By Andrew Burstein
By David McCullough
Simon & Schuster -- 751pp -- $35
Near the end of the Revolution, John Adams tried to explain in a London newspaper why Americans were so passionate about their independence. "Men are governed by Words," he wrote. "Their passions are inflamed by Words." In David McCullough's majestic biography of Adams, the second U.S. President, one has a strong sense that it was literary ingenuity as much as a rich perceptive intelligence that defined his career. That is an interesting proposition and a lively way to approach a founder as feisty as he is underappreciated.
A man of unquestioned integrity, Adams succeeded the larger-than-life George Washington and spent his one-term Presidency as an isolated and harassed executive. He inherited an unstable world and was forced to mediate his countrymen's anguished responses to Anglo-French war. The Jeffersonian opposition imagined Adams a pro-British monarchist, while frenzied Federalists, his own party, proposed war with France's revolutionaries out of a fear that they were stirring up America's masses. Adams kept the peace and received no credit for it.
McCullough, the celebrated biographer of Middle American Harry Truman, portrays Adams as an indelicate Yankee, profoundly self-centered, garrulous, and utterly sincere. The author spends much time on Adams' youth, the evolution of his revolutionary ideas, and his years abroad as a diplomat. Somewhat less time is given to his Presidency and later years.
It is hard to rank McCullough's epic of Adams against historian John Ferling's superb, authoritative John Adams, now a decade old. While McCullough's knowledge of early American political culture cannot compare with Ferling's, his storytelling ability is without peer. McCullough highlights the Adams marriage more, and to good effect. To historians it will be clear that he draws on far fewer sources than his massive bibliography suggests. But he succeeds notably in sustaining enthusiasm across 751 pages, taking a wise and soulful man who was inept at courting popular opinion and lionizing him.
A big chunk of the book is a distillation of Adams' diary. McCullough adds color to complete a visual, satisfying picture. The reader learns precisely what it was like to be aboard the frigate Boston on the distinguished diplomat's first voyage to Europe in 1778, when he was publicizing the American cause. We are privy to the weather, the reading list, "the reek of burning sea-coal and the stench of stagnant water below-decks," in McCullough's words, and the "hot work" of capturing a heavily armed British merchant ship. We also get Adams' quintessentially self-serving thoughts: "I am constantly giving hints to the captain concerning order, economy, and regularity."
The expressive diarist was also present when Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire, both heroic figures, met between acts at the Comédie Française in Paris. As the two cult icons embraced in the French manner, Adams, a great scrutinizer of others, described the old Frenchman's "sparkling vitality...still the poet's eyes with a fine frenzy rolling." Yet Adams conveys, too, how immune he is to the spark of charisma. Charismatic is what he is not.
Franklin was the homespun wit, Jefferson the far-reaching pen, Adams the sober prophet behind the revolutionary moment. Adams grumbled about his destiny, which he foresaw, to be remembered only as stodgy and ungracious, unloved by the masses despite the clarity of his philosophic resolve. McCullough makes a sprightly effort to give Adams his due, and to show how affable, as well as insightful, he could be.
Equally appealing is the importance of Abigail Adams to her husband's life story. He calls her "my best, dearest, worthiest, wisest friend in this world" and does not exaggerate. For a man who was, McCullough writes, "almost incapable of staying out of an argument," there was no argument that Abigail could not deliberate along with him.
In his effort to capture the poetry of Adams' long life, McCullough perhaps loves his subject too well and displays a few patriotic blind spots. Witness phrases such as: "With his overriding sense of duty, Adams..." The author is prone to taking his subject's words at face value, as if people always reveal who they are without indirection. His Adams throws himself into farming with the same zeal he applies to government. He is too clear-cut.
One extravagant assumption is disturbing enough that it ought to be righted: Before he died--just hours after Jefferson died--on July 4, 1826, 90-year-old Adams was recorded as saying, "Jefferson survives." Too good to be true? The two contentious patriarchs "conspired" alike to make their final exit on the day of national jubilee--the 50th Fourth of July--and Adams was given these ironic and sublime "last words." McCullough, like most historians, never questions them, but a dip into the archive reveals that while Adams did say something about Jefferson, the words were, according to members of the Adams family, "indistinctly uttered."
Still, McCullough's gripping biography reveals Adams to be as quotable as better known founders, telling his son, future President John Quincy Adams: "A taste for literature and a turn for business, united in the same person, never fails to make a great man." His was a greatness measured more by insight than by mere popularity.
Burstein is professor of history at the University of Tulsa and author of America's Jubilee: How in 1826 a Generation Remembered 50 Years of Independence.