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 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 7, 1777

At around 1:00 am, Howe marched his army back through Germantown and then to Jenkintown, where they remained until noon.  These British movements were concealed by a ridge on Chestnut Hill, and Washington did not become aware of them until around 8:00 am.  He then moved Morgan’s Rifle Corps and Colonel Mordecai Gist’s Maryland militia eastward to cover his left flank.  A mile to the right, Brigadier General James Potter’s brigade of Pennsylvania militia and Webb’s 2nd Connecticut Regiment, under Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Sherman, went down Limekiln Road toward Edge Hill.  The movement of the British rear guar was being hindered by the burning of the villages at Cresheim and Beggarstown by troops in front.  Howe’s right flank was now situated nearAbington Presbyterian Meeting.  His mainforce moved to Edge Hill, on a ridge that ran parallel to, and a mile in frontof, the American lines.  Grey’s column proceeded up Whitemarsh Church Road toward the center of the American forces.

General Grey had been instructed not to attack until he heard the sound of firing fromHowe’s column,  but after several hours, he became impatient and decided to proceed on his own. He formed his column intothree divisions, with the Queen’s Rangers on the left, the Jägers on each sideof the road, and the light infantry of the Guards on the right,  and headed in the direction of Tyson’s Tavern on Limekiln Road.  As Grey advanced toward the American center,his troops took fire from American militia on Edge Hill.   The militia were quickly routed, with between twenty and thirty killed, and fifteen of them taken as prisoners.   Generals John Cadwalader and Joseph Reed out reconnoitering on horse near Twickenham, thecountry estate of Thomas Wharton Jr. attempted to rally Potter’s fleeing Pennsylvania militia.  Lieutenant Colonel Sherman, the officer incharge of the 2nd Connecticut Continentals, resented Reed’s assumption ofcommand, and later complained to Washington that it put “…Officers and Men into such confusion that it rendered it impossible to keep that necessary when going into Action.” The British soon had them surrounded and outnumbered, and the Pennsylvania militia again panicked and fled. The 2nd Connecticut Continentals made a stand, firing between two and five rounds perman; Sherman only gave the order to retreat when the Jägers were within 15–20yards of his position.  At some point, Cadwalader and Reed became separated from the militia, and Reed’s horse was shot out from under him.  A bodyof Hessians charged at the two officers with bayonets, but Captain McLane rode upwith a few dragoons and ordered a charge that scattered the Hessians.  McLane then took the two officers to safety.

The Pennsylvania militia fled in panic down Edge Hill, across Sandy Run, and toward the main American camp. Right behind them were men of the 2ndConnecticut, also in disorderly retreat. They were pursued to within yards oftheir encampment by the Queen’s Rangers and Jägers, who then fell back and tooka position on Edge Hill, between Grey’s troops and Howe’s main column.  Morgan’s Rifle Corps and Gist’s Marylandmilitia had taken position on Edge Hill, about a mile to the east of Grey’stroops, and higher up on the ridge.  A small group of Americans moved down to attack Col. Twistleton’s Light Infantry of theGuards, but were quickly repulsed by the British. William Augustus West, who was stationed with the light infantry,noted that the4th and 23rd Regiments engaged the Americans with 9 men killed and 19wounded.  British Major John Andre reported that one American was killed.

Meanwhile, the main body of Morgan’s and Gist’s troops engaged Howe’s main column in dense woods, where they fought “Indian style”, from tree to tree. The Maryland militiaattacked Abercromby’s 1st Light Infantry Battalion with unusual vigor: Britishofficers, who were used to encountering militia who would flee at the firstsign of battle, would later express admiration at the skill of Morgan’s andGist’s men.  Morgan’s troops were not reinforced,and wereforced to retreat back to the main camp.

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

July 5, 1777

Portret_Friedricha_Adolpha_Riedesel,_barona_Eisenbach

Hessians and British under command of German General Friedrich von Riedesel and British General Simon Fraser defeat the retreating Americans at Hubbardton.  American forces are commanded by Colonel Seth Warner with 730 men, with 41 killed in action, 95 wounded in action and 234 captured.  British forces had 1,030 men, with 60 killed in action and 138 wounded in action.  Although the Americans are defeated they fight off the enemy and gave General Arthur St. Clair’s troops time to withdraw.  The Battle of Hubbardton involved approximately 2,000 troops and resulted in approximately 600 casualties, losses on both sides was equal.

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.

July 5, 1777

220px-ArthurStClairOfficialPortrait-restored

American Major General Arthur St. Clair is not able to continue holding defense of Fort Ticonderoga and evacuates, leaving substantial supplies behind.  During this time, the British occupy an undefended Mount Defiance, which overlooks Fort Ticonderoga.

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 30, 1777

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General John Burgoyne’s army begins to arrive near Fort Ticonderoga.

British General William Howe leaves New Jersey for New York City and Staten Island.  He intends to carry out the plan to begin an offensive attack against Philadelphia.

George Washington’s aide-de-camp, Alexander Hamilton, writes the following letter warning General Charles Scott about possible surprise attack from Great Britain:  “I wrote you this moment by His Excellency’s order; but he is so anxious you should be acquainted with his apprehensions on the score of the enemy’s leaving Amboy, with some of their stores remaining in it, that fearing a miscarriage of my former letter he desires me to write another to the same effect.  The enemy have had their own leisure to go off and carry whatever they thought proper. What then should induce them to leave any stores behind unless by way of ensnaring some party of ours that should be tempted by them to venture incautiously into the place they have quitted? This is much to be suspected, and you are strongly enjoined to reconnoitre well before you trust any part of your men into the Town. It will be the easiest matter in the world if you are not exceedingly vigilant to throw a party across the river upon your rear and intercept you. You had better not send your whole Brigade in; but only send in a small party to take possession of the stores, and convey as many out as you can to some other place. For this purpose you will collect as many waggons as you can about the neighbourhood. You are, by no means, to remain in Amboy all night; but retire immediately after you have put an end to any endeavours to carry off the remaining stores. Keep parties reconnoitring from Amboy to Elizabeth Town point and take every precaution to avoid a surprise.  I have ordered down provisions to Bonum Town. You can either go that place or send for the provisions from thence.

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.