John Adams by David McCullough
by David McCullough
Simon & Schuster. 151 pp. $35.00
On July 2, 1776, John Adams watched with satisfaction as the Continental Congress, moved in large part by his own eloquence and force of will, voted to declare American independence from Great Britain. As he wrote at the time to his wife Abigail, “The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.”
Adams was slightly off—the moment “celebrated by succeeding generations” would come two days later, when Congress approved the actual Declaration of Independence—but the episode is telling. As compared with the other leading men of the founding era—figures like Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin—Adams has always gotten short shrift, especially in the popular imagination.
David McCullough, author of the Pulirzer-Prize-winning Truman (1992) and several other widely read works of American history, aims to remedy this injustice in his lively new biography. Indeed, if it were up to McCullough, as he made clear in recent testimony on Capitol Hill, the next great monument on the Mall in Washington, D.C. would pay tribute to Adams and his illustrious family.
In McCullough’s hands, the life of John Adams (1735-1826) is a classic American success story. The son of a farmer and shoemaker in the village of Braintree, Massachusetts, Adams won admission to Harvard, took up the law shortly after graduation, and soon became the most important lawyer in the state.
From there he began his sharp and steady political ascent. As a member of the first and second Continental Congresses, Adams rose from relative obscurity to become, in the words of a contemporary, “the first man in the House” by the spring of 1776. Chairman of the congressional Board of War during the Revolution, a negotiator of the Treaty of Paris (securing British recognition of American independence), the former colonies’ first ambassador to Great Britain, first Vice President of the United States, and then, in 1797, George Washington’s successor in the presidency—Adams played a key role in every phase of the nation’s early development.
Lying behind this extraordinary record of service, McCullough emphasizes throughout, was a man of strong character. Adams was every bit the stereotypical New Englander. Ambitious, deeply intelligent, hard-working, and God-fearing, he was the sort of father who could advise his daughter that “all we have to do” is “to be good and to do good.”
Yet, as McCullough notes, Adams possessed other virtues less typically associated with the Yankee. When Congress sent him on a mission to France, he agreed to cross the North Atlantic in the dead of winter—a dangerous passage in the age of sail. And when the ship was forced to square off against a British vessel, the middle-aged diplomat took his place “among my marines,” the captain later reported, “accoutered as one of them in the act of defense.”
Adams was also capable of great acts of generosity. In early 1797, when a fire broke out in the home and shop of Andrew Brown, a publisher whose Philadelphia newspaper had vilified Adams in the recent presidential campaign, the President-elect, McCullough writes, “was conspicuous among the men handing up buckets to fight the blaze.”
As for Adams’s relationship with his wife Abigail—the vivacious, opinionated woman who was his indispensable partner from their marriage in 1764 until her death in 1817—McCullough conveys their impassioned regard for one another, and the personal toll exacted by John’s long years of service away from home. Indeed, Adams himself emerges as a man at once keenly appreciative of womankind and mindful of their honor. As he wrote in his later years, though “of an amorous disposition,” he had never given any “virgin or matron . . . cause to blush at the sight of me, or to regret her acquaintance with me.”
In McCullough’s eyes, the leitmotif of Adams’s public career was his devotion to independence—not just for America but for himself as well. It was, in fact, Adams’s insistence on steering his own course that was largely responsible for leaving him without defenders or, as he called them, “puffers,” and for sending him into retirement after only a single term as President.
Succeeding George Washington in 1797, just as the French started to seize American ships in the West Indies, Adams defied the wishes of both his own Federalist party, which ultimately wanted war, and the Jeffersonian Republicans, who blamed the crisis on the Federalists. Though President Adams negotiated a settlement with the French, he was left in almost complete political isolation, and suffered an embittering loss to Jefferson in the surprisingly close election of 1800.
Adams would devote much of the remaining quarter-century of his life to reading, thinking, and arguing about philosophy, religion, history, and the future of the still-young republic. With time, McCullough shows, his demeanor grew mellower. Not believing that politics should ruin a friendship, Adams wrote to his old friend and rival Jefferson at the beginning of 1812, initiating a wide-ranging correspondence that would last almost right up to the day on which both men died, July 4, 1826—the 50th anniversary of American independence.
Though David McCullough’s book breaks little new ground with respect to Adams, it is a well-researched and highly readable account, enlivened by the anecdotal style and attention to detail that are the author’s trademark. From a literary perspective, the book falters in the sections devoted almost exclusively to Abigail: one senses at times that McCullough considered a dual biography but, having decided against it, nonetheless kept long stretches in which we often lose sight of Adams himself.
McCullough also tends to gloss over those aspects of Adams’s career that do not fit neatly into a personal narrative. He mentions that President Adams signed the Sedition Act of 1798—still controversial among civil libertarians today—and condemns Adams for it, but he passes over the subject rather quickly. More fundamentally, though McCullough appreciates that Adams was often a profound political thinker and duly notes that he shone as a constitutional architect, the book provides no sustained discussion of Adams’s ideas. Readers will not learn from McCullough’s biography why a number of scholars consider Adams, in the words of the political scientist Harold Laski, “the greatest political thinker whom America has yet produced.”
This lacuna is particularly regrettable. Not only was Adams as responsible as anybody for the American model of government, but he anticipated the ugly turn that politics would take in our own age. He saw from the start what was most condemnable in the French Revolution. As he wrote, “I consider the perfectibility of man as used by modern philosophers to be mere words without a meaning.” God had given man certain fundamental rights, he believed, but also the passions and appetites that threatened those rights. For Adams, the challenge of modern politics was not to overcome human vice, error, and conflict, but rather to manage and mediate them. As he wrote in 1787, “power must be opposed to power, and interest to interest.”
Still, there is much to recommend in McCullough’s vivid portrait of this underappreciated founding father. After all, the man whom he brings to life was a devoted and loving husband, a courageous public servant, a wise counselor, and a political leader who would have considered opinion polling an abomination. Perhaps for these things alone John Adams deserves a monument in today’s Washington.