Classic review: John Adams
President John Adams wins overdue accolades in David McCullough's searching biography.
[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on May 31, 2001.]
There are shelves of books devoted to the Founding Fathers. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Hamilton have all had numerous biographers. However, few writers have seriously considered John Adams, and consequently, he is much less well known than his compatriots.
This is not surprising. Adams had the bad fortune to follow Washington to the presidency and to precede Jefferson. His tenure lasted just one term. He lacked the physical stature of Washington and Jefferson. They were tall and slender, he was short and fat. To the extent that he is known today, it is probably because he was, until recently, the only president whose son also served as president.
Thanks to John Adams, a new biography by Pulitzer Prize-winner David McCullough, this distinguished, if relatively unknown, statesman will soon be much more widely appreciated. McCullough's basic point is that John Adams was a key actor in all the major events of his time.
Adams successfully (and to great criticism) defended the British soldiers who fired the shots that resulted in the Boston Massacre; he was the strongest voice for independence in the Continental Congress (Jefferson called him "a colossus of independence"); he wrote the Massachusetts constitution (still the oldest operating constitution in the world); he served as ambassador at large during the Revolutionary War and arranged a crucial loan with the Dutch that helped finance that cause; he negotiated (along with John Jay and Ben Franklin) the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War; he was indispensable to the founding of the American Navy; he served as a loyal vice president during Washington's presidency; and, while president, he successfully resisted the calls for war with France - and in doing so, probably defeated his reelection.
Any one of these accomplishments would have secured his place in American history. Adams did all of these, and more.
The absence of attention to Adams is remarkable given the extensive records available. He always maintained a diary and wrote letters avidly throughout his life.
Most notable, of course, were the letters to and from his wife Abigail. Their voluminous correspondence to each other – it takes up some five miles of microfilm – and the candor and detail with which they wrote make it possible to know John and Abigail and their thinking better than that of any of their contemporaries.
The trick then, for McCullough, is to analyze this massive amount of material and blend it into a coherent and readable volume. He does this beautifully. Research and analysis are woven into a seamless narrative that makes it an absolute joy to read.
Personally, Adams was wise, extraordinarily honest, amiable, and fiercely independent. But he was not a saint. He could be vain, petty, irritable and stubborn. While acknowledging his flaws, McCullough clearly likes and admires his subject and writes of him with great warmth and affection.
Two relationships were absolutely central to Adams's life. The first, of course, was with Abigail. McCullough calls their marriage "one of the great love stories of American history," and their partnership infuses every page of this book.
The second was his long relationship with Thomas Jefferson. The two were close colleagues at the Constitutional convention and became good friends when they were diplomats in Paris during the Revolutionary War. Later, they became political rivals, and, even though serving as his vice president, Jefferson sought to undermine the Adams presidency. But after both had left political life, they resumed a friendly and close relationship.
McCullough calls their letters "one of the most extraordinary correspondences in the English language." He writes,"The level and range of their discourse were always above and beyond the ordinary. At times memory failed; often hyperbole entered in. Often each was writing as much for posterity as for the other. They were two of the leading statesman of the time, but also two of the finest writers, and they were showing what they could do."
As if to show that their lives were inextricably bound together, they even died on the same day. And not just any day. Both expired on July 4, 1826 – 50 years to the day after their great achievement. Among Adams's last words: "Thomas Jefferson survives."
Thanks to David McCullough, John Adams does, too.
Terry W. Hartle is a senior vice president of the American Council on Education.