Colossus of Independence.
John Adams, by David McCullough, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001,751 pages, hardbound, $35.00.
In John Adams, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer David McCullough has written a refreshing and interesting examination of one of the most prominent but least appreciated of America's Founding Fathers. The book is a needed corrective for the relative obscurity in which, sadly, Adams remains mired. Adams himself anticipated this. "Popularity was never my mistress, nor was I ever, or shall I ever be a popular man," he wrote in 1787.
Although he was a key figure throughout the Founding Era, the brilliance of his contemporaries sometimes outshone the more constant, if less ostentatious, Adams. He lacked, for example, the heroic military service and leadership qualities personified by George Washington. He authored several valuable essays on constitutional government, but these were dwarfed by the literary and stylistic brilliance of Thomas Jefferson. And though his political instincts were generally good, Adams' essays on constitutional government lacked the deep political insight exhibited by James Madison, history's greatest political scientist. Moreover, Adams possessed neither John Hancock's flair for political drama nor Patrick Henry's eloquence.
While he may have lacked a single talent to set him apart from the great men of his very great generation, Adams nevertheless possessed a keen intellect and varied abilities. Competent, diligent, and honest, he could always be found at the center of political affairs. McCullough depicts him as by tar the most dedicated and hardworking patriot in 1776. And he credits Adams' accomplishments to his "almost superhuman devotion to the American cause."
Despite the political rivalry between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Jefferson called Adams a "colossus of independence." Adams himself saw to it that Jefferson was assigned to draft the Declaration of Independence, and it was Adams who nominated George Washington to become Commander-in-Chief of the new Continental Army. When the War for Independence was over, Adams -- along with Benjamin Franklin and John Jay -- arranged the peace agreement in Paris. He served as the first U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, and as the first Vice President and second President of the United States.
Adams and Jefferson
McCullough had originally intended to write a book on the exchange of letters between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. He found, however, that Adams was the more interesting of the two men. In the resulting book, McCullough portrays Adams with great sympathy but is harshly critical of Jefferson. "In London, Jefferson resumed his shopping spree," reads one of any number of similar statements by McCullough, portraying Jefferson as a hopeless spendthrift, neglectful parent, and hypocrite. According to McCullough, Jefferson lived lavishly and dressed as a "perfect European dandy, magnificent in ruffled shirt, hair dressed and powdered." And yes, Jefferson refused to free his own slaves while he was advocating liberty for all men.
McCullough's complaint against Jefferson does not appear to be mere political correctness; he displays the same passion for the subject of this biography that he demonstrated in his Pulitzer Prizewinning 1992 biography of Harry S. Truman. Jefferson and Adams had been thrown into an era of newly won republican liberty, where individual rights were paramount and the trappings of European aristocracy disdained. Adams comprehended clearly the former trend, but not the latter. Jefferson could perceive the latter, but had difficulty applying the former to his own circumstances.
McCullough provides a convincing explanation for Adams' initial penchant for continuing the pageantry (but not the structure) of the British Crown, and effectively demonstrates that Adams was no Tory or royalist sympathizer.
It is a pity McCullough did not give the same consideration to Jefferson, who was blindsided by the repeal of slavery, an institution which up to Jefferson's day had existed to some extent at every time and in every government. Modern revisionists miss the real story of the tremendous strides toward liberty made during the Founding generation when they focus their microscope upon the exceptions to the progress of 18th century liberalism.
Adams' Massachusetts had been one of the first governments in history to abolish all slavery permanently; the Massachusetts state constitution -- written by Adams himself -- ended slavery by declaring all slaves citizens eligible to vote. Adams' constitution was ratified in June of 1780, just two months after Pennsylvania became the first state to abolish slavery. (In 1777, Vermont, which was not yet a state, became the first territory to abolish slavery.) No land other than the American states would abolish slavery until Denmark did so in 1796.
Not only were Adams and the rest of America's Founders decades ahead of the rest of the world in the protection of individual liberty, the structures their generation produced still stand. Massachusetts is governed to this day by Adams' 1780 constitution, the oldest written constitution still in use.
McCullough's biography of Adams contradicts the modern establishment's depiction of the Founding Fathers as a corrupt cabal of white male racists bent on preserving their privileged status. Not only did many of the Founders oppose and successfully eliminate slavery in northern states, the Adams family in particular was a model of racial tolerance and Christian justice. McCullough relates one example of a young black freeman whom John's wife Abigail had hired as a servant in the Adams household. Abigail herself had taught the young man, James Prince, to read, and eagerly sponsored him in a local school after he requested formal schooling. But Abigail "was soon asked by a neighbor to withdraw James. If she did not, she was told, the other boys would refuse to attend and the school would close. Had James misbehaved, Abigail asked. No, she was informed, it was because he was black. Did the other boys object when he attended church? No, they did not. 'The boy is a freeman as much as any of the young men, and mere ly because his face is black is he to be denied instruction?' she asked. 'How is he to be qualified to procure a livelihood? Is this the Christian principle of doing unto others as we would have others do to us?' She requested that the boys be sent to her. 'Tell them ... that I hope we shall all go to heaven together.' And this, she was pleased to report to Adams, ended the crisis. She heard no more on the subject; James continued in the school."
McCullough introduces other Founding Fathers largely through their actions toward Adams. Washington is portrayed as a great and virtuous man, though somewhat distant from Adams. Alexander Hamilton is portrayed as a vicious intriguer, and possibly a grasping would-be American Caesar. By the latter half of Adams' term as president, Abigail had begun calling Hamilton "Cassius" (after the ambitious Roman consul who had set up a triumvirate allowing for the rise of Caesar). McCullough notes Hamilton's widely publicized case of adultery (to which an embarrassed Hamilton admitted), and casts numerous hints about Jefferson's suspected philandering after the tragic death of his wife Martha. Again, McCullough does not appear to be trying to besmirch the Founders' reputations, but to paint a backdrop against which Adams stands in stark contrast. Such philandering by public officials -- unfortunately all too common throughout history -- only demonstrates the moral strength of the Adamses and other founders (such as Wash ington and Madison) whose private behavior did not conflict with their publicly professed morality. The Adams' marriage is portrayed as the epitome of a loving and respectful effort of mutual sacrifice under intense pressure.
Vanity and Ambition
McCullough's obvious zeal and respect for Adams does limit the depth of his study. While Truman, his earlier prize-winning biography, was also very sympathetic to his subject, McCullough nevertheless gave the reader insight into some of Truman's character flaws. Not so with John Adams. McCullough criticizes Adams only once, taking him to task for signing the tyrannical Alien and Sedition acts. Adams was also widely recognized in his day as vain and ambitious, but McCullough gives the reader little insight into how this reputation came to be. Indeed, McCullough is so sympathetic to Adams that this flaw appears not to be a flaw at all. The author leaves the impression that Adams' sense of self-worth was completely justifiable.
But generally, McCullough's affinity for Adams strengthens this book. Such an effort is especially needed now, when America's Founding Fathers are routinely pilloried for various politically incorrect actions. In an age desperately in need of genuine heroes, John Adams restores one of America's great patriotic leaders to his rightful place of honor.
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|Title Annotation:||Review; 'John Adams'|
|Author:||Eddlem, Thomas R.|
|Publication:||The New American|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 24, 2001|
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