The Truth about McCullough’s John Adams

            When giving tours or giving speeches, I try hard not to come off as an insufferable crank (despite being one.)  This often requires a bit of dissemination on my part.  Such as when a woman tells me, her voice dripping with pride, that her husband is a great history scholar – he has read all of Bill O’Reilly’s books.  Given the world I live in, where both adults and children admit to me that they have no idea who wrote the Declaration of Independence, who we were fighting against in the Revolutionary War, and why did all of these battles take place on National Parks – I can only smile wanly and nod.  “Have you read them?” is the next, unavoidable question.  “Well, no, I spend more of my time reading history books by…you know, historians or writers.” 

            Given all of that, I can’t take umbrage when people tell me they love the David McCullough book, John Adams.  How could I?  It would be like complaining that you don’t regularly groom your animals in a slaughter house.  But let me let those of you who are reading my blog in on a little secret – I think John Adams is the most overrated history book I have ever read, and I think McCullough is a fraud.  (For those of you who reply, “I think he’s a great writer,” I can only offer the response that one can be both.)

            Before discussing this book, and the mini-series it spawned, let me note something about many, many well-respected authors and historians that I find amazing.  They act like children.  Too many historical writers feel the need to be totally on one side or the other in their character-driven narratives.  Thus, if they love Washington, they feel the need to hate Jefferson for his alleged apostasies against Washington.  Hamiltonians must hate Jeffersonians every bit as much as Jeffersonians hate Hamiltonians.  (Want to know something interesting?  “Hamiltonians” comes through fine on my computer, but “Jeffersonians” has that tell-tale red line under it, indicating a misspell.  When I check to see what might be more appropriate, it offers “Jeffersonian” without the s.  What, am I the only one left!)

            McCullough takes this tendency to extreme and ridiculous heights.  His book, which is a one-volume biography of Adams, spends more time kvetching about Jefferson than is necessary or appropriate.  Yes, I get it, I get it, he was mean to Adams, I know.

            I hear this all the time about Jefferson.  He was mean to Hamilton.  He was mean to Washington.  He was mean to Adams.  I respond, dispassionately – being a calm and impartial Historical Expeditionary – that he was on several occasions somewhat two-faced in his dealings with these guys.  This came from his twin tendencies – first, he did not like engaging in disagreeable personal invective but, second, he also did not want the country, this potential paradise on earth, to be turned into a pale imitation of England.  In other words, this wasn’t a fight over a girl in junior high school – it was about saving humanity.  It was about doing everything he could to save humanity by stopping the attempts of the Hamiltonians to to open the doors of the governing chambers to the speculators, and to bring about the festering, putrid land of corruption and moral decay that is the America of today. 

            Here, in a nutshell, is the biggest problem with the McCullough book.  He took a nice advance (his time must always be paid for) to write a book about Adams and Jefferson.  (Something that was just done by Gordon S. Wood.  Perhaps I’ll blog about it one day.)  But he didn’t like Jefferson.  Adams, on the other hand, made him feel all warm and squishy.  So, while most of the book is a long curricula-vitae on Adams’ accomplishments, another large portion is on how much Jefferson sucked.  He spent too much money.  He was a hypocrite.  Blah, blah, blah.  Meanwhile, Adams was a bastion of rationality and intellect.

            Now, let me make something clear here – I friggin’ love John Adams.  What historian – or, to be more accurate, Historical Expeditionary – wouldn’t?  I fell in love with history when my mother took me to the musical 1776, and I now revel in his journals and letters.  He is the one guy who really seems to let me know him through his written word, instead of letting me know the reputation he would like to leave behind.

            That being said, he is a larger than life, sometimes out of his mind, individual, like Churchill or Teddy Roosevelt, somebody who goes off the deep-end as often as he avoids doing so.  Benjamin Franklin’s oft-repeated quote could not be more accurate:  “Always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.”  Joseph Ellis, who was kind of a dick to me when I asked him to sign several of his books at a book signing, comes much closer to the essence of Adams in his wonderful book, Passionate Sage.

            I love Adams.  But that doesn’t mean I want you to skip a thorough discussion of one of the great blights of his career, the enactment of the Alien and Sedition Act, which basically made it illegal to criticize the dude in print.  After grudgingly admitting that, yes, Adams did sign the Act (and blaming Abigail for telling him to do so), he is quick to tell us that it “must be seen in the context of the time, and the context was tumult and fear.”  Ok.  All the more reason not to engage in it, one might say.

            What bugs me the most about the book is its universal acclaim and its totally preposterous Pulitzer Prize.  Now that does bother me, because I am thinking of all the younger and hungrier writers who do not demand to be paid for each second of their time but who are killing themselves trying to write books that might further historical discourse and knowledge.  I don’t mind when well-known authors win the award if they deserve it – Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln classic, Team of Rivals, comes immediately to mind – but am disgusted and dispirited when one wins it who does not. 

            Why do I call McCullough a fraud?  First of all, he starts the book with the seemingly obligatory orgasmic celebration of a “new” collection of journals and letters, in this case the Adams Papers.  All of which would be fine if he actually read them, but I don’t believe he did.  I found just about every quote to be familiar, most of them pulled, no doubt from the excellent two-volume study on Adams written by Page Smith in 1962. I’ve always hoped that some graduate student would take down every quote in the McCullough book, and then match them up with the Page Smith book. I’d be surprised if there were ten quotes in McCullough’s that were not already quoted in Smith’s.

            Then there is a talk I saw him do when he was telling the group how he had no idea what he would write about after Adam’s retirement.  Did anything happen?  Then, to his amazement, he “came across” a vast amount of fascinating material in the letters between Adams and his old friend Jefferson.  Ok, here’s the thing.  Everybody knows about that.  Are we to believe he was the one person with any historical background in America that had not heard about the famous Adams-Jefferson letters during their final years?  A fraud.

            What about the HBO Series, you ask?  For the most part I like it, and wish they would follow up with one on Washington or Jefferson or Franklin or Hamilton or somebody. I’m not crazy about Paul Giamatti’s performance. Why is he always screaming at his kids? But, the main problem, is I could never convince myself that he was John Adams and kept seeing him as Paul Giamatti. Personally, I would go for the 70s series The Adams Chronicles, which I thought was pretty wonderful at the time, and still do.

            So you have the book and were planning to read it.  Should you burn it?  Throw it out?  Put it in one of those weird little library boxes that are found on street corners throughout the country?  Well, here’s the thing.  I’m not telling you it’s a terrible book, only that it has defects and it annoys me.  McCullough is indeed a wonderful writer, and the world is a better one for this book having been written, since it brought John Adams into the light for many people who otherwise would never have thought about him one way or the other.  So it won’t kill you to read it.  You’ll learn stuff.  You’ll enjoy yourself.  You’ll be better off for having read it.

            But if you want to read the best biography on Adams, check out Page Smith’s two volume set that I already mentioned.  This is one of the greatest historical works I have ever read.  The guy deserved a Pulitzer!  He really did!

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December 14, 1777

George Washington and his men

In his General Orders, George Washington makes the preparationsfor the upcoming trip to Valley Forge for the winter:  “The officers are without delay to examine the arms andaccoutrements of their men, and see that they are put in good order.

Provisions are to be drawn,and cooked for to morrow & next day—A gill of Whiskey is to be issued immediately to each officer, Soldier, and waggoner.

The weather being likely tobe fair, the tents are not to be pitched: But the axes in the waggons are to besent for, without delay, that the men may make fires & hut themselves for the ensuing night in the most comfortable manner.  The army is to be ready to march precisely atfour o’clock to morrow morning.  Anofficer from each regiment is to be sent forthwith to the encampment on theother side Schuylkill, to search that and the houses for all stragglers, andbring them up to their corps—All the waggons not yet over are also to be sentfor and got over as soon as possible.”

Join us at Bow Tie Tours for Philadelphia’s Best Historical Walking Tours. Our “Independence Tour Extraordinaire” includes tickets to Independence Hall, as well as numerous other sites, such as 2nd National Bank,Graff House, Carpenter Hall, and Christ Church. If you are interested in learning about George Washington, join us for our Valley Forge Tour.  For Civil Warbuffs, come see Gettysburg

December 13, 1777

General Conway

In a direct rebuff of General Washington, Congressestablishes the Inspector General Department of the Continental Army, andpromotes General Thomas Conway to Major General above other senior Generals andin a position that, from the civil side, is equal to that of Washington.  This indicates a move by several in congressto replace Washington with General Horatio Gates, who has had more success oflate.  Thomas Conway had been involved inwhat historians call the “Conway cabal,” which was a loose attempt by severalin the army and out of the army to replace Washington with Gates.  As a younger man Washington would haveresponded to this action with an angry letter of resignation, but this olderand wiser Washington will bide his time.

Join us at Bow Tie Tours forPhiladelphia’s Best Historical Walking Tours. Our “Independence Tour Extraordinaire” includes tickets to IndependenceHall, as well as numerous other sites, such as 2nd National Bank,Graff House, Carpenter Hall, and Christ Church. If you are interested in learning about George Washington, join us forour Valley Forge Tour.  For those interested in the Civil War, come see Gettysburg

December 12, 1777

George Washington

A parol boat sent out from the HMS Emerald, anchored in the PotomacRiver, is captured by local militia while on guard duty.

George Washington writes to William Shippen regarding the care of the armies sick and injured:  “In answer to your Favor of today, I cannot think Princeton underthe present situation of affairs by any means a proper place for the sick.Should they remain there they would be liable to be taken. At the same time, Ido not wish you to precipitate their removal in such a manner as to endangerthem. In respect to the Hospitals at Easton & Bethelem, I also am ofOpinion, that they should be removed. But these, as their situation is not sodangerous, may be deferred till the last. We must keep the Sick always in theRear of the Army, or they will be subject to captivity. As to Colonel Nichola& his Corps I shall have no Objection to their being at the Hospitals, ifthere is no Resolution of Congress assigning them to other duty. Colonel Nichola will know if this is the case.”

Join us at Bow Tie Tours forPhiladelphia’s Best Historical Walking Tours. Our “Independence Tour Extraordinaire” includes tickets to Independence Hall, as well as numerous other sites, such as 2nd National Bank,Graff House, Carpenter Hall, and Christ Church. If you are interested in learning about George Washington, join us forour Valley Forge Tour.  For those interested in the Civil War, come see Gettysburg

December 11, 1777

General Cornwallis

In Norristown, the Continental army, while crossing theSchuylkill River at Matson’s Ford, engages with troops under General CornwallisGeorge Washington orders thebridge destroyed, and both sides face each other across the river.  The battle is a draw, although Cornwallis isable to capture 2,000 sheep and cattle.

Join us at Bow Tie Tours forPhiladelphia’s Best Historical Walking Tours. Our “Independence Tour Extraordinaire” includes tickets to Independence Hall, as well as numerous other sites, such as 2nd National Bank,Graff House, Carpenter Hall, and Christ Church. If you are interested in learning about George Washington, join us for our Valley Forge Tour.   For those interested in the Civil War’s seminal battle, come see Gettysburg. 

December 10, 1777

Samuel B. Webb

An American raid by Colonel Samuel B. Webb and his regimenton Long Island is foiled by British ships. Webb and his regiment are captured.

In the Continental Congress, George Rogers Clark presents hisplan to capture Detroit.

Nathan Rice writes a congratulatory letter to John Adams for his return to Braintree, perhaps unaware that already Adams has beeninformed that he is to leave his family once again, this time to go toFrance.  Rice also writes about theupcoming Massachusetts Constitution, which is being formed:  “Permit me to congratulateyou on your return to your family and frends, of which I am advertised by the weekly Gazette.  It must afford not less satisfaction to the state in general to have your presence and council at this critical period, on the transactions of which depend its future happiness andtranquility—than it does to your family and private connections, to imbraceafter a tedious absence, the tender companion kind parent, and generous Friend.

When I hold up to view the welfare, and prosperity of the continent in general, to those of a single state or family—I’m at a loss whether most to rejoice at your return to Massachusetts or regret your absence from Congress.

It will ever remain asingular mark of honor to you, and a convincing proof of your Patriotism and attachment to the liberty and happiness of Mankind that no sinister views orprivate concerns, could call your attention from Congress untill you had notonly effected the union of the Colonies, but formed a plan which will both confirm that union and render it indissoluble—that being now sent forth for the acceptance of the states. God grant it may meet their speedy and hearty approbation.

The public (of whose gratitude however I do not entertain the most exalted idea) must ever acknowledge the great services you have rendered them; and however you may not think convenient to contribute further to their happiness in that exalted station you have ever held since the commencment of the dispute, yet the samevirtuous principle and generous sentiments, which have heitherto stimulated you to further the cause of mankind in general will still induce you to serve that state with which you are particularly connected, and which now in an important manner calls for the exertion of your abilities.

A Constitution is now forming—a supreme Majistrate is to be appointed—a post of the greatest honorand importance to be confered on an individual. The popular manner in which this is to be done is perhaps the best which at this crisis could have been adopted: Caprices and trifleing accidents too often actuate and govern the populace. Alarmed at this truth, I felt the most sencible pleasure on the news of  your arrival in Boston persuaded that your prudence and advice would prevent the many dangerous extravagancies of so popular a measure. Happy must it be for the good people of Massachusetts should they make chose of  [left blank] the gentleman to whom they are so greatly indebted, and who without pomp or pageantry, superiour to the wiles of a courtier or the applause of individuals would study to promote the happiniss and gain the approbation of his countrymen by a steady adhearance to the principles of vir[tue and] justice.”

Meanwhile,George Washington, having suffered yet another defeat, this time at Whitemarsh,must now make plans to gather his troops and march them to winterquarters.  He sends out the followingGeneral Order:  “The army to march at four o’clock in the morning from the right—ASubaltern from each regiment and a Captain from each brigade, under the commandof a Field Officer from the line, are to assemble at General Knox’s quarters in the morning and remain ’till the Army moves off the ground, and then see that all stragglers in the camp, and its environs, are collected and marched after it—They are also to see that no baggage, entrenching tools or other articlesare left, or that they are, secured under proper guards taken from the Pennsylvania Militia, by application to the commanding officer thereof.”

Join us at Bow Tie Tours for Philadelphia’s Best Historical Walking Tours. Our “Independence Tour Extraordinaire” includes tickets to Independence Hall, as well as numerous other sites, such as 2nd National Bank,Graff House, Carpenter Hall, and Christ Church. If you are interested in learning about George Washington, join us for our Valley Forge Tour.  For Civil Warbuffs, come see Gettysburg. 

December 8, 1777

George Washington and his men at Battle of White Marxhg

In the morning, British generals and engineers analyzed the American positions tosee if they could exploit any part of their defenses.  To the astonishment of the British, the Americans, and historians ever since, Howe chose to withdraw and return to Philadelphia.  He had been successful in thetwo major skirmishes during the previous two days, but he had not gotten as fararound the American flank as he had hoped and his provisions were running low.  Also, as the now disparaged song goes, “Baby, It’s cold outside.”  The troops had left their tents and gear in Philadelphia.

At 2:00 pm, the British began their withdrawal,lighting numerous campfires—as Washington had done three days earlier—toconceal their movements. An American reconnaissance party, led by Capt. McLane,discovered that Howe was marching back down Old York Road into Philadelphia and communicated this information back to Washington. Morgan’s troops harassedthe enemy’s rear, in particular Grey’s column, which was hindered by the weightof the artillery that it was transporting. A contingent of Hessians formed tooppose them with their fieldpieces and Morgan’s troops retreated. The British arrived in Philadelphia later that day.  Washington would begin thinking about Winter Quarters.

Join us at Bow Tie Tours forPhiladelphia’s Best Historical Walking Tours. Our “Independence Tour Extraordinaire” includes tickets to Independence Hall, as well as numerous other sites, such as 2nd National Bank,Graff House, Carpenter Hall, and Christ Church. If you are interested in learning about George Washington, join us for our Valley Forge Tour.  For those interested in the Civil War, come see Gettysburg.