Passionate Sage by Joseph J. Ellis

I knew when departing on the journey of reading biographies of American Presidents, there would be many great books, but some would be a slog from start to finish.  Unfortunately, I hit my first roadblock with Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams written by Joseph J. Ellis.  Passionate Sage is the second book that I have read by Ellis, the first being His Excellency: George Washington.  I enjoyed His Excellency as you can see in my review (here).  American Sphinx, a National Book Award winner written by Ellis, is on my list to read about Thomas Jefferson.

Passionate Sage is not a biography, but an examination of the post presidency life of John Adams.  The author covers many letter writing exchanges Adams had in the decades following his single term as Chief Executive.  The idea behind the book is solid as Adams was a prolific letter writer throughout his life.  He kept a very detailed diary from a young age that was preserved for later generations to peruse.  Ellis draws on these to capture the president with the unenviable task of following George Washington in office.

My main gripe about the book is a lack of information flow throughout.  The chapters are loosely organized and I found myself unsure of the point Ellis was trying to achieve.  The author jumps from period to period throughout the book from the opening chapter to the end.  While each chapter has a focus, the content can be jumbled and confusing for the reader.  The pace of the book detailing the flurry of letters that Adams sent is slow, which can create in the reader a sense of boredom.

Saying this, there are a few excellent nuggets inside of the book.  The middle sections of the book describe the exchanges with Thomas Jefferson in their rapprochement in the decades after each served as president.  The formerly close friends became members of different parties, leading to a split in their friendship.  Ellis describes how Benjamin Rush brings these friends back together again through letter writing.  The correspondence between these giants of the American Revolution is a national treasure, providing insight to their personal beliefs.  I agree with Ellis when he offers the opinion both men knew they were writing for posterity.  This chapter stands out the best as the author leads the reader to a visual picture of a fiery Adams passionately writing on political ideas and a smile breaking out on Jefferson’s face as he reads the document.

Ellis presented new information to me when noting the mending of fences that occurred between Mercy Otis Warren and Adams.  Warren and Adams had been long time friends when she wrote a three-volume history of the American Revolution.  Adams felt that Warren had deliberately slighted him by minimizing his participation in the events surrounding the eventual war for independence.  The author asserts that Adams rekindled a friendship with Warren after prodding from Abigail Adams.  John Adams held very progressive ideas on the intellectual abilities of woman, not always shared in the early 19th century based on his friendship with the sister of James Otis.  I appreciated learning how a man like Adams, vain and argumentative, humbled himself to improve relationships that had fallen apart over a lifetime of political battles or perceived slights from his contemporaries.

Passionate Sage offers up a good premise and has the potential to be a good book.  Ellis is detailed in his description of Adams’s correspondence in his later life.  I believe the author did a nice job showing the gradual improvement of Adams’ legacy.  Ellis makes a point to show the way in which events turned out exactly as Adams predicted.  The book has its place for a student of John Adams who is rounding out their education on the second president.  Ellis accomplished his goal of assisting in the rehabilitation of this often-overlooked patriot who seemingly fades into the background when discussing the American Revolution.

Overall- 2.5 stars

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