How John Adams "Cast the Vision" for American Independence

During his day, John Adams was called the "Atlas of Independence."
During his day, John Adams was called the "Atlas of Independence."

And the LORD answered me, and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it. ~ Habakkuk 2:2

When we think of American Independence, we tend to think of George Washington or may be Thomas Jefferson as the point man for American Independence. But it was John Adams that was called the “Atlas of Independence” and by Jefferson, a “colossus.” What did Adams do that earned him these titles?

As Donald Phillips recounts in his book *The Founding Fathers on Leadership, Adams crafted the vision for American independence by taking a single word, INDEPENDENCE, casting a mission statement for independence, establishing goals, and delivering the vision into the hands of the people.

Believing is Seeing

Most people say that “seeing is believing,” but for the leader “believing is seeing.” The leader has to see how the future can be different before he expects others to change.  The vision has to be a reality in his mind and it has to change his behavior before it’s going to change the behavior of others. As Steven Covey says in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, you have to “begin with the end in mind.”

This is what Adams did. While many others were maintaining their loyalty to England or trying to reconcile with the Crown, Adam was envisioning an independent America.  Adams first put forward his ideas of American independence at the First Continental Congress in 1774. The following year at the Second Continental Congress, Adams stated for the delegates his goals for American independence

Like John Adams, William Wilberforce articulated a simple vision for the cause of liberty.
Like John Adams, William Wilberforce articulated a simple vision for the cause of liberty.

The "What" of Vision—Keep it Simple

Sometimes leadership is made more complicated than it needs to be, especially when it comes to casting the vision. Adams did not make this mistake; he followed the principle that “simple is better.” His vision for America’s future could be boiled down to one word: “independence” which he would repeat, sometimes whispering it in the ears of the congressional delegates. From that simple, one-word vision he gave more life to it by crafting a mission statement:

A union and confederation of thirteen states, independent of Parliament, Minister & King

In another article I talk about how the English parliamentarian, William Wilberforce, established a simple mission statement for eradicating the slave trade, and later slavery itself. Like Adams’, Wilberforce’s mission statement was simple, simple enough to work with and simple enough for others to understand.

At the First Continental Congress (1774), John Adams stated to others his vision for American independence.
At the First Continental Congress (1774), John Adams stated to others his vision for American independence.

The "How" of Vision—Setting Goals

Both Adams’ single-word vision and mission statement provided the “what” of leadership, but “how” is this vision going to be realized? In 1775 Adams wrote out this short list of goals to bring about independence:

  • Raising a substantial military force;
  • Increasing production of gunpowder;
  • Wresting the city of Boston from British control;
  • Forming a military and economic alliance with France and Spain;
  • Dispatching emissaries to both nations;
  • Signing shipping treaties with Holland and Denmark;
  • Levying taxes to support the cause;
  • Regulating colonial coins and currency;
  • Passing legislation that declared British shipping fair game to American privateers;
  • Issuing a formal declaration of independence; and
  • Declaring war on Great Britain (p. 36).

Of course, we know that while this list was short, it wasn’t simple. When the Declaration of Independence was drafted, the members of the Congress risked their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor. And for some, they paid that price.

If you implement your vision, it will cost you. Once you cast a vision and become preoccupied with it, some of your closest associates may not want to go with you. For others, your vision will resonate with them and they will join you; but some of those people may not be people you like. You’re likely to be billed as a “one note Charlie” for constantly bringing up the same topic (“Can’t he talk about anything else”?). You might “wander in the wilderness” for a time before you get your bearings and see your vision come to fruition.

"I See a New Nation, Ready to Take Its Place in the World"

In letting go of the vision, John Adams was often overshadowed by other men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
In letting go of the vision, John Adams was often overshadowed by other men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

The "Who" of Vision—As Many People as Possible

The real question for you as a leader is not whether or not you can craft a vision, mission statement and establish goals. The real question is “Are you willing to let go of the vision”? This is hard for a leader, especially one that takes the initiative and wants to be at the forefront of events. But if your vision is a great vision, it’s more important than your career. You might not get to lead the troops to victory under the vision you craft.

That’s what happened to John Adams. He gave up his grip on the vision in order to achieve its success. First of all, he put the vision in the hands of many people. He believed that the ground for the new government could not rest in the hands of a few or in the hands of the privileged. In his words, the people should “erect the whole building with their own hands, upon the broadest foundation…For the people [are] the source of all authority and power (p. 31).” The move toward independence would have to transcend the delegates of the national Congress; it would have to be made alive in the minds of the people at large. At Adams’ urging, states were compelled to declare independence themselves and erect constitutions of their own making.

The grander your vision, the more you will need to involve others. The hubris of central planning is to believe that one man or a small group of planners can account for every contingency, every problem, can craft a directive for every change. The problem is that you need more people. The way Phillips puts it, “With more people involved, there would be more ideas, more participation, a better outcome—and, ultimately, more action to achieve the vision (p. 36).” Of course, as you broaden the vision to include more people, you will probably lose control over the vision.

This happened to John Adams. He not only put the vision in the hands of many people, he also enlisted men who were more talented than he to make his vision a reality. While the vision and goals of independence were largely his, he took a backseat to other men that were better than him in certain areas. For example, it was Adams that suggested that Thomas Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence. According to the conversation between Jefferson and Adams over the writing of the Declaration, Adams recognized that Jefferson was both a better writer and less of a political lightning rod. Therefore, the success of the Declaration would be more secure in Jefferson’s hands than in Adams’. This assessment on Adams part appears to have been true. Had Adams tried to step to the front and write the Declaration (remember, it was one of his goals), it probably would have failed to become a defining document in American history.

Still another decision by Adams that reflected his “letting go” of the vision was his recommendation to the Continental Congress that George Washington be tapped as its commander-in-chief. Throughout Adams’ career Washington would overshadow him. Even though the vision for independence was his, Washington has been given the credit in history as being the “Father of His Country.” In the first election for president, Washington was elected president while Adams was elected vice-president. This took place for two terms. When Adams became president, he had to follow in the shadow of a man that loomed larger-than-life in the minds of the American people.

Adams was petty and jealous about how others got the credit for his work. However, in the end, he put the vision and the cause of independence ahead of his own interests. Had he held the vision close to him, it’s likely that the vision of American independence would have died the death of wishful thinking.

*All quotes from this book (unless otherwise attrbuted) are from Donald Phillips, The Founding Fathers on Leadership. New York: Warner Books, 1997.

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