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John Adams, Up-front Guy

An intensely focused biography of an elemental American

7.1.01

In this twenty-first century era of the second President George Bush, it seems peculiarly appropriate that one of America's leading biographers has turned his attention to the eighteenth-century first President John Adams. On other occasions the United States has had presidents distantly related to each other--William Henry Harrison son, Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt--but only on the cusps of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the twentieth and twenty-first, have we had father-and-son teams. In both cases, too, the fathers lived to see their sons elected president. But there, perhaps, the similarities end. Adams the father was a dedicated revolutionary (a title hardly anyone would apply to Bush senior), and Adams the son had been groomed since birth for public service (not a description that seems to fit Bush junior). Moreover, although Barbara Bush and Abigail Adams are the only two women in American history to have been the wife of one president and the mother of another, they, too, appear to have little else in common. Abigail Adams was known in her day, and ours, as a protofeminist, whereas Barbara Bush has not been an outspoken supporter of women's rights.

All of David McCullough's previous subjects were born in the nineteenth or the twentieth centuries, so this book on John Adams marks a departure for him. Here some personal disclosure is called for. McCullough resides year-round in the small town where I live in the summers (West Tisbury, Massachusetts), and we know each other through that and other connections. In the acknowledgments, he thanks me (along with a host of other people) for my "encouragement" of this project. That encouragement consisted (as best I can recall) of a conversation that occurred in West Tisbury shortly after he had decided to write what he expected to be a joint study of John Adams and of Thomas Jefferson, focusing on their 50-year relationship that began with political alliance, continued through friendship and political enmity, then ended with friendship again (although a strictly epistolary one) in the last years of their lives. Since I have spent years studying the eighteenth century, and he--at that time--found the colonial American period very alien, he asked me somewhat anxiously if I thought that John Adams would "stand up to" Jefferson. "Oh, yes, David," I recall myself reassuring him, "that will not be a problem." These many years later, John--and Abigail--have taken over the book, and Jefferson appears more in its interstices than at its center. It was Jefferson, then, who did not stand up to Adams, although among Americans today he is probably the more celebrated of the two men, because of his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and his longer and more successful presidency.

Adams took over the book for multiple reasons, some of them undoubtedly having to do with the simple availability of sources. For one thing, as a young man John Adams kept a remarkably revealing diary, on which McCullough regularly draws. Jefferson kept detailed account books throughout his life, but never a diary. For another, John had Abigail with whom to exchange possibly the most remarkable set of intimate letters in American history. Jefferson was a widower for much of his adult life, and after his wife's death in 1782 he burned their letters, as he had previously burned his mother's papers. Jefferson frequently wrote to his daughters, but in a didactic mode that did not lend itself to personal reflection and revelation. At the most basic level of all, John and Abigail Adams were separated for months or years at a time during crucial periods (most notably, from 1778 to 1784), and so they had to write letters to each other in order to communicate--letters that were then saved by their descendants. Such contingencies, although non-historians rarely consider them, often determine much about how the past is remembered and written of.

But the nature of the sources, too, is important. John Adams did not--did not want to--conceal his true self in his writings. In many ways, he wore his heart on his sleeve, and his words and thoughts flowed freely out through his ever-active pen. With Adams, it was truly WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). Adams was, in modern parlance, an up-front guy. Sometimes that characteristic helped him, sometimes (perhaps more often) it hurt. But his openness is a boon to anyone who wishes to write about him. By contrast, Jefferson, who also wrote voluminous letters, was far less personally revealing and at many levels turns out to be unknowable; not surprisingly, one of his most recent biographers, Joseph Ellis, titled his book about Jefferson American Sphinx. One could not imagine John Adams, for instance, having maintained utter silence about a long personal relationship, even one as complex and forbidden as was Jefferson's with Sally Hemings. So John--and his equally candid wife, Abigail, also a prolific writer of letters, not only to John but also to her two sisters and her children--have regularly seduced biographers. We can now add David McCullough to that happy list.

 

Son of a Braintree farmer and his higher-status wife, educated at Harvard (class of 1755), John Adams first taught school and then read law. By the early 1770s, he had developed into one of Massachusetts's most effective attorneys and had a large law practice. As a staunch patriot, he participated actively in the revolutionary movement, served in the Continental Congress, and was dispatched to Europe as one of the new nation's first diplomats. Based in France and then in the Netherlands during the war, he negotiated a large loan from Dutch bankers that helped to keep the United States afloat financially during the latter stages of the Revolution--an achievement he always (and quite rightly) regarded as one of his most important. The first American ambassador to Great Britain, he returned to this country after the adoption of the Constitution and was elected the nation's first vice president. After faithfully serving in the Washington administration for eight years, he was himself elected president in 1797. Unfortunately, however, it was to be a one-term presidency, as an undeclared naval war with France abroad and partisan politics at home made life difficult for him. Replaced in office in 1801 by his one-time friend and now bitter rival Jefferson, he retired to Braintree, where he watched from afar as his political allies, the Federalists, were routed by Jefferson's Republicans over the next few years. In 1812, he and Jefferson took up their pens and thereafter, agreeing to let bygones be bygones, together created for posterity (as they well knew they were doing) an unprecedented set of recollections of the Revolution and a continuing dialogue on political topics. When they both died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the citizens of the United States understood that an era had ended.

1785 portrait of John Adams
Painting by Mather Brown, 1785
The Boston Athenaeum
Throughout the book--logically enough for a volume so heavily based on the personal writings of its chief subject--John Adams's preferred version of events tends to dominate McCullough's narrative. Take, for example, Adams's defense of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre in March 1770. Although McCullough admits that Adams's later description of the defense as "one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life" sounded "a little self-righteous," he basically accepts the view that John Adams defended the soldiers simply because he believed that everyone had a right to a fair trial, even though he knew he would be publicly excoriated for taking such a principled stance. Nowhere does McCullough indicate that Adams, as a staunch supporter of the patriot cause, might have had another motive for taking the case. Yet Adams and his allies fully recognized that the so-called massacre, while creating martyrs for the cause, also had the potential to backfire dramatically. Such patriot leaders had every reason to want the soldiers to be acquitted, because they knew that convictions under such circumstances would undoubtedly bring the wrath of the British government down on the colony, just as the Boston Tea Party was to do three years later. Accordingly, the trials, which McCullough terms "conspicuously fair," have been seen by some historians as essentially predetermined in outcome. That a majority of the jurors later turned out to be Loyalists certainly suggests that the jury was deliberately packed with conservatives. Although Adams was indeed criticized in some quarters for his role in the trials, that he was soon thereafter elected one of Boston's representatives to the Massachusetts legislature discloses the limited extent of that criticism.

 

If McCullough's intense focus on his subject, then, sometimes leads to a neglect of broader contexts, it has the concomitant advantage of sharpening the reader's view of John Adams the man. McCullough is especially adept at showing the human side of his subjects--not just John, but also Abigail and their children, especially their oldest child, Abigail Jr. (Nabby), and John Quincy. John Adams the lifelong farmer and lover of his New England home, Abigail the provincial woman dazzled by London and Paris, Nabby the dutiful daughter and frequently deserted wife, John Quincy the stalwart young diplomat: all emerge from this book as fully developed individuals demonstrating deep love and genuine respect for each other.

The most important decision the young John Adams made, McCullough believes (and many others would agree), was to marry the intelligent, spirited Abigail Smith, the short, frail daughter of the minister of Weymouth. "She saw what latent abilities and strengths were in her ardent suitor and was deeply in love. Where others might see a stout, bluff little man, she saw a giant of great heart, and so it was ever to be," McCullough comments. Their relationship endured repeated separations, the tragic deaths of babies and adult children alike, the many vicissitudes of late eighteenth-century politics. Abigail always addressed John as "my dearest friend," was consistently his fiercest defender, and when she died in 1818 he wrote resignedly to John Quincy that "my consolations are more than I can number. The separation cannot be so long as twenty separations heretofore."

1793 portrait of John Adams

Painting by John Trumbull, 1793
Courtesy of the Harvard University Portrait Collection, Gift of Andrew Craigie, 1794,
© President and Fellows of Harvard College, Harvard University. Photograph by Photographic Services.

Thomas Jefferson is still here--discussed in ways that contrast sharply with the treatment of Adams. Jefferson's first memory was of being carried on a pillow by a slave, and, McCullough observes, "in countless ways he had been carried ever since by slaves...."Adams and Jefferson both enjoyed farming, but only Adams actually worked in his own fields. "His hands were the hands of a man accustomed to pruning his own trees, cutting his own hay, and splitting his own firewood." The contrasts continue to be drawn throughout the book, always to telling effect and usually to Adams's advantage. When Jefferson wrote to his brother-in-law in the mid 1780s that he might have to sell his slaves to pay his debts, thus transferring "the burdens of his own extravagances to the backs of those he held in bondage," Adams would have found the very idea "unconscionable, and [no doubt] a serious test of his respect, if not affection, for the man" had he known about it, McCullough observes. Jefferson secretly helped to orchestrate attacks on Adams during his presidency, while Adams did not retaliate then--or after Jefferson had succeeded him. Adams, who was never wealthy and lived frugally all his life, died with a net worth of about $100,000, whereas Jefferson, who always spent money lavishly and owned several plantations and hundreds of slaves, died more than $100,000 in debt. All his property, including the slaves, had to be dispersed after his death.
1826 portrait of John Adams

Painting by Gilbert Stuart, 1826
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C./Art Resource, N.Y.

Even the epitaphs that Adams and Jefferson drafted differed sharply. Jefferson's famous self-composed epitaph described him as the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, and as founder of the University of Virginia; Adams wrote no epitaph for himself but instead placed an inscription on the tomb of the first Adams man to come to America, preserving for posterity his "veneration of the piety, humility, simplicity, prudence, frugality, industry, and perseverance of his ancestors...." Adams, McCullough comments, "had chosen to say nothing of...his own attainments, but rather to place himself as part of a continuum, and to evoke those qualities of character that he had been raised on and that he had strived for so long to uphold." A reader of David McCullough's biography completes it feeling, as McCullough himself obviously does, a deep appreciation and admiration for this farmer's son from Braintree. John Adams memorably wrote in November 1800, after being the first president to spend a night in the White House, "I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof." The first resident of the house surely fit that description.

 

Mary Beth Norton, Ph.D. '69, is Alger professor of American history at Cornell University. The author of two books about the American Revolution and one about seventeenth-century English America, she is currently finishing another, on the Salem witchcraft crisis of 1692.

John Adams, by David McCullough (Simon and Schuster, $35).