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!

Bloggy Thoughts

Seems like when summer comes around, there are more anniversaries.  June 4th, 1968, was the day Robert Kennedy was shot after squeeking by Gene McCarthy to win the California Primary. (He did not die until the 6th.)   It’s the kind of tragedy that never seems to dissipate.  We still miss him, his loss still leaves in our history books and in our historical memories an aching void that nobody has filled.  How many politicians have quoted him and compared themselves to him?  And yet, Bobby was one of those rare things, an irreplaceable man.

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On a brighter note, June 4th was also the day that Winston Churchill made a speech that cemented him in the hearts of England and the world as a great statesman.  It was after the miracle at Dunkirk.  “Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

“Wars are not won by evacuations,” Churchill said, and it is true.  However, living to fight another day can be a victory of sorts, and certainly it was in this case.  It was the case in another event as well.  After Great Britain shellacked the Colonial Army in New York, Washington engineered a night time retreat that saved the army.  Wrote David McCullough, “The orderly withdrawal of an army was cnosidered one of the most difficult of all manuevers, even for the best-trained soldiers, and the fact that Washington’s ragtag amateur army was making a night withdrawal in perfect order and silence…seemed more than could be hoped for.”  The British awoke hoping to end the war only to find, to their utter astonishment, that Washington had escaped.

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And on June 4th, 2015, President Obama signed an amendment which lowered the drinking age, as required by the federal government, to eighteen instead of twenty-one.

So there you have it.  June 4.  A day that will live in the history books.

Book Review: John Adams, by David McCullough

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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.