John Adams on the Freudian Couch
John Adams was a Founding Father, signatory to the Declaration of Independence, and the second President of the United States.
Adams was born in 1735, the oldest of three brothers born to John and Susanna Adams, a wealthy blue blood family descended from early English settlers. He entered Harvard University at the age of 15, intending to study theology in order to satisfy his fathers’ desires. There is no doubt that Adams was incredibly intelligent, a voracious reader of classic philosophy, and fluent in several European languages by the time he entered Harvard.
However, he was also terribly insecure about himself, and doubted his own abilities throughout his life. This is where things get interesting form a psychological point of view. We have no idea what Adams early life was like, but from a young age, he seems to be driven to great accomplishments as defined by others, but at the same time unsure of his abilities and unable to accept responsibility for his own shortcomings.
His decision to study law instead of theology was expressed not as a personal desire or logical decision, but rather as a contemptuous dismissal of theology, startling to modern readers who assume a pious group of Founders. He wrote about his frustrations with “The whole Cartloads of other trumpery, that we find Religion encumbered with these days.” Commenting on the unknowable mind of Jesus he comments, “Thus Mystery is made a convenient Cover for absurdity.” (Ellis 1990, p. 51)
Far from exhibiting the behavior of a reserved elder statesman – a bearing that Washington, his Presidential predecessor, exhibited -- he was famous for lengthy full volume tirades best described as paranoid rants. Theodore Sedgwick reported President Adams shouting in cabinet meetings “like one Possessed” that “they cannot control him”, and “He everywhere denounces men in whom he confided at the beginning of his administration.” (Ellis, 1990, p. 37)
His contempt for Washington was petty and well known. He seemed to resent the reverence of the other Founders for the first President. He jealously derided Washington’s need for chalk marks on floors to indicate where he should stand during formal receptions, the appearance of his false teeth, (not wooden, but made from human and animal teeth), and blamed Washington for purposely and maliciously leaving political booby traps which Adams would have to detect and diffuse.
Adams was well aware of the impression he made on others, but he seemed helpless to control himself. He confided to his diary, “Vanity … is my cardinal Vice and cardinal Folly.” He reminded himself that it was best not to give the impression of arrogance or condescension, “A puffy, vain, conceited Conversation, never fails to bring a Man into Contempt, although his natural Endowments be ever so great and his Application and Industry ever so Intense.” (Ellis, 1990, p. 50)
As difficult as Adams was to work with, others noted his intelligence and integrity. One of the delegates to the First Continental Congress judged that Adams “possesses the clearest head and firmest heart of any man in Congress.”
How would we describe Adams in Freudian terms?
Most central to Adams personality is a sense of constantly being judged by others, but also needing their approval. Adams seems to have had something of a Jesus Complex – others were either for him or against him, and the threat of betrayal was constant. He would constantly assess his position relative to those around him and had to be at the top of the hierarchy. He seems to have divided the world into those who either elevated him in the hierarchy and those who made it their businesses to pull him down.
This fits best with Freud’s idea of reaction formation – seeing his own weaknesses in others, and criticizing them vehemently in petty and hurtful ways. Adams identified minor shortcomings of others and used them to elevate himself, at least in his own eyes. His admonishments to himself cited earlier demonstrate that he knew others did not view his petty criticisms with sympathy, but he had a neurotic compulsion to voice them that seem to be beyond his control.
There is also an element of narcissism. For Adams the behavior of others was personal, as if objective political thought did not exist and the people around him based their decisions relative to Adams. When the First Continental Congress chose Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to write the Declaration of Independence, Adams was to characterize his role as the supervisor of the other men, who while younger, were quite gifted in their own right.
Adams also exhibited some rationalization and projection as well.
Although it seems difficult to believe from our vantage point today, none of the founding fathers anticipated a multi party political system. When such a system emerged, one party coalesced around Alexander Hamilton and endorsed strong Federal executive and a centralized banking system with close ties to the Federal government. The other formed around Jefferson, Adams and Madison who believed in decentralized power of the states and a relatively weak Federal system. (These parties came to be Jeffersonian Democrats and Federalists.)
This system was custom made for Adams personality. He rationalized that Hamilton was behind all the challenges he faced as Vice President under Washington, and later as President. The mists of history have covered details of the times such that we will never know exactly how much Adams was rationalizing and how much he was reacting to legitimate political reality. Given what is known about his pattern of thought via his diary and the writings of his contemporaries, it is safe to assume that rationalization was high on the list of his internal mechanisms.
He was able to project all his political anxieties onto Hamilton as the leader of the opposition, and frequently screamed his conviction that Hamilton was plotting to seize power from the legitimate government, make war with France and appoint himself leader of a new republic. Although there was some truth to this, and Hamilton detested Adams as much as Adams detested Hamilton, it illustrates the extremes to which Adams would go to create a receptacle for his anxieties.
Ellis, J., (1993). Passionate sage. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.