be president. He was, ignominiously, the first one-term president. And when he lost re-election to Jefferson, Adams established the “orderly transition of power from one party to another.” In 2020, that’s a presidential tradition we no longer take for granted.

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The Education of John Adams
Oxford University Press, 2020

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Richard Bernstein (Lecturer, Political Science) | Profile 1

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The City College of New York

Bonus Content

"The Education of John Adams" (Kirkus Reviews)