One day, when I was about five, Daddy took me for my haircut. In those days, a barber shop often had a large wall calendar showing rows of small, oval-shaped portraits: All the presidents, from George Washington right up to Harry S. Truman.
I recognized Washington, the Father of Our Country. But I had to ask Daddy who that fat old man beside Washington was.
“That’s John Adams. He was the next president after George Washington.”
In an instant, I pegged the unprepossessing Adams as a second-rater.
Boy, was I wrong.
That’s the message, in a nutshell, of David McCullough’s John Adams, a monumental biography I have just read, only nineteen years after its publication.
John Adams, the Real Deal
John Adams was born in 1735 to Deacon John Adams and Susanna Boylston Adams of Braintree, Massachusetts. Adams junior inherited the deacon’s farm. He would be a farmer, on and off, all his life—persistently, passionately, and successfully.
Oh, and by the way: He attended Harvard University, was admitted to the bar and practiced law; joined the movement for American colonial rights, becoming the most forward champion of Independence in the Second Continental Congress; nominated George Washington of Virginia to command the Continental Army; went to France as a commissioner, helped negotiate the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War, and became the first U.S. minister to the Court of St. James, where he exchanged decorous greetings with the spurned monarch George III; was elected vice president of the new Constitutional republic; became our second president, after Washington’s two terms; was defeated for his own second term by his old Revolutionary friend, Thomas Jefferson; retired to an active life managing his farm in Braintree; lived long enough to see his son, John Quincy Adams, inaugurated as sixth president of the United States in 1825; and died the following year on the same day as Jefferson—July 4, exactly fifty years after the two of them had, with 54 other patriots, declared the Independence of the United States.
Throughout this remarkable journey, John Adams associated with the most remarkable people of a remarkable era—including his own wife and best ally, Abigail. To our immense good fortune, John and Abigail and their children kept journals and wrote letters, to one another and to many historic figures—thousands of letters, written over many decades. And all of them, or most of them, were preserved.
Well, Who Wants to Read a Bunch of Old Letters, Anyway?
David Gaub McCullough, that’s who. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1933, McCullough earned a degree in English Literature from Yale University. According to his Wikipedia biography, “He said that it was a ‘privilege’ to study English at Yale because of faculty members such as John O’Hara, John Hersey, Robert Penn Warren, and Brendan Gill. McCullough occasionally ate lunch with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder. Wilder, says McCullough, taught him that a competent writer maintains ‘an air of freedom’ in the storyline, so that a reader will not anticipate the outcome, even if the book is non-fiction.”
As he weighed options for his life, McCullough gravitated towards research and writing. He served apprenticeships at Time, Life, the United States Information Agency, Sports Illustrated, and American Heritage. While working at American Heritage, McCullough found a subject that interested him deeply and spent three years writing the story of the Johnstown Flood of 1889. The Johnstown Flood, published in 1968, established him as a top-shelf historical writer. Since then, he has written nine more books. He has received two National Book Awards and two Pulitzer Prizes, the second of which was for his Adams biography.
“History ought to be a source of pleasure,” McCullough has said. “ It isn’t just part of our civic responsibility. To me it’s an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is.”
McCullough on Adams
John Adams may be the most magisterial, and perhaps in the long run will be the most influential, of McCullough’s works. Few, if any, Adams biographers have had the ambition, tenacity, and skill to produce such an illuminating book.
Like any good writer, McCullough begins his story in medias res: On a bitter January day in 1776, the 40-year-old Adams sets out on horseback, first to a meeting with General Washington at his headquarters in Cambridge, then onward to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Before long, the author doubles back to fill us in on the essentials of Adams’ early life and the arc of destiny that brought him to the brink of rebellion in 1776. He then proceeds on through the main acts of Adams’ portentous life.
What raises this book above a standard scholarly biography is the way McCullough tells the story. His deeply researched narrative unearths the humanity in the Founding Fathers. We are given Dr. Benjamin Rush’s contemporary estimate of Adams in the prime of life: He was “possessed of another species of character” than his firebrand second cousin Samuel. “He saw the whole of a subject at a glance, and . . . was equally fearless of men and of the consequences of a bold assertion of his opinion. . . . He was a stranger to dissimulation.”
The journals, letters, and other writings of Adams, his family, and his friends are quoted so extensively, and so appositely, that the reader comes to know these people—especially John and Abigail—intimately. McCullough’s third-person narration serves merely to set a context in which this marvelous conversation—this ongoing lifetime argument about liberty, duty, morality, religion, and the deep things of life—takes place.
Stand advised, Dear Reader: The Adamses were no ordinary letter writers. Their sentences bounce and sparkle with informed passion on everything from the mundane to the sublime. The marital love between John and Abigail, as shown in the letters, was deep and abiding. Each suffered greatly when separated from the other; yet neither would put personal happiness ahead of the stern duty that often led to long separations. Abigail, as fierce a patriot as her husband, championed his revolutionary and political role always.
“You cannot be, I know, nor do I wish to see you, an inactive spectator,” she wrote. “We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.”
Their language is felicitous. When a constituent from Massachusetts wrote Adams in June 1776, wondering why the Continental Congress was dithering over Independence, Adams wrote in reassurance:
Some people must have time to look around them, before, behind, on the right hand, and on the left, and then to think, and after all this to resolve. Others see at one intuitive glance into the past and the future, and judge with precision at once. But remember you can’t make thirteen clocks strike precisely alike at the same second.
This wisdom from one well known for his own headlong impatience.
Feeling every bit the New England rube gawking at the fineries of the French royal court, Adams wrote this description of Marie Antoinette:
She was an object too sublime and beautiful for my dull pen to describe. . . . Her dress was everything art and wealth could make it. One of the maids of honor told me she had diamonds upon her person to the value of eighteen million livres, and I always thought her majesty much beholden to her dress. . . . She had a fine complexion indicating her perfect health, and was a handsome woman in her face and figure. . . . The Queen took a large spoonful of soup and displayed her fine person and graceful manner, in alternatively looking at the company in various parts of the hall and ordering several kinds of seasoning to be brought to her, by which she fitted her supper to her taste. When this was accomplished, her Majesty exhibited to the admiring spectators the magnificent spectacle of a great queen swallowing her royal supper in a single spoonful, all at once. This was all performed like perfect clockwork, not a feature of her face, nor a motion of any part of her person, especially her arm and her hand could be criticized as out of order.
Though obviously impressed by royalty and its trappings, Adams was no friend of monarchy—despite the scurrilous bandying of precisely this charge by Jefferson’s Republicans. Neither was he a country bumpkin. His voracious lifelong reading habit encompassed Shakespeare, Milton, the Scriptures, Virgil, Voltaire, Bolingbroke’s Letters on the Study and Use of History; Justinian, Cicero; Benjamin Franklin,Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine; Hume, Johnson, Priestley, Livy, Tacitus, Plutarch; Walter Scott, Jane Porter, James Fenimore Cooper; Rousseau, Condorcet, Turgot, Mary Wolstonecraft; Adam Smith, Bishop Joseph Butler, Pascal. His personal library numbered 3,200 volumes.
History, he advised his eldest son, John Quincy, “was the true source of ‘solid instruction’. . . . He must read Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War. There was no better preparation, whatever part he was called to play on ‘the stage of life.’ It was best read in the original Greek, of course, but he could find a reliable translation among his father’s books.”
McCullough describes the mature John Adams, at age 40, on the eve of the Revolution:
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.
Despite the aptness of McCullough’s words, you won’t really begin to understand all those things about Adams the man—let alone many other things about his place in the Revolutionary and early Republican era of our country—unless you actually read the book. So read the book.
What It Took
We owe a great debt to David McCullough. He spent six years of his life researching Adams and writing his book. He read all of John’s and Abigail’s letters, all of their diaries, many letters written to them or about them. He also read the books that John Adams read, to immerse himself in Adams’ mindset.
He set out to write a book on Adams and Jefferson, concerned at first that Adams would fare poorly next to the charismatic Jefferson. He soon found the reverse to be true. Jefferson was a more private man, who did not share his true feelings in letters as easily as Adams did. Moreover, fewer of his papers still exist. Eventually McCullough decided to leave Jefferson alone and focus on Adams. Jefferson enters the book only in relation to his dealings with Adams, which were considerable.
At any rate, it’s a fine book and one which will give you a glimpse of one of the most remarkable couples in the history of any country.
So do give it a read.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Author