David McCullough’s John Adams

The historian David McCullough, famous for his opinion-shifting biography of Harry Truman, began the book that would become John Adams believing that he would write about both Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and was concerned that such a work would be doomed to give short shrift to Adams, whose reputation paled in comparison with that of Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and founder of the University of Virginia. And yet, as his research progressed, he found his own opinion shifting considerably. Adams had played a far larger role in the American Revolution than history had recognized, and many of his personal qualities – his plainness, for example, and his honesty – which had worked against him in his lifetime, undercutting his effectiveness as a politician, might help rehabilitate him in the public eye, provided the public was given the context necessary to make sense of the man. This book is that context, a 700-page reconstruction of a bygone era, written with a novelist’s concern for characterization and a master historian’s attention to detail.

John Adams was born in Braintree, Massachusetts (now Quincy, Massachusetts), the son of a farmer and shoemaker. At the age of fifteen, he entered Harvard University, which McCullough tells us was “an institution of four red-brick buildings, a small chapel, a faculty of seven, and an enrolment of approximately one hundred scholars.” It was at Harvard that the spirit of hard work, inculcated in him by his father the farmer, began to pay off: he applied himself, with unusual dedication, reading everything he could get his hands on, from philosophy and logic to poetry and the Greek orators.

‘I read forever,’ he would remember happily, and as years passed, in an age when educated men took particular pride in the breadth of their reading, he became one of the most voracious readers of any. Having discovered books at Harvard, he was seldom ever to be without one for the rest of his days.

Adams, like Thomas Jefferson, would collect books all his life, amassing a vast library, and even into his old age he would find no greater pleasure than the company of a good book. Books were the most visible testament to his relentless desire to improve himself, to work for the good of his family and his country, and for an educated young man with ambition and a love of words, two potential career paths opened up before him: he could fulfil his father’s ambitions for him and become a minister, or take the bar and practice law. “I saw such a spirit of dogmatism and bigotry in clergy and laity,” he wrote in his diary, “that if I should be a priest I must take my side, and pronounce as positively as any of them, or never get a parish, or getting it must soon leave it.” Thus, after a short stint apprenticed to a local lawyer, Adams entered the legal profession, establishing a modestly successful practice for himself in Boston, one of the epicentres of revolutionary thought and agitation. Tensions were already high when the infamous Boston Massacre, the shooting of five unarmed American citizens by British soldiers during a riot, divided public opinion along loyalist-revolutionary lines. Risking his reputation as a patriot, Adams acted in defence of the British soldiers, citing both the rights of the accused and his duty to justice by way of explanation, and his subsequent victory in the case brought him the renown he needed to launch his political career. The Boston Massacre occurred in 1770; by 1775, Britain passed the Stamp Act, levying even more onerous taxes on its colonies, and further stoking the revolutionary fires: just one year later, America would declare her independence. Adams, who had already written a monumentally influential pamphlet, Thoughts On Government, was among the five men chosen by Congress to prepare a draft of what would become the Declaration of Independence, and though Jefferson would be the author, Adams’ influence, as McCullough makes clear, was instrumental in both its conception and its defence before Congress. As Jefferson put it, “No man better merited than Mr. John Adams to hold a most conspicuous place in the design. He was the pillar of its support on the floor of Congress, its ablest advocate and defender against the multifarious assaults encountered.”

But to declare independence and to achieve it, as the signatories of that great document knew, were two different things, and Adams dutifully began a further demonstration of his commitment to independence in multiple roles: he served on more than 20 committees, including a vital role as head of the Board of War and Ordnance, in which capacity he helped make America ready to do battle with Great Britain, the world’s strongest military power, and championed the creation of an American navy, viewing independence on paper as meaningless without the naval power necessary to guarantee it. Later, after having argued that an alliance with France was a necessary to victory, Congress again tasked Adams with negotiating a treaty with France, and in the winter of 1778, while British ships patrolled the Atlantic, Adams and his ten-year-old son, the future president John Quincy Adams, set sail for France. By 1789, only George Washington could claim to have played a more vital role in securing American independence, and so, when it finally came time to appoint executive leadership, Washington became America’s first president, John Adams the first vice president. This, in bare outline, is the story of John Adams, a farmer’s son who would become, in time, America’s second president, but whose fame has been so far eclipsed by Thomas Jefferson that his individual merits had largely been lost to history. McCullough, aiming to correct the record, constantly contrasts the two men, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly. Jefferson, for example, owned slaves, and though he would write about the evils of slavery, and agitate for an end to the institution, he never scrupled to buy and sell human beings, or make a profit off them, and his lavish Virginia estate, Monticello, was built and maintained by slave labor. Adams, by contrast, had a natural horror of slavery, never owned or trafficked in slaves, and would privately remark on the terrible hypocrisy of slaveowners agitating for liberty. In their private lives, Adams was frugal, never spending above his means, never accruing great debts, ever anxious to pay off those he did incur; Jefferson, on the other hand, though he was vastly more wealthy than Adams, spent so lavishly that he died not only penniless but in great debt. But perhaps the greatest divide between the two men was philosophical. Jefferson, in private correspondence, would accuse Adams of a terrible ignorance of human nature, but it was Adams who accurately foresaw what the French Revolution – then massively popular in America, viewed, optimistically, as another manifestation of the desire for liberty and self-governance – would become. “Everything will be pulled down,” wrote Adams, “So much seems certain. But what will be built up? Are there any principles of political architecture? Will the struggle in Europe be anything other than a change in impostors?”

But perhaps their greatest difference of opinion, and the one that makes John Adams seem so vitally relevant today, concerned their apprehensions about tyranny. Adams was no monarchist, but he respected the political traditions of Europe, and viewed them as necessary components to the healthy functioning of the state. He did not want a king for America, but he did not share Jefferson’s apprehensions about a strong executive power. “You are afraid of the one,” he would write to Jefferson, “I, the few. We agree perfectly that the many should have full, fair, and perfect representation. You are apprehensive of monarchy; I, of aristocracy. I would therefore have given more power to the President and less to the Senate.” I do not claim that Jefferson was wrong to fear a monarch, only that Adams was prescient to deplore the establishment of an aristocracy, and I believe a strong case can be made, when contrasting the opinions of the average American with those of their congressional leaders, that America has at present a de facto aristocracy, both in its political leadership and in its intelligentsia. (What, for example, would Adams have made of Robert Byrd, who served in the Senate for 51 years, or John Dingell Jr., whose congressional tenure reached nearly 60 years, and whose father was also a member of Congress?) In rescuing John Adams from history, McCullough has likewise resurrected his political opinions, and restored a giant of American political thought to his rightful place alongside Thomas Jefferson – that he did it in an engrossing work of historical scholarship is all the more to his credit.