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John Adams

Page history last edited by Mr. Hengsterman 4 years, 4 months ago


Plain Speaking: A Review of David McCulloch’s John Adams


David McCullough set out initially to write a joint biography of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. But he worried, as he explained to lecture audiences over the past few years that Adams could not hold his own with Jefferson. Once he started doing research, his concern shifted. Could Jefferson stand up to Adams? McCullough's biography of Adams inevitably has a lot to say about Jefferson, but on virtually all points of comparison between the two men, Jefferson comes in second.


McCullough's preference is part of a trend. As Jefferson's reputation has gone into something of a decline, appreciation for John Adams has soared. For example, Joseph J. Ellis, the author of ''Founding Brothers'' and of books on both Jefferson and Adams, makes no secret of his partiality toward Adams. On the scale of historical judgments, this reversal of standing is revolutionary. Jefferson's pre-eminence has lasted, with some ups and downs, for two centuries, and rumors of its end are surely premature. But why has Adams at last become so competitive a rival?

The hero of McCullough's ''John Adams'' is curiously reminiscent of Harry S. Truman, the straight-speaking Missourian whom McCullough celebrated in a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography nine years ago. The descendant of farmers from Braintree, Mass., Adams loved to talk and always said exactly what he thought. Like Truman, who ''never tried to appear as something he was not,'' Adams remained true to his origins: his hands, McCullough says, were those of a man ''accustomed to pruning his own trees, cutting his own hay and splitting his own firewood.'' Similarly, throughout a long life, his wife, Abigail, did her own sewing and baking, fed her own ducks and chickens and churned her own butter. Abigail read widely but spoke like a Yankee: she said ''Canady'' for Canada, ''set'' for sit, ''aya'' for yes. So did John, though McCullough doesn't say so. In the 1850's, the first editor of Adams's writings, his grandson Charles Francis Adams, carefully corrected his language, excising expressions like ''he eat strawberries'' or ''she ain't obliged'' in an effort to fit John Adams into a heroic mode. It was hopeless; Adams was too obstreperously real to be idealized.

Yet few men, McCullough argues, contributed more to the early history of the United States. In 1776, Adams was, in Jefferson's words, ''the colossus of independence,'' the delegate most responsible for the Continental Congress's adopting independence. As a diplomat in Europe during the 1780's, he secured a loan from the Dutch without which, McCullough suggests, the Revolution might have failed. He served as vice president ''with unfailing loyalty to Washington,'' whose administration he supported by casting a still unmatched 31 tie-breaking votes in the Senate. In his own presidency, McCullough says, Adams ''achieved a rare level of statesmanship'' by beginning peace negotiations with the French Republic, an act of reconciliation that alienated many Federalist supporters and jeopardized his chance of re-election in 1800. On one contested issue after another over the course of his career -- his insistence as an American emissary that France could stop British resistance to American independence by deploying its navy along the coast of North America; his early suspicion of the French Revolution; his hearty support for an American Navy -- Adams proved right in the end.


"[Adams wrote] many hundreds of the most extraordinary letters I'd ever read, second only perhaps to those written by his wife, who really was one of the most interesting people in that extremely interesting time, who could hold her own with . . . the most learned, thoughtful people of the time . . . We have correspondence between them that surpasses anything of the time. Over a thousand letters between Abigail and John Adams. . . . It was the dreamed-of goldmine for a biographer . . . I hope if nothing else, this book will make the reader of the present day aware of what a superb, really charming and powerful writer John Adams was."

-- David McCullough, in an audio interview, May 23, 2001.


Above all, however, McCullough's appreciation for Adams, like his appreciation for Truman, depends on an adherence to certain old-fashioned moral guidelines, which is to say on strength of character. All contemporary observers affirm Adams's scrupulous honesty: he was, as the Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush testified, ''a stranger to dissimulation.'' Adams also shared with his wife a powerful sense of public duty, which they fulfilled despite great financial and emotional sacrifice.


No one, and certainly not John Adams, made a fortune serving the United States in the late 18th century: ''All my emoluments as a member of Congress for four years,'' Adams observed in 1777, were ''not . . . sufficient to pay a laboring man on a farm.'' The Adamses' financial welfare depended on their Massachusetts farm, which Abigail managed even in trying circumstances with great skill. As a result, for all but a few exceptional years during Adams's long public career, he and Abigail lived dutifully but miserably apart.

In fact, McCullough is able to tell the extraordinary love story that threads through ''John Adams'' because the couple had so often to communicate through letters, which they saved. Abigail was John's partner in every sense: she not only managed the family's finances but was his greatest supporter, his most trusted political adviser and a source and object of immense affection. She pushed women's traditional domestic role to its outermost limits without questioning it: ''I believe nature has assigned each sex its particular duties and sphere of action,'' she once wrote, ''and to act well your part, 'there all the honor lies.' ''


Acting her part well demanded that she ''sacrifice to my country'' the comfort of John's presence, a loss that she accounted among her ''greatest misfortunes.'' Eventually John's need for Abigail overcame all other considerations, and he asked her to join him. ''I must go to you or you must come to me,'' he wrote to her from France; ''I cannot live without you.'' In 1793, when they had been married for almost 30 years, Abigail commented that time subdued ''the ardor of passion'' and left in its place a deep-rooted, enduring ''friendship and affection.'' But John's ardor seemed slow to cool. Once, after she mentioned that he was 60 years old, he replied that ''if I were near I would soon convince you that I am not above 40.''


Adams, a short, chunky New Englander and a combative, nonstop talker, might seem the antithesis of Jefferson, a tall, thin Virginian who rarely spoke in public, ''abhorred dispute'' and, when involved in political controversies, preferred to act covertly. Their lives, though, were inextricably intertwined. They fought together for independence in 1776, worked as a diplomatic team in Europe during the 1780's and carried on a wonderful correspondence from 1812 until their deaths on the same day, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Even in the 1790's, when Adams and Jefferson became politically estranged, McCullough observes, they had much in common. Both distrusted Alexander Hamilton and wanted peace with France.

Honesty and consistency, however, were not among Jefferson's strengths. He tailored comments to their recipients, even to the point of contradicting himself. When confronted with embarrassing accusations, McCullough demonstrates, Jefferson was not above denying responsibility for things he had done. Jefferson's public dedication also fell short of Adams's. For personal reasons, both wanted desperately to leave the Congress -- then the country's entire national government -- in the summer of 1776. But the war was going badly. Finally, on Sept. 3, after some weeks' delay, Jefferson, who had been in Philadelphia since mid-May, set out for Monticello. The next day Adams, who had been at Congress since February, wrote Abigail that the nation's needs demanded his service -- and he remained at work until mid-October. A year later, when only 20 delegates sat in Congress, a homesick Adams was there again, trying to increase attendance. ''Your country is not quite secure enough to excuse your retreat to the delights of domestic life,'' he wrote Jefferson, who remained resolutely at home. (''When I attend on my own feelings,'' Adams confessed, he could not blame him.) Later Adams left Abigail behind to serve the United States in France; Jefferson accepted a diplomatic assignment only after his wife had died. ''Never once,'' McCullough notes, did Adams refuse a mission for his country ''because of difficulties or unseasonable conditions, or something else that he would have preferred to do.''

Their financial habits also distinguished the two men. Jefferson was ''a chronic acquirer.'' He had such fun shopping in Philadelphia, Paris and London that no one would guess he had an intellectual disdain for cities. Jefferson rented elegant homes, then went into debt to remodel them, and was prepared to sell some of his slaves if their labor could not pay off his obligations. By contrast, the Adamses lived simply to make ends meet, and when Abigail expanded the house the Adamses acquired in Quincy, Mass., she paid for it out of savings. John Adams's net worth at death was about $100,000; Jefferson left an estate over $100,000 in arrears. His slaves, furniture and farm equipment were auctioned off, and Monticello had to be sold ''for a fraction of what it had cost.''


Even Jefferson's political achievements come out second best. McCullough gives Jefferson credit for drafting the Declaration of Independence, which he invested with ''grace and eloquence . . . superbly and in minimum time.'' But can the work of a few days outweigh the more substantive, sustained work of Adams on behalf of independence? If Adams had not delivered the votes, Jefferson's draft would have been at best a historical curiosity. Even the outstanding event of Jefferson's presidency, the Louisiana Purchase, depended, McCullough observes, on peace with France -- which Adams had won.


McCullough's reckoning all but ignores the irascibility that undermined Adams's reputation among his contemporaries. Franklin once described him as ''sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.'' His enemies claimed that Adams was subject to ''paroxysms of anger'' or ''actually insane.'' Even Abigail admitted he was irritable (though she described that as his single flaw). McCullough claims that Adams's ''outbursts of temper'' occurred only in ''private confrontations'' and plays down or explains away instances of extreme public behavior (his strange insistence that Washington be called ''His Majesty the President,'' his predawn flight from Washington on Jefferson's inaugural day). The result is an admirable but curiously flat John Adams.


Yet for some historians, Ellis above all, Adams's fiery temperament and resolute contrarianism are part of his charm. After his retirement, for example, Adams denounced the tendency to make demigods of men like Washington and Franklin and, an old Puritan to the end, called for a second Protestant Reformation to wash away such idolatry. The Revolution, Adams insisted, was a collective enterprise of ordinary people punctuated by division and acrimony at every step. In 1811, he confessed ''a very great secret'' to a young American: ''As far as I am capable of comparing the merit of different periods, I have no reason to believe we were better than you are.'' He insisted that there was more talent among Americans of the 1820's than those of the 1770's, and that the young were eminently capable of securing the liberties for which his generation had fought. How can we fail to love that crotchety old man? The capacities he affirmed are ours.


John Adams doubted that historians would ever record the history of the Revolution accurately. Now, 175 years after his death, we can at last give Adams the esteem he deserves. It remains true nonetheless that the wonderfully congenial subject of McCullough's carefully researched, lovingly written biography is more consistently companionable, and also less interesting, than John Adams was in his own time.


Pauline Maier's latest book is ''American Scripture: Making the Declaration 


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