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!

Advertisements

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. 

November 28, 1777

220px-Silas_Deane_-_Du_Simitier_and_B.L._Prevost

It was kind of a “good news/bad news” situation for Abigail Adams.  After such a long separation her husband, John, had finally returned to Braintree.  That was the good news.  The bad news was that Silas Deane, the Ambassador to France, was not only suspected of financial impropriety, but had been discovered to have been intimating in letters that the Revolutionary Cause was hopeless.

On this date John Adams received the following letter from Daniel Roberdeau:  “I would not take pen in hand until I could reasonably suppose you safe arrived to your long wished for home, on which I now presume to congratulate you and sincerely hope you have met with Mrs. Adams and your Children well and every domestick concern to your entire satisfaction for all which I feel myself much interested from the sincere regard contracted for you in our short intimacy, which I shall be ever ready to cultivate whenever Opportunity offers.

I congratulate you or rather my Country in the choice of you this day as a Commissioner to France for the united States, in lieu of Mr. Dean who is recalled.1 Your domestick views of happiness was not consulted on this occasion, but the necessity of your Country for your Talents, which being devoted to her service, I expect a chearful acquiescence with a call so honorable, which I doubt not will prove a lasting honor to you and your Connections as well as a blessing to these States. I should be sorry for the least hisitation. I will not admit the thought of your refusal of the Office which would occasion a publick chagrine. I wish you had improved the opportunity when here of studying the French language, which our friend Mr. Garry is now doing. I would advise your taking french books with you and a french Companion, and if an Opportunity does not immediately present from Boston a trip to the West Indies and a passage in a french vessel to Paris would be of considerable advantage.”

Bad news for Abigail.  Good news for future historians – this appointment would cause the long separation between John and Abigail Adams which would, in turn, give us one of the greatest correspondences in American history.

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 War buffs, come see Gettysburg.  Or, for the true history buffs, contact us about taking part in our historical vacation packages.

 

June 16, 1777

220px-BurgoyneByReynolds.jpg

General John Burgoyne’s advance guard occupies Crown Point.

John Adams writes to Abigail to communicate his pleasure and receiving a letter, evidently, from his children.  He promises her that his time on the large stage will soon be up, and that he will be able to spend the rest of his days by her side:  “I had a most charming Packett from you and my young Correspondents, to day.  I am very happy, to learn that you have done such great Things in the Way of paying Debts. I know not what would become of me, and mine, if I had not such a Friend to take Care of my Interests in my Absence.  You will have Patience with me this Time, I hope, for this Time will be the last.  I shall stay out this Year, if I can preserve my Health, and then come home, and bid farewell to great Affairs. I have a Right to spend the Remainder of my days in small ones.”

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 War buffs, come see Gettysburg.  Or, for the true history buffs, contact us about taking part in our historical vacation packages.

May 17, 1777

Unknown-1

Almost one-third of Colonel John Baker’s 109 men are captured after Baker’s troops are attacked by Indians and the British regulars at Thomas’ Swamp.  The Indians kill 15 of the captives before British Colonel Augustine Prevost intervenes to stop the massacre.

John Adams writes to Abigail about the money problems facing the congress and the failure of all of the colonies – except for Massachusetts – to do their duty:  I never fail to inclose to you the News papers, which contain the most of the Intelligence that comes to my Knowledge.  I am obliged to slacken my Attention to Business a little, and ride and walk for the Sake of my Health, which is but infirm.—Oh that I could wander, upon Penns Hill, and in the Meadows and Mountains in its Neighbourhood free from Care! But this is a Felicity too great for me.  Mr. Gorham and Mr. Russell are here with a Petition from Charlstown. It grieves me that they are to return without success. I feel, most exquisitely, for the unhappy People of that Town. Their Agents have done every Thing in their Power, or in the Power of Men to do, and the Mass. Delegates have seconded their Efforts to the Utmost of their Power, but all in vain.  The Distress of the States, arising from the Quantity of Money abroad, and the monstrous Demands that would be made from Virginia, N. Jersy, N. York and elsewhere, if a Precedent should be once set, has determined the Congress, almost with Tears in their Eyes, to withstand this Application at present.  Every Man expressed the Utmost Tenderness and Humanity, upon the Occasion: But at the same Time every Man except the Mass. Delegates expressed his full Conviction of the ill Policy of granting any Thing at present.”

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 War buffs, come see Gettysburg.  Or, for the true history buffs, contact us about taking part in our historical vacation packages.  Also, you don’t want to miss out on our podcast, Chasing American History!

 

May 10, 1777

Unknown-1

The 42nd Highlanders repulse a surprise attack by American troops under the command of Major General Adam Stephen.  Stephen with 150 men had 27 killed in action and a large number captured.  The British force had 8 killed and 19 wounded in action.  The Americans were driven off and General Washington was displeased with Stephen’s conduct.

John Adams writes to Abigail:  “The Day before Yesterday, I took a Walk, with my Friend Whipple to Mrs. Wells’s, the Sister of the famous Mrs. Wright, to see her Waxwork. She has two Chambers filled with it. In one, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is represented. The Prodigal is prostrate on his Knees, before his Father, whose Joy, and Grief, and Compassion all appear in his Eyes and Face, struggling with each other. A servant Maid, at the Fathers command, is pulling down from a Closet Shelf, the choicest Robes, to cloath the Prodigal, who is all in Rags. At an outward Door, in a Corner of the Room stands the elder Brother, chagrined at this Festivity, a Servant coaxing him to come in. A large Number of Guests, are placed round the Room. In another Chamber, are the Figures of Chatham, Franklin, Sawbridge, Mrs. Maccaulay, and several others. At a Corner is a Miser, sitting at his Table, weighing his Gold, his Bag upon one Side of the Table, and a Thief behind him, endeavouring to pilfer the Bag.  There is Genius, as well as Taste and Art, discovered in this Exhibition: But I must confess, the whole Scaene was disagreable to me. The Imitation of Life was too faint, and I seemed to be walking among a Group of Corps’s, standing, sitting, and walking, laughing, singing, crying, and weeping. This Art I think will make but little Progress in the World.  Another Historical Piece I forgot, which is Elisha, restoring to Life the Shunamite’s Son. The Joy of the Mother, upon Discerning the first Symptoms of Life in the Child, is pretty strongly expressed.  Dr. Chevots Waxwork, in which all the various Parts of the human Body are represented, for the Benefit of young Students in Anatomy and of which I gave you a particular Description, a Year or two ago, were much more pleasing to me. Wax is much fitter to represent dead Bodies, than living ones.  Upon a Hint, from one of our Commissioners abroad, We are looking about for American Curiosities, to send across the Atlantic as presents to the Ladies. Mr. Rittenhouse’s Planetarium, Mr. Arnolds Collection of Rareties in the Virtuoso Way, which I once saw at Norwalk in Connecticutt, Narragansett Pacing Mares, Mooses, Wood ducks, Flying Squirrells, Redwinged Black birds, Cramberries, and Rattlesnakes have all been thought of.  Is not this a pretty Employment for great Statesmen, as We think ourselves to be? Frivolous as it seems, it may be of some Consequence. Little Attentions have great Influence. I think, however, We ought to consult the Ladies upon this Point. Pray what is your Opinion?

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 War buffs, come see Gettysburg.  Or, for the true history buffs, contact us about taking part in our historical vacation packages.  Also, check out our award-winning podcast, Chasing American History.

April 20, 1777

220px-Johnadamsvp.flipped

New York adopts a new Constitution.

John Adams writes to James Warren:  “Last Evening, a Letter was received, by a Friend of yours, from Mr. John Penn, one of the Delegates from North Carolina, lately returned home to attend the Convention of that Colony, in which he informs, that he heard nothing praised in the Course of his Journey, but Common sense and Independence. That this was the Cry, throughout Virginia. That North Carolina, were making great Preparations for War, and were determined, to die poor and to die hard, if they must die, in Defence of their Liberties. That they had, repealed, or Should repeal their Instructions to their Delegates against Independence. That South Carolina had assumed a Government chosen a Council, and John Rutledge Esqr., President of that Council with all the Powers of a Governor, that they have appointed Judges and that Drayton is Chief Justice. ‘In short, sir,’ says this Letter, ‘The Vehemence of the southern Colonies is such, as will require the Coolness of the Northern Colonies, to restrain them from running to Excess.’…I think, by all the Intelligence We have that North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey will erect Governments, before the Month of June expires. And, if New York should do so too Pennsylvania, will not neglect it. At least I think so.  There is a particular, Circumstance relative to Maryland, which you will learn eer long, but am not at Liberty to mention at present, but will produce important Consequences in our favour, I think.  But, after Governments shall be assumed, and a Confederation formed, We shall have a long, obstinate and bloody War to go through and all the Arts, and Intrigues of our Enemies as well as the Weakness and Credulity of our Friends to guard against.  A Mind as vast as the Ocean, or Atmosphere is necessary to penetrate and comprehend all the intricate and complicated Interests which compose the Machine of the Confederat Colonies. It requires all the Philosophy I am Master of and more than all, at Times to preserve that serenity of Mind and Steadiness of Heart, which is necessary to watch the Motives, of Friends and Enemies, of the Violent and the Timid, the Credulous and the dull, as well as the Wicked.  But if I can contribute ever so little towards preserving the Principles of Virtue and Freedom in the World, my Time and Life will be not ill spent.  A Man must have a wider Expansion of Genius than has fallen to my share to see to the End of these great Commotions. But, on such a full sea are We now afloat, that We must be content to trust, to Winds and Currents with the best Skill We have, under a kind Providence to land us in a Port of Peace, Liberty and Safety.”

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 War buffs, come see Gettysburg.  Or, for the true history buffs, contact us about taking part in our historical vacation packages.