A man whose wit was matched only by the looseness of his tongue, the combative John Adams quickly acquired a hefty reputation for articulate jabs and razor-sharp put-downs at the expense of his allies and rivals alike, including some of the most celebrated figures in American history. (Bob Dole once described him as “an 18th-century Don Rickles.”) Here are some of his best zingers.
1. On Benjamin Franklin
“His whole life has been one continued insult to good manners and to decency,” Adams wrote of Franklin. (For more about the pair’s tense relationship, read about the time they were forced to share a bed.)
2. On Alexander Hamilton
3. On Thomas Paine’s Common Sense
Compared to the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, published in 1775, Paine’s pamphlet was “a poor, ignorant, malicious, crapulous mass,” as Adams wrote in 1819 to Thomas Jefferson (another colleague with whom he had a fraught friendship).
4. On George Washington
5. On the City of Philadelphia
“Philadelphia with all its trade and wealth and regularity, is not Boston,” Adams wrote in his diary in 1774. “The morals of our people are much better; their manners are more polite and agreeable … Our language is better, our taste is better, our persons are handsomer; our spirit is greater, our laws are wiser, our religion is better, our education is better. We exceed them in every thing, but in a market, and in charitable public foundations.”
6. On Thomas Jefferson
In 1793, Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, about his longtime frenemy Thomas Jefferson: “Instead of being the ardent pursuer of science that some think him, I know he is indolent, and his soul is poisoned with ambition.”
7. On John Dickinson
While working as a member of the American Revolution’s Continental Congress, Adams referred to one of his less-radical colleagues as “a piddling genius” in one of his letters—an insult which caused a good deal of uproar when the British intercepted and published the candid document.
A version of this post originally ran in 2013.