Listening to the Hamilton soundtrack for maybe the 20th or 30th time—per the code duello, I stopped counting after 10—a question popped into my head that had not been there before:
What in the world ever happened to John Adams?
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster musical may be primarily the story of America’s first treasury secretary and his deadly rivalry with Aaron Burr, but it is also—by necessity—the entire saga of the founding of the United States, covering most major political events between 1776 and 1804 (the year of the fateful duel).
Accordingly, in addition to Hamilton and Burr, Hamilton grants considerable time (and tunes) to such essential revolutionaries as Washington, Jefferson, Madison and the Marquis de Lafayette—not to mention lesser-known figures like John Laurens, Hercules Mulligan and various members of Hamilton’s immediate family.
And yet, for all this generosity of character, Hamilton somehow couldn’t find room at the table for our second commander-in-chief—a man without whom, it’s safe to say, the revolution probably would not have occurred. Save a stray reference here and there, Adams has, in effect, been stricken from the record.
Story of his freakin’ life.
Really, at this point in history, you’d think John Adams would garner just a little bit more respect. While long overlooked among America’s founding generation, Adams became slightly more of a household name after the release of 1776—the 1969 musical that underlined his role in passing the Declaration of Independence—before transforming into a full-blown headliner thanks to David McCullough’s 2001 biography and subsequent HBO miniseries, both of which made the case for Adams’ historical significance beyond 1776. (As president, this included keeping the United States out of a pointless and potentially ruinous war with France at a moment when most Americans were practically begging for French blood.)
Why didn’t Miranda include any of this in his show? Presumably because Hamilton hated Adams with the fire of a thousand suns—the feeling was most assuredly mutual—and there can only be so many antagonists in a single play.
However, there is at least one compelling reason an Adams subplot might have proved worthwhile: Because he and Hamilton were so damned similar.
You see, the key to the main rivalries in this drama—Hamilton v. Burr, Hamilton v. Jefferson and, indirectly, Hamilton v. Madison—is that the characters in each match-up possessed fundamentally different worldviews and fundamentally different personalities. Where Hamilton was loud and impulsive, the others were measured, crafty and cautious. While Hamilton believed passionately in a strong federal government and a robustly capitalistic economy, the others believed just the opposite—that is, except for Burr, who believed in nothing at all.
With Adams, not so much. At least on paper, he and Hamilton were peas in the same dysfunctional pod. To wit: Both men idolized George Washington. Both favored England over France and North over South. Both preferred a strong central government to a decentralized confederacy. And, perhaps most salient of all, both were tireless (and oftentimes tactless) writers and orators who couldn’t help expressing themselves loudly and at length, regardless of how much trouble it might get them into with friends and enemies alike.
In the end, that last characteristic overrode all the others, leading Hamilton in the election of 1800 to pen a 54-page condemnation of Adams that ended—hilariously—with a formal endorsement over Adams’ competitors, Jefferson and Burr. (Miranda included a rapped version of this pamphlet in an earlier draft of the script, but ended up cutting everything except its priceless final line.) The latter two candidates ultimately prevailed—becoming president and vice president, respectively—and we all know how well that worked for Hamilton.
And so the feud between Hamilton and Adams—however brief—was, in many ways, the most symmetrical and the most tragic, insomuch as the two men had so much on which to agree, yet found themselves so very disagreeable indeed. They should have been natural allies; instead, they were near-mortal enemies who each, in different ways, contributed to the other’s eventual demise.
What is particularly ironic about Adams being so shortchanged in Miranda’s magnificent play is that the play’s primary mission is to recover the reputation of a man who had, himself, been so shortchanged by history. That’s why Ron Chernow wrote the biography on which Hamilton is based, and it’s also why David McCullough wrote his biography of Adams. Hamilton’s closing number, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” is about this exact problem: No matter how virtuously you live your life, there is no guarantee that history will treat you fairly—that is, if it remembers you at all.
But then that’s why great art exists: As a form of memory. That’s why McCullough and HBO can resurrect the reputation of Adams in one corner while Chernow and Miranda sing the praises of Hamilton in another. The number of unknown yet interesting historical people is greater than any of us will probably ever know. Surely, the world is wide enough for them all.