Lifestyle Reader's Edge the November 2023 issue

A Fitting Analeptic to These Turbulent Times

A review of David McCullough’s John Adams
By Scott Naugle Posted on November 1, 2023

The vote concluded several months of arduous debate, spirited engagement, and ever-increasing threats of attack by the British Navy, rumored to number over 300 ships. Each delegate to this Second Continental Congress knew that by voting for this declaration, he was guilty of treason under the laws of England, punishable by hanging. That this assembly finally arrived at this unanimous decision was to a great degree the work of one man: John Adams.

John Adams

By David McCullough

Simon & Schuster

$22

John Adams richly deserves this masterful and insightful biography by David McCullough. Over the years, hundreds of books have poured forth on Washington, Jefferson and Franklin. In comparison, Adams was relatively ignored.

One of the strengths of McCullough’s treatment of Adams is his skill in setting the stage and recreating the scenery of the time period. When Adams reaches Philadelphia in 1774, the longest journey he had ever taken from his home in Braintree, Massachusetts, McCullough draws a vivid sketch of this city of 30,000 founded by Quakers: “America’s busiest port,” home to 30 bookshops and seven newspapers, “more newspapers even than in London.” And, quoting Adams in a letter home to his wife Abigail, “I drink no cider but feast on Philadelphia beer.”

Any credible biography of John Adams must first and foremost tell the incredible love story between John and Abigail. Theirs is one of the fullest and greatest in the early history of our country. The two were so intertwined, equal in intellect, mutually supportive, and deeply in love that they were two halves of a whole.

David McCullough (1933-2022) twice received the Pulitzer Prize, for Truman and John Adams, and twice received the National Book Award, for The Path Between the Seas and Mornings on Horseback. His other acclaimed books include The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge, Brave Companions, 1776, The Greater Journey, The American Spirit, The Wright Brothers, and The Pioneers. Many may be familiar with McCullough’s sonorous voice in narrating “American Experience” on PBS and the Ken Burns multipart documentary “The Civil War.”

The letters between John and Abigail number in the thousands. Both wrote about almost everything with such a “consistent candor” that it is possible to understand them and their time to an almost unparalleled degree.

Adams’s life up to this time, his 39th year, was dominated by farming, family, the practice of law, and voracious reading. Adams read widely and deeply all his life: Shakespeare, Don Quixote, classic Greek and Roman literature, and works on government and law. He was not alone among his fellow delegates in his vast erudition, the polymath Jefferson arguably the most accomplished. As a British spy wrote in his notes, Adams had a knack for viewing “large subjects largely.”

John Adams saw more of the world than almost any other person of his time. After serving in both Continental Congresses, he was appointed to diplomatic posts in France, England and The Hague. Marooned in Spain after a difficult crossing of the Atlantic, barely reaching shore in a ship that was slowly sinking, he set off in the dead of winter with his son John Quincy Adams to make the thousand-mile trek to Paris, crossing the frozen and treacherous Pyrenees, a harrowing two-month ordeal.

Adams was chosen as our first vice president and our second president, succeeding George Washington. Adams would also live to witness his son, John Quincy Adams, elected to the presidency in a hotly contested election that was so close it was not resolved until February 1825 by a vote in the House of Representatives. Andrew Jackson received more popular votes in the national election but did not have a majority in the electoral college.

Not Without Flaws

There are two flaws, I believe, in this biography. First, in an effort to boost Adams’s prominence and importance, McCullough seems intent on diminishing Jefferson. Certainly, a man as complex as Jefferson had his faults, primarily his treatment and ownership of slaves, but both were vigorous and outspoken men, and one need not suffer to advance the cause of the other. Second, Adams’s irascible temperament is downplayed but is key to understanding his personality and his lack of popularity at times. His “asperity of temper” and occasional inflexibility offer insight into his acquiescence to the disastrous Alien and Sedition Acts. A historian must walk a fine line between presenting an accurate rendering of his subject and advancing an image that overshadows shortcomings.

There were misjudgments during Adams’s single term as president. Under cover of the Sedition Act, a law making it illegal to make false or malicious statements about the federal government and suppressing speech critical of the Adams administration, Benjamin Franklin Bache, the grandson of Benjamin Frankin and editor of the newspaper Philadelphia Aurora, was arrested. He had written of Adams that he was “blind, bald, crippled, toothless, [and] querulous.”

As the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence approached in 1826, only three of the signers were alive: Charles Carroll, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. Jefferson had penned the declaration; Adams had been its voice arguing for passage. Both men had reached an extreme old age; Jefferson 83, Adams 90. Their written correspondence, for Adams only second in volume to that of his with Abigail, numbered in the hundreds of letters. Their warm friendship restored after a political parting; each held the other in the highest esteem.

Major celebrations were planned in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Due to failing health, neither Jefferson nor Adams could participate, though both had a strong resolve to live to the Fourth.

Unconscious since July 2, Jefferson stirred at four in the morning from his bed at Monticello on the Fourth of July and spoke his last words “with a strong clear voice,” dying at 1 o’clock that afternoon.

Adams was fading rapidly in Braintree, “breathing with great difficulty,” confined to bed. On the Fourth, he awakened and exclaimed, “It is a great day. It is a good day.”

Not aware that Jefferson had died a few hours earlier, Adams uttered what were among his final words, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Adams died at 6:20 p.m. on the Fourth of July, 50 years to the day after winning approval of the Declaration of Independence that created our nation.

The story of Adams’s life and times is one of Shakespearean proportion. McCullough is at the top of his game in his exhaustive and illuminating research reviving Adams and his legacy while his smooth prose and clear narrative draw the reader in as a well-written novel aspires to do.  

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