Book Review: John Adams, by David McCullough

Trip to MA, May 30 2010 058

When David McCullough began his research for a book that was to be about the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, he was concerned that Jefferson’s character would overshadow Adam’s. As he began his research and read through their celebrated correspondence, he found the opposite to be the case and eventually jettisoned his plan in favor of a biography of Adams. With this biography, entitled John Adams, he adds his weighty voice to those who argue that Adams has been unfairly snubbed by historians.

Adams himself often doubted that he would be remembered by future generations.   History’s version of the revolution, he wrote, would be “that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod and thence forward these two conducted all the policy, negotiation, legislation, and war.” It has actually been Jefferson who has overshadowed Adams. Placed as political antagonists, history has been kinder to the tall southerner with the red hair and the flowing oratorical pen than it has been to the short, fat, bald New Englander.

McCullough is unable to stop himself from becoming an advocate on the question of Adams’ historical and general worthiness versus that of Jefferson. Jefferson, McCullough tells us again and again, is vain, shallow, and intensely hypocritical. McCullough spends pages of a book that is ostensibly about John Adams to tell the reader about Jefferson’s buying habits, with the intention of letting us know that they are indications of deeper and more fatal flaws to the man.

The story of the personal relationship between Jefferson and Adams is the great subtext of this book. An objective rendering of the Adams/Jefferson relationship will discuss its different elements – there is the personal friendship; there are the ideological differences; there are the political differences; and, lastly, the tension between two competing ambitions. The Jefferson advocate will stress the ideological differences, emphasizing the democratic impurities of Adams’ reasoning. The Adams advocate will paint Jefferson as a false-hearted compatriot, undeserving of Adam’s passionate and unreserved friendship.

This is, indeed, what McCullough sets out to show. But it is hardly worth his efforts. It is a fact so self-evident that Jefferson scholars such as Dumas Malone end up cringing and apologizing for their hero when they discuss the relationship. It is an unarguable fact that Jefferson showed himself in a false light time and time again in his relationship to Adams.

On the other hand, there can be no question that Jefferson honestly, even if mistakenly, believed that Adams’ political doctrines had become antithetical to good republicanism. By blithely passing over the intricacies behind the political doctrines of either of the two, McCullough paints Jefferson in a blacker light than is fair or necessary, and also fails to describe one of the more fascinating aspects of the story.

This is not the only area where McCullough’s book suffers from unnecessary and self-imposed brevity. The current vogue is to write single-volume biographies. But there are lives that cannot be adequately described in a single volume, and Adams certainly lived one of those lives. McCullough skips so much that is necessary to getting a feeling for the man he writes about, that his book can hardly be called a true biography. He does describe Adams’ greatest achievements, and is especially affective in showing President Adams in a heroic light as he saves the country from the folly of a war against France at the expense of his political career. But writing solely about a man’s great achievements is not a biography; it’s curricula vitae. A great biography describes not only the moments of great action, but also the times when the subject rests and reflects.

The book begins with Adams riding to Philadelphia to take part in the Second Continental Congress, and then skims through his first forty-one years with a brief flashback. Throughout the book the author gives such an expedited version of events that the reader is robbed of the chief enjoyments of a biography of this kind – being transported to another time, and getting to know a fascinating individual intimately.

One of the strengths of biographies like Dumas Malone’s seven-book classic on Jefferson is that you understand the subject better just by understanding his times. Perhaps it isn’t so important to know what Jefferson chose to put in crates and what he took with him when he moved from Monticello to France; but by going through the choices with him, not to mention the hassles of the transfer, we come to a far greater understanding of the man, and a far greater understanding of just what an undertaking it was in those days to agree to change residences. It gives the reader a much-needed context.

McCullough mentions, for instance, that Adams was inoculated from small pox. But the reader is given no indication of what that means. It was a time of life when many people died of smallpox, some of them after being inoculated. To take the inoculation showed not only a level of bravery and a willingness to face a situation head-on, but it showed great optimism in the country’s newfound medical and scientific knowledge. Had McCullough taken the time to describe the process, it would have added a satisfying dimension to the story that would have helped the reader understand the man and his times.

It is not only the book’s brevity that makes it unsatisfying. It is also the failure to allow Adam’s voice to come through. McCullough is either unable or unwilling to portray a character as rambunctious and pugnacious and humorous and vain and tortured and alive as John Adams was. McCullough seems most comfortable writing about bland subjects who lack personal blemishes. When writing about Adams, as when writing about Truman, McCullough is spared the necessity of historical apologia, the weighing of personal fault versus national good, the necessity of asking the reader to measure his subject by the standards of the time and not of today. (Although, there is that little matter of the Alien and Sedition Acts which McCullough devotes about two pages to and for which he does ask the reader to accept “in the context of the time, and the context was tumult and fear.”) There is no need to delve into the passions and follies of man here; the lesson is that if you live your life doing good works, then you will ultimately achieve success. I’m sure McCullough has read his Shakespeare, but he has also chosen to ignore him.

Fortunately, there are books in print that have done a better job at describing Adams. Page Smith wrote a two-volume biography in 1962 that is one of the best works of its kind. More recently, Joseph Ellis wrote a priceless book entitled Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams that brilliantly weaves the different elements of Adams’ character into one short work. C. Bradley Thompson’s book, John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty, is devoted solely to his writings and his political thought.

Despite the failings of this book, its mere existence will provide a boost for Joseph Ellis’ goal of achieving a national monument for Adams, and for this I am glad.

Still, rather than plunk down thirty-five dollars, people should plunk down their library cards and check out Page Smith’s biography if they want to get to know this stirring and fascinating American hero.


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