John Adams, per David McCullough

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.

Abigail Smith Adams. 1766 Portrait by Benjamin Blyth. Public Domain.

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 McCullough. Nrbelex at English Q52, licensed under CC BY-SA.

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. 

Benjamin Rush portrait by Charles Willson Peale, c. 1818. Public Domain.

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:

Marie Antoinette in Court Dress, portrait by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1778. Public Domain

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. 

John Quincy Adams, age 29. Portrait by John Singleton Copley. Public Domain.

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.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Author

 

Thanks for the humiliation

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe (1850-1936). Public Domain.

[A]mongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.

—Edward Winslow, December 12, 1621

This well-known event was not “Thanksgiving,” even though we remember it that way. 

We know it was not Thanksgiving because if it had been a special time of Thanksgiving,  the Scrooby Separatists would have treated it like a designated time of Repentance: with fasting, prayer, and humiliation. Not with feasting, fun, and games.

Humiliation? What’s that got to do with thanksiving?

How Humiliating

John Adams, painting by Gilbert Stuart. Public Domain.

A friend of mine, who happened also to be my boss, boggled when he read a presidential proclamation by John Adams that called for fasting, humiliation, and prayer. 

“Humiliation? Why would the president of the United States call for our country to be humiliated?” 

My friend/boss was a soldier and a patriot, proud of our nation’s achievements. He was also a classic narcissist, the star of his own show—a show in which all the rest of us were bit players. Humiliation was a concept that did not appeal to him. 

His question was not rhetorical. He was sincere; he wanted an answer. Sadly, other matters more pressing at the time pre-empted the long talk it would have taken to justify the role of humiliation in the psyche of our infant nation.

Of all the presidents who have called us to prayer and thanksgiving, only one embraced the “h” word—John Adams, a staunch old Puritan. His proclamations of 1798 and 1799 urged national, as well as individual, humiliation. That need was seen by the Calvinistic Adams, and perhaps by most New Englanders of that era, as an absolute prerequisite if there was to be any hope for a people mired in original sin.

My boss scorned old John’s advice, I surmise, because he equated humiliation with defeat. After all, the Packers routinely humiliated the Bears. Victorious allies humiliated Germany at Versailles. Saddam Hussein suffered abject humiliation by Norman Schwarzkopf.

Victorious allies David Lloyd George, Vittorio Orlando, Georges Clemenceau, and Woodrow Wilson prepare to humiliate Germany, Paris 1919. U.S. Army photo. Public Domain.

The Upside of Humiliation

“Humiliation” also signifies a path to remembering our creaturehood. Humans are inclined to hubris, yet our proper attitude—the realistic attitude in the full context of God’s world—is humility. That does not come easily to us; thus we require humiliation. Such humiliation could be seen as a victory, not a defeat. I think that is what John Adams meant.

If we ourselves are the center of the universe, we thereby occupy the whole. Where is there space for gratitude? What is there to be thankful for? Who is there to thank?

It has been a very long time since anyone of Great Importance in our general life ventured the faintest suggestion that humility might be a good thing; or, even better, modeled humility as a public virtue. 

Rather, those who dominate our headlines and our consciousness reliably turn out to be monsters of pride and arrogance. Their toxic self-absorption trickles down to the public at large. Or, could it be that it seeps upward to them, from us?

Authentic Gratitude

On the day we call Thanksgiving, we gather around the groaning board. We honor a tradition begun in 1621 with a feast and various entertainments, including football (our most military game). 

Because the name of the day is Thanksgiving, we try to remember, amidst all revelries, to give thanks. Our thanksgiving may take the simple form of each person around the table, in turn, stating what he or she is thankful for. That’s not a bad thing to do. 

Humility, if nothing else, might suggest it is also important to mention Whom we are thankful to.

A little humiliation could be a good thing. Happy Thanksgiving.

Blessings, 

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author