Will the Real John Adams Please Stand Up!

By David McCullough
736pp, Simon & Schuster, $35

reviewed by John Coggin | Yale Review of Books

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When David McCullough won the National Book Award in 1981 for Mornings on Horseback, his rendering of Theodore Roosevelt’s struggle to manhood, he said that his childhood in Pennsylvania amid the horror of World War II had spurred his love for history. He then described his undergraduate experience at Yale as the crucial period when he seriously considered writing as a lifelong endeavor. He later concluded that, “one of the lessons of history—one of the lessons of life—is that there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman.” In John Adams, McCullough teaches the significance of this lesson. He studies Adams, a man of honesty and wisdom, so we might learn his story, and then delight in his triumph.

At age 25, John Adams resembled his college friends. Ambitious and vain, he yearned for distinction, but needed “ballast.” “Why have I not genius to start some new thought?” he wondered in his diary. “Let me search for the clue which led great Shakespeare into the labyrinth of human nature. Let me examine how men think.” Adams began writing portraits of “original characters” around his home of Braintree, Massachusetts—brief, poignant sketches of human failure and conquest. McCullough examines Adams with the same tenacity these diary entries display. The historian draws from a marvelous collection of family letters and diaries (especially the voluminous correspondence between John and Abigail) to illuminate the “labyrinth” of John Adams’ mind. McCullough explores his public and private persona with equal vigor, relating even the humiliations that resulted from Adam’s obstinacy and vanity. While depicting these flaws, McCullough reveals that Adams’ abiding honesty and courage carried him from his Massachusetts law practice to the presidency of the United States. McCullough highlights these traits beautifully.

The book begins in medias res with a sketch of Adams as he rides to the First Continental Congress, and then narrates chronologically from birth to the grave over a ninety-one year lifetime. Son of a deacon, Adams had neither the family fortune of Thomas Jefferson nor the elegant homestead of John Hancock to match his ambition. His father sensed the precocious boy’s promise and sent him to Harvard to become a minister. Adams returned with a passion for politics and literature, but searched for grounding until he finally settled on a career in law and married Abigail Smith. As anti-British sentiment swelled in the 1760s, he attained distinction as an honest, though unpopular protector of human liberties when he defended the British troops responsible for the Boston Massacre. But Adams achieved true greatness as an eloquent, stubborn advocate of independence in the Continental Congress, and as an architect, along with Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, of the Declaration of Independence.

McCullough finds a natural turning point for the narrative in Adams’ diplomatic appointment to France, and focuses on the patience and integrity it demanded. Adams braved a 3,000-mile journey across the Atlantic Ocean to work with Franklin and Arthur Lee in negotiating a French alliance. At the age of 42, he was embarking on a wholly uncertain path. He knew no French, the language of diplomacy, nor did he know the subtleties of European politics or the etiquette of a royal court. But thereafter Adams rose steadily to the White House, and his reputation as the “colossus of independence” soared. McCullough celebrates this shift, perhaps too enthusiastically: “The date was Tuesday, February 17, 1778, and, as Adams had no way of knowing, it marked the beginning of what would become a singular odyssey, in which he would journey farther than in all, both by sea and land, than any other leader of the American cause.”

This adoring remark and McCullough’s summaries of Adams’ exploits are sometimes excessive. More often, however, McCullough balances his obvious admiration for Adams in moments of glory with examples of the man’s fierce pride. After Adams negotiated with Holland for a substantial and desperately needed loan (one of the triumphs of his diplomatic career) he boasted, “I have rendered a most important and essential service to my country here, which I verily believe that no other man in the world would have done.” Excerpts from Adams’ diaries show that this patriot knew and even enjoyed his own vices. He once exulted: “Thanks to God that he gave me stubbornness when I know I am right.”

Among friends and family, especially his wife, Adams’ tenderness and loyalty were legendary. Over the course of his broad travels, John missed his wife deeply, and they wrote more than a thousand letters between them. She was his “Dearest Friend,” and Abigail never begrudged her husband for his political obligations in France and elsewhere: “He is a good man. Would to heaven we had none but such in office…he is a man of principle…he will not violate the dictates of his conscience to ingratiate himself with a minister.” When Abigail died in 1818, after 54 years of marriage, Adams wished he could lie down beside her and die, too.

McCullough shows the malicious and virtuous qualities of Adams so vividly and recreates his character with such profound compassion that his death resonates with no less tragedy than King Lear’s. His efforts for his country and his family were grand, and so was his suffering. In March of 1777, as George Washington’s army prepared to return to battle after a series of inglorious defeats, Abigail Adams remarked in her diary: “Posterity who are to reap the blessings will scarcely be able to conceive the hardships and sufferings of their ancestors.” With John Adams, McCullough brings their struggles to the fore of our thoughts once again.


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