I will admit immediately that I am not a great reader of history, or even of autobiography. I read just about anything and everything, but for whatever reason, have read very few things that I would call straight-up “history;” anything I have has had some sort of twist that bends that narrative around an a priori1. I probably would never have picked up anything by David McCullough if my girlfriend’s brothers hadn’t gotten me John Adams as a birthday gift; fans of 1776 and history in general, they wanted to share with me just a bit of their geekiness, and I must say it was a success.
John Adams is one of those names that everybody knows but, if pressed, probably couldn’t say much about. George Washington was the general of the revolutionary army during the war, and the first president under the Constitution2; Thomas Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence, and eventually president; James Madison was the impetus behind the Constitution, and also eventually president.
But John Adams? What of him? He was president, we remember, though we don’t know where in the order; he was involved in the Revolutionary War, maybe, unless that was somebody else with a powdered wig and a generic New Englander name. In fact, there is a long and storied history to John Adams, if you couldn’t surmise that from the 752-page length of the book in question, and there’s a hell of a lot that I didn’t know, and I considered myself on the happy side of the bell curve when it comes to knowledge 3.
One of the most interesting things about John Adams isn’t even in the book, unless you bother to read the author’s notes at the end: most of his information, and a good deal of his quotes, came from the writings of John Adams himself, which, along with the writing of his wife Abigail and, I assume, many related writings, are proudly kept in a collection by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Adams has the distinction of being a truly verbose writer: his written words outnumber those of any other president; his predilection for journal-writing, and his habit of letter-writing, give us a monstrously large written record of his thoughts and opinions during much of his life. This in and of itself is singularly astonishing, and singularly interesting.
Adams was a rural Massachusetts man, plagued his entire life by an odd mix in insecurity and unchecked ambition, was in fact never fond of politics, of or the big city. Like Thomas Jefferson, he was most at home on his farm, with his family, and despite spending a large chunk of his life abroad and overseas, was very much what I’d describe as an “accidental tourist.” After establishing a modest law practice, he found himself embroiled in the Continental Congress as the Revolutionary War reared its ugly head. For much of the war itself, Adams was actually in France or Holland, playing diplomat and attempting to gain either military support (France) or financial support (Holland), at which he succeeded to varying degrees. He did not get along with Benjamin Franklin, who, it must be said, McCullough paints as a senile, cultured, smooth-talking fop, in which he is at least partially right.
The author spends some time discussing Adams contributions to the political writings of the time: Thoughts on Government a book written by Adams in 1776, was probably at least as influential as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, though you rarely hear the former mentioned. Adams was also largely responsible for the Constitution of the State of Massachusetts, which was the first of its kind and a model to its followers. Adams’ fondness for a strong executive branch (he also championed the independent judiciary) would later get him labeled as a monarchist and a lackey to the British Crown, though we as modern readers can appreciate such an idea with the benefit of hindsight.
Then, of course, there is Adams’ vice-presidency (under Washington), and his presidency (he was the second, with a vice-president of Jefferson), which are interesting for a variety of reasons. First, for the first few president elections, the president and vice-president were first- and second-place finishers, respectively. There were no such things as “running mates.” I think this is both the greatest and worst idea in presidential politics, but it didn’t last very long in any case. Secondly, we all like to bitch and moan about how modern presidential campaigns are mud-slinging battles, and the media are a bunch of fear-mongering bastards and yellow journalists, but certainly this isn’t a product of the 20th century: as early as John Adams, newspapers took presidential hopefuls out back and violated them, figuratively-speaking. I was amazed how vitriolic the newspapers of the day were when talking about just about any politician after Washington, who was—generally—immune from criticism by some unspoken pact. It’s little wonder that Adams was more than glad to be done with government (after many years in France, and Britain, and Holland, and Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.), and retire to his farm, where the rotund sexagenarian seemed to take an immense joy in farming and the associated domesticity.
There are many more things that McCullough covers in the life of John Adams, but for my purposes I will mention just one more, and this perhaps the longest-running and most prevalent of the book’s theme: John Adams was a lover. He courted and married Abigail when he was about 30 years of age, and she a bit younger. While much can be said about, say, Jefferson’s indiscretions with his slaves, or the various mistresses of the French leaders with whom Adams politicked during the war, he was by all accounts completely and totally devoted to his wife. It was remarkable, really: even after the flower of their youth, during which we may write such romance off as naïveté or mere horniness, Adams seemed to genuinely need his wife, pining for her while he was away from home. He seemed to draw strength from her presence, her intellect, her courage, and her love, and McCullough dwells on this, assuming it to be one of Adams’ most redeeming features. It might vary depending on who’s reading, but I happen to agree with the author. Looking at the letters between husband and wife, which are well-documented and which McCullough quotes extensively, one can’t help but feel a bit wistful at the apparent depth and purity of the two New Englanders’ relationship; I myself grew somewhat melancholy and wistful reading it while I was in Anaheim, away from my own girlfriend.
There has been plenty of criticism of John Adams for its shortcomings, among them understressing the importance of Adams as a political philosopher and public intellectual, and perhaps dwelling overlong on mundane and ultimately unimportant details culled from the volume of Adams’ correspondence. Still and all, I found the book, though lagging a bit at times, to be generally a wonderful read. McCullough has a rare ability to turn historical information into a gripping narrative without sensationalizing or fabricating; John Adams really is a story, rather than a collection of data, and it shows off not only the illustrious life of one of America’s most important individuals, but also McCullough’s skills as a historian, biographer, and writer.
- c.f. Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses as an example.[↩]
- I have gotten into vicious arguments with teachers when I argue that technically, the first president of the “United States of America” was John Hanson, appointed to the position under the Articles of Confederation. One could argue that two different articles of law equate to two different nation-states, but I’d argue otherwise[↩]
- Keep your smarmy remarks to yourself.[↩]