WHEN JOHN ADAMS ARRIVED as an American diplomat to France in 1778, one of the first questions he encountered proved awkward and a good test of his personal diplomatic skills. Everyone asked him if he was "the famous Adams, Le fameux Adams?—Ah, le fameux Adams?" It seems he was the victim of a double dose of mistaken identity. On the one hand, he was being confused with his cousin Samuel Adams, the fiery propagandist of the American Revolution and organizer of the Boston Tea Party, who currently headed the British lists of American traitors most wanted for hanging. On the other hand, the French mistakenly believed that a "Monsieur Adams" was also the author of Tom Paine's celebrated pamphlet Common Sense, which had electrified readers in Europe as well as America with its seductive argument that formenting a revolution was a natural and sensible act.
Despite his best efforts to persuade the French that he was neither Sam Adams nor the author of Common Sense, John Adams discovered that no one believed him. "All that I could say or do," he reported to his diary, "would not convince any Body, but that I was the fameux Adams." For weeks the French attributed his denials to excessive modesty, thereby demonstrating conclusively that they were completely misinformed. When they eventually came to believe his protestations, however, and acknowledged that he was not "the famous Adams," the question then became: who was he? Adams himself observed rather grudgingly that no one knew. He was quickly transformed from an American celebrity to an American obscurity. He had suddenly become, as he put it, "a Man of whom Nobody had ever