John Adams

By David McCullough

When I visited the Adams homestead a few years ago the guides were eager to let us know that David McCullough had recently dropped by while researching a book on the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. McCullough, the popular host of PBS’s American Experience and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Truman, is one of America’s best-known historians, and the fact that he was planning to write a book on Adams was big news in Quincy.

Somewhere along the line McCullough’s idea for a book on both Adams and Jefferson was scrapped. Perhaps he came to the conclusion, shared by many, that Jefferson has already received enough attention, and been overrated by historians. In Adams he had Jefferson’s perfect foil. Where the Virginian was idealistic, Romantic, duplicitous and impecunious, Adams was sensible, forthright, pragmatic, and thrifty. (Never a rich man, he left an estate worth some $100,000. Jefferson, an aristocrat, died with debts that were greater than that.) A mutual friend, Benjamin Rush, described the two as the “North and South Poles of the American Revolution.”

There’s no hiding where McCullough’s sympathies lie. Unfortunately, Jefferson is a far more interesting biographical subject. Adams’s greatest virtues were his blunt honesty and integrity, the same qualities that made him tactless, quarrelsome and a hopeless politician. He was also a very conventional man. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does make for dull reading. McCullough often quotes from Adams’s letters, apparently mistaking his platitudes on duty and virtue for pearls of wisdom. “You will ever remember that all the end of study is to make you a good man and a useful citizen,” he tells his son John Quincy. When his daughter was considering marriage he offered the following checklist to guide her choice:

An honest, sensible, humane man, above all the littleness of vanity and extravagances of imagination, laboring to do good rather than to be rich, to be useful rather than make a show, living in modest simplicity clearly within his means and free from debts and obligations, is really the most respectable man in society, makes himself and all about him most happy.

This is, of course, a blueprint for the kind of person Adams wanted to be: A man of virtue and integrity, and a politician too!

The wonder is how someone usually credited with being a great realist in terms of his political theory could be so unworldly in practice. Looking back on his political career Adams indignantly denied any charge of corruption, claiming “I never solicited a vote in my life for any public office.” Imagine an American president saying that today! Even in the eighteenth century, when candidates weren’t expected to actively campaign, it was a remarkable claim. Is it any wonder he only lasted a single term?

McCullough did not want to write a history that would make the Founding Fathers too distant and unreal, “like figures in a costume pageant” (or a PBS documentary). Nevertheless, this is exactly what has happened. Incredible attention is lavished on scenic background, while almost nothing is said about the content of Adams’s mind. Very brief mention is made of his political writing, and no sense is given of where his ideas, beliefs and convictions came from. Instead we get detailed descriptions of such things as the kinds of clothes people wore and the layout of Adams’s residence in Amsterdam:

a fine, red-brick canal house five stories tall, with a handsome front door at the top of a short flight of stone steps. There was a deep garden to the rear and the view from the large front windows included a pretty little arched bridge that crossed the Keizersgracht at the nearby corner, as Spiegelstraat, or Looking Glass Street. In the sunshine of summer, the trees bordering the canal cast lovely shadows on the water and on the facades of houses on the opposite side.

Of what possible importance or significance is this? It is mere decoration, an indulgence McCullough seems unable to resist. The reader is tempted to skim whole pages of the stuff.

One can tell where McCullough’s real interests lie from the amount of weight he gives to the various stages of Adams’s life. Three-quarters of the book deals with the years from 1776 to 1801. The result isn’t so much a biography as a record of public life. This makes sense, since Adams dedicated his entire life to public service, but McCullough might also have taken heed of Adams’s complaint that “Public life is like a long journey, in which we have immense tracks of waste countries to pass through for a very few grand and beautiful prospects.”

Review first published July 28, 2001. At the time I wrote this the controversy over McCullough’s mistake in claiming that Jefferson called Adams the “colossus of independence” had yet to erupt. I think it good that historians hold each other to such high standards, but have my doubts about how significant a mistake it was. There was often a profound gap between what Jefferson said and how he really felt.


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