John Adams

by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, 2001)

(This column was first published in the September 20, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

Any reader at all interested in United States history knows David McCullough from his narration of PBS documentaries and his many popular books including the 1992 Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Harry Truman. He also wrote The Path Between the Seas about the construction of the Panama Canal and The Johnstown Flood.

Now he has written John Adams, the biography of our second president. And he turns this man, too long considered a second rater among the big shots of our nation's founding fathers -- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton -- into a genuine popular hero every bit the equal of his contemporaries. In the process he reverses the fortunes of Adams' friend, then political enemy, then finally friend again, Jefferson. The Sage of Monticello, whose name was first besmirched recently by resurrection of his affair with his slave Sally Hemmings, comes off a much less attractive figure in the subtext of this book.

I will return to that issue but first consider Adams, who McCullough tells us, "stood five feet seven or eight inches tall -- about 'middle size' in that day -- and though verging on portly, he had a straight-up, square-shouldered stance and was, in fact, surprisingly fit and solid. His hands were the hands of a man accustomed to pruning his own trees, cutting his own hay, and splitting his own firewood.... He would describe himself as looking rather like a short, thick Archbishop of Canterbury....

"He was a man who cared deeply for his friends, who, with few exceptions, were to be his friends for life, and in some instances despite severe strains. And to no one was he more devoted than to his wife, Abigail. She was his 'Dearest Friend,' as he addressed her in letters -- his 'best, dearest, worthiest, wisest friend in the world' -- while to her he was 'the tenderest of husbands,' her 'good man.'

"John Adams was also, as many could attest, a great-hearted, persevering man of uncommon ability and force. He had a brilliant mind. He was honest and everyone knew it. Emphatically independent by nature, hardworking, frugal -- all traits in the New England tradition -- he was anything but cold or laconic as supposedly New Englanders were. He could be high-spirited and affectionate, vain, cranky, impetuous, self-absorbed, and fiercely stubborn; passionate, quick to anger, and all-forgiving; generous and entertaining. He was blessed with great courage and good humor, yet subject to spells of despair, and especially when separated from his family or during periods of prolonged inactivity.

"Ambitious to excel -- to make himself known -- he had nonetheless recognized at an early stage that happiness came not from fame and fortune, 'and all such things,' but from 'an habitual contempt of them,' as he wrote. He prized the Roman ideal of honor, and in this, as in much else, he and Abigail were in perfect accord. Fame without honor, in her view, would be 'like a faint meteor gliding through the sky, shedding only transient light.'

"As his family and friends knew, Adams was both a devout Christian and an independent thinker, and he saw no conflict in that. He was hard-headed and a man of 'sensibility,' a close observer of human folly as displayed in everyday life and fired by an inexhaustible love of books and scholarly reflection. He read Cicero, Tacitus, and others of his Roman heroes in Latin, and Plato and Thucydides in the original Greek, which he considered the supreme language. But in his need to fathom the 'labyrinth' of human nature, as he said, he was drawn to Shakespeare and Swift, and likely to carry Cervantes or a volume of English poetry with him on his journeys. 'You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket,' he would tell his son Johnny.

"John Adams was not a man of the world. He enjoyed no social standing. He was an awkward dancer and poor at cards. He never learned to flatter. He owned no ships or glass factory as did Colonel Josiah Quincy, Braintree's leading citizen. There was no money in his background, no Adams fortune or elegant Adams homestead like the Boston mansion of John Hancock.

"It was in the courtrooms of Massachusetts and on the printed page, principally in the newspapers of Boston, that Adams had distinguished himself. Years of riding the court circuit and his brilliance before the bar had brought him wide recognition and respect. And of greater consequence in recent years had been his spirited determination and eloquence in the cause of American rights and liberties.

"That he relished the sharp conflict and theater of the courtroom, that he loved the esteem that came with public life, no less than he loved 'my farm, my family and goose quill,' there is no doubt however frequently he protested to the contrary. His desire for 'distinction' was too great. Patriotism burned in him like a blue flame. 'I have a zeal at my heart for my country and her friends which I cannot smother or conceal,' he told Abigail, warning that it could mean privation and unhappiness for his family unless regulated by cooler judgment than his own."

Rather strong praise but McCullough backs it up with over 600 pages of evidence. Adams role in the founding of this country was central. In many ways he was the driving force. The 1776 Continental Congress met in Philadelphia while the firing of British gunboats could be heard just 30 miles away: "By sundown May 9, the excitement down the river had ended. On the day after, Friday, May 10, came what many in Congress knew to be a critical juncture. Adams had decided the time was ripe to make his move.

"With Richard Henry Lee, he put forth a resolution recommending that the individual colonies assume all powers of government -- to secure 'the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general.' Not only was it passed, but with surprising unanimity. It awaited only a preamble which, as drafted by Adams, was a still more radical statement. This brought on three days of fierce debate, during which Adams repeatedly took the floor, supported by Richard Henry Lee, while James Wilson of Pennsylvania argued in opposition. A decision that could clear the way to independence had at last arrived.

"In contrast to the resolution, Adams's preamble put aside any possibility of reconciliation and all but declared the colonies immediately independent: 'Whereas his Britannic Majesty, in conjunction with the lords and commons of Great Britain, has, by a late act of Parliament, excluded the inhabitants of these United Colonies from the protection of his crown; and whereas, no answer whatever to the humble petitions of the colonies for redress of grievances and reconciliation with Great Britain has been or is likely to be given; but the whole force of that kingdom, aided by foreign mercenaries, is to be exerted for the destruction of the good people of these colonies; and whereas it appears absolutely irreconcilable to reason and good conscience, for people of these colonies to take the oaths and affirmations necessary for the support of any government under the crown of Great Britain...it is [therefore] necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted under the authority of the people of the colonies, for the preservation of internal peace, virtue, and good order, as well as the defense of their lives, liberties, and properties, against hostile invasions and cruel depredations of their enemies.'" That paragraph, preceding the Declaration of Independence by two months, was the statement that broke the bonds to England and turned Adams and his colleagues into revolutionaries subject to hanging.

At the same time Adams had a remarkable depth of common sense and prescience. He could see beyond what so many took as present good. For example, he foresaw the French Revolution turning sour and leading to excesses and finally dictatorship. Still more important, he was also aware far better than his compatriots of the problems that would beset his own country: "'We may please ourselves with the prospect of free and popular governments. But there is great danger that those governments will not make us happy. God grant they may. But I fear that in every assembly, members will obtain an influence by noise not sense. By meanness, not greatness. By ignorance, not learning. By contracted hearts, not large souls....

"'There is one thing, my dear sir, that must be attempted and most sacredly observed or we are all undone. There must be decency and respect, and veneration introduced for persons of authority of every rank, or we are undone. In a popular government, this is our only way.'"

Every one of us should reread that passage daily just as we should study his wonderful analysis of his duty: "'I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study paintings, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.'"

And then there are Hamilton and Jefferson: "The Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of State, meanwhile, were under constant fire from one side or the other. Jefferson was busy behind the scenes in a campaign to drive Hamilton from office. If unwilling to attack Hamilton directly himself, or to write under an assumed name, he was not above urging others to do so. 'For God's sake, my dear sir,' Jefferson would admonish Madison, 'take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to pieces in the face of the public.'

"Jefferson's certainty that monarchists were poised to destroy the republic had become an obsession. Yet with Adams he remained on speaking terms -- in part because he knew Adams to be too independent ever to be in league with Hamilton, and because he sincerely wished for no further rupture in their friendship. When Adams attended his first meeting of the Philosophical Society, Jefferson was 'polite enough to accompany me,' as Adams reported to Abigail.

"It was Adams's impression that Jefferson was pulling back from his habitual extravagances. To cut costs, the Secretary of State had sold a horse and some of his furniture. Jefferson's debt to his British creditors was a colossal 7,000 pounds, Adams had learned, which led him to ponder whether this might account for Jefferson's antipathy to the central government. If only someone could pay off Jefferson's debt, indeed pay off the personal debt of all Virginians, Adams speculated, then perhaps Jefferson's reason might return, 'and the whole man and his whole state would become good friends of the Union.'

"What vexed Adams most was Jefferson's 'blind spirit of party.' In theory, Jefferson deplored parties or faction no less than did Adams or anyone. In practice, however, he was proving remarkably adept at party politics. As always, he avoided open dispute, debate, controversy, or any kind of confrontation, but behind the scenes he was unrelenting and extremely effective. To Jefferson it was a matter of necessity, given his hatred of Hamilton and all that was riding on what he called the 'beautiful' revolution in France. To Adams, Jefferson had become a fanatic. There was not a Jacobin in France more devoted to faction, he told Abigail."

Caught between these opposing politicians -- unfortunately I use that word in its worst sense here -- Adams refused to join public battle and was severely battered and finally pushed aside by Hamilton's right wing as well as Jefferson's left. Despite the public abuse Adams knew came at Jefferson's behest, McCullough tells us: "He held no resentment against Jefferson, 'though he has honored and salaried almost every villain he could find who had been an enemy to me.' Nor would he publicly criticize Jefferson's handling of the presidency. 'I think instead of opposing systematically any administration, running down their characters and opposing all their measures, right or wrong, we ought to support every administration as far as we can in justice.'" And after years passed, the breach was healed and the two corresponded again.

We can only stand in awe of this man. If Washington was the father of our country, surely Adams was our country's grandfather. And McCullough tells his story very well.