Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Book Review: John Adams

Americans have an unfortunate tendency to disregard history. That is not to say that the citizens of other countries are uniformly scholars, but the indifference so many feel toward our past, to say nothing of world history, never ceases to amaze me. Perhaps the relatively brief history of our nation is part of the explanation: less than 300 years old as an officially recognized sovereign, America is also an immigrant's country, a place where people came to make a future, not carry on a past. Though we are just as stratified along class boundaries as any other developed nation and pass down class status through generations, we tend to think ourselves as all given an equal start, and those who focus too intently on where they came from will never manage to move anywhere else.

Of course, that's a broadly interpretative view of the situation. The likelier truth is simply that many find history boring, though how anyone could reach such a conclusion is a mystery to me. While anecdotal evidence is inconclusive, I can safely say that, of the five teachers who most inspired, enlightened and entertained me, three were history teachers. Those who study history understand that no Hollywood film nor even any tabloid newspaper could ever come up with anything half so salacious, scandalous and stranger than fiction than what is recorded in dusty old records books in the reference section of your local library. If you don't believe me, I would suggest thumbing through French history for a bit, as I was lucky enough to in my junior and senior years of high school, during which time I discovered that you could practically fit onto a single sheet of paper the list of important French historical figures who did not suffer from a sexually transmitted disease of some variety.

Unfortunately, one of the odd side-effects of going to university is that, in some ways, it inhibits your intellectual growth. No, I am not one of these nutters ranting against higher education, but the focus upon one's major naturally takes time away from hobbies. As a journalist, is not my first priority to keep abreast of current topics, a prospect that takes up much of one's time and leaves scarcely any for reviews of the past? And when I am done reading for all my classes, however much I enjoy it, do I not simply wish to lay down and watch a film?

The reason I'm writing all this -- and why I'm writing in the first person for a review of a presidential biography of one of our Founding Fathers -- is that David McCullough's John Adams has reignited a passion for a subject I once held so dear to me but let slip these past few years. I had previously known Adams, the United States' second president, as but a footnote, a bookend mistakenly placed between the great novels of Washington, our most enduring icon of what traits every American would like to ascribe to the nation and its citizens, and Jefferson, the architect of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The only concrete detail of Adams' presidency I could recall was his passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, a horrid piece of legislation that violated individual liberties just as soon as the Constitution had guaranteed them, and that single shred of remembered trivia likely put me ahead of many of my peers in terms of Adams knowledge.

It's fitting, then, that the biography that completely changes one's view of the neglected president did not originally conceive Adams as its subject, or at least not the only one. David McCullough, already a Pulitzer Prize winner for his book on Harry S Truman, intended to focus on both Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Yet the more he researched, the more he realized that Adams, who left behind enough diaries and correspondence to fill a library, not only deserved more attention but was in every way more interesting than Jefferson, heretofore considered one of the more intriguing of the Founding Fathers. McCullough paints a portrait of a complex man, intellectual and overqualified but stubborn and vain to an extreme fault, occasionally contradictory but committed with unwavering resolve. While Washington remains an enigmatic figure who appears unflinching in his virtue -- a mythos McCullough wisely maintains, suggesting that there truly was no difference between the man and the legend -- it is Adams, with his short temper and human error, who ultimately comes to embody nearly everything truthfully attributed to the Founding Fathers. And in McCullough's hands, he practically comes to life before you.

Rather than start all the way at the beginning or even at a clear linear point, McCullough opens his book in January of 1776 as Adams rides out to meet George Washington and the newly formed Continental Army. The author then winds back to Adams' early days briefly in order to set a background for the man's law practice and to get to Adams' first brush with revolutionary fervor, the defense of the British soldiers charged with the Boston Massacre. The unlikeliest of starts to the political career of one of this country's proudest and most notable patriots, the court case establishes his character better than any perfunctory chapters of early life ever could. With public opinion furious at the British, such a move would be career suicide, if not a path to outright lynching. Yet Adams takes on the work, believing that all men deserve a fair trial. What's more, he wins the case, preparing a solid argument to counter the passionate but unresearched rhetoric of the prosecution.

Though the trial makes him unpopular, Adams' dedication is noticed by some who admire his principle, and by the time the First Continental Congress meets in 1774, Adams is among the delegates sent by Massachusetts. McCullough charts Adams' public life as that of an unlikely politician: too unwilling not to speak his mind as he saw fit (he always saw fit), he had no use for the intrigue and compromise necessary to navigate proper channels. His passionate arguments for independence ultimately sway a Congress decidedly uneasy with the prospect of secession, but he bores and alienates so many that, when Congress elects to send him as an envoy to France during wartime, one cannot help but wonder if they did so more to guarantee he'd be out of their hair for months than to win the conflict. Of course, the properties that make him a poor politician make him an even worse diplomat.

Much of McCullough's biography presents Adams by way of comparing him to whatever key figure he works with on each engagement. When sent to France, Adams pairs up with Benjamin Franklin, already ingratiated into the French court, where he is regarded as a delight. Immediately, the author underlines the differences between the plain, Christian Adams and the more Dionysian Franklin: Adams prudishly conducts himself, while Franklin is a flirt (though he did not, contrary to legend, contract syphilis). Franklin understands the game of negotiation within the court, asking for nothing and merely making himself a pleasurable guest. Adams, on the other hand, speaks out of turn and understandably lacks the patience to go along with the French aristocracy's sickly, pampered self-destruction while Americans are losing and dying without French naval support. Armed with Adams' candid correspondence, McCullough vividly sketches the farmer's anger at Franklin, whom he increasingly regards as corrupt, even as he grows more accustomed to French society.

(In the book's only flaw of note, McCullough appears to extrapolate from Adams' emotional reaction to Franklin's behind-the-scenes actions to have him shipped back to America in order to paint the diplomat in a negative light and fails to stress just how vital and successful Franklin's contributions were. Not even Jefferson comes off looking so bad, but more on that later.)

Yet just as Adams eventually grows as a politician, so too do his diplomatic skills grow. Fortunately for him -- and America -- Adams is removed from France before he can cause any further damage and makes his way to Holland, where the people are far more suited to his style. So serious and ponderous that even Adams marvels at their strictness, the Dutch regard him more highly than the French, and while Franklin pulls off his shrewd maneuvering to borrow the French fleet, Adams secures several loans from the Dutch bankers of equal importance to the war effort. He even meets with King George III, avowed enemy of the revolution, and conducts himself so well that the king resigns himself to losing his colonies.

Once he returns to America and reenters the political scene, Adams' main contrast is with Jefferson, with whom McCullough compared the book's subject earlier during their time in the Continental Congress. The two make for perfect foils, to the point that their narrative together moves in literary arcs and they seem to be fictional characters written to play off each other. Short, portly Adams works with tall, thin Jefferson during the Continental Congress to convince the colonies to secede. As McCullough writes near the end of the bio, Jefferson was "the pen" who wrote the founding documents of the nation, but Adams was "the voice" who brought the representatives to call on Jefferson to write them.

Their time together makes them fast friends, though the growth of political parties during George Washington's presidency and Adams' vice presidency begins to rend them apart. Stuck in the thankless, jobless task of vice president, Adams shows up each day at the Senate chamber and pontificates on his beliefs, while Jefferson, who never addresses his feelings in public, begins to manipulate the political scene behind closed doors. Adams' worry over how to address the president leaves him open to attack as someone who let his time in Europe fill him with a love of ranks, that he was no better than a monarchist. Jefferson funds newspapers that vilify him for this, and the attacks only become worse when Adams wins the presidency. To see such a friendship, one that not only bettered the two men but the country, so utterly shattered by politics and the rancorous birth of partisanship is frustrating and heartbreaking.

So vile are the presses toward Adams as president that, within context, the Alien and Sedition Acts, though still reprehensible, seem at least partially justified. The libelous drivel published by republican writers like James Callender and Benjamin Bache would land these men in prison today, so the prospect of Adams putting them away does not seem quite so authoritarian. The great tragedy of the dissolution of Jefferson and Adams' relationship, as McCullough emphasizes, is that apart from these squabbles, the two agree on nearly everything: they sue for peace in the face of a possible attack from the French and, Jefferson's meddling notwithstanding, have little regard for the new parties. Yet Jefferson still denounces him as a warmonger for building a navy to ensure a defensive power if war comes to America's shores, though when war is averted, Adams immediately disbands the army before the Federalist Alexander Hamilton can lead it into an altercation without justification.

It is difficult to write a review of a biography. In essence, it falls to me to analyze what is good about a work that analyzes what is good about a man's life. But the shear breadth of Adams' accomplishments and desires is stunning, so much so that it takes resolve not simply to list all of them and marvel at how ahead of his time he was. Not only did he ultimately win over the Congressional delegates to support independence, nominate George Washington to lead the army and secure the capital to fund the war effort, as president he fought partisan politics and pushed for an emphasis on education as the most vital interest of a nation trying to found itself. You can feel McCullough's passion infusing these tidbits, reminding us what we sacrifice today when we slash education budgets and determine who sits on school boards by what political body they support.

McCullough's enthusiasm for his subject manifests itself as a surprisingly emotional anchor for Adams' life story. Small details such as Adams and Franklin having to share a hotel room one night and quarreling over whether to leave a window open, or Jefferson joking with Adams in their friendlier days that he had to borrow so much money for Congress that Adams would have to secure a Dutch loan before being allowed into heaven, add flavor. But McCullough cares so deeply about Adams' accomplishments that such minor moments do not convey the zest of his prose, which he reserves for the details that normally read as the stuffier parts of biographies. He turns an act as significant as Jefferson and Adams' reconciliation and their renewed correspondence into an emotional reunion to rival any reunion seen at the cinema, and when people at last recognize Adams' work and compliment on it, we feel the president's rush of pride and fulfillment.

Yet the centerpiece of McCullough's book, and of Adams' life, is Abigail Adams. At several points, McCullough stresses that a few of Adams' actions, were any one of them his only accomplishment, would be enough to enshrine him in the annals of American history. However, I cannot help but think that, were his marriage to Abigail all he ever accomplished, and had their correspondence survived, John Adams would still warrant interest for the purity of his love and respect for his wife. When McCullough does zip through Adams' early life, he does so for two primary reasons: to lay the foundation for his worldview and work ethic, and to introduce Abigail. Before he ever disputed with them, Adams relied upon Abigail's counsel more than Jefferson's or Franklin's. In a time when women had no role in society other than as wives, Abigail not only performed the duties expected of her but argued for the rights of women and slaves, held her own in debates with the finest minds of the time and earned a reverence in the public eye that even the libelous newspapers would not attack despite hurling invective at her husband and even George Washington. McCullough rightly calls attention to the fact that the couple had one of the most touching romances in history, and Adams' method of addressing his wife in letters as his "dearest friend" has made me as proud to be an American as anything Adams got in the Declaration or the Constitution.

"Facts are stubborn things," as Adams argued in his Boston Massacre case, and McCullough wades through the vast collection of our second president's writings to bring out the vitality of the facts of his life, undiluted after more than two centuries. He was always being compared, and usually unfavorably, to others despite the singularity of his achievements. Yet McCullough comes to define Adams, without openly saying so, within the same role people that people vaguely remember him: sandwiched between the two most noted Founding Fathers, Adams can be seen as having his friend Jefferson's intellect, but his hero Washington's virtue. Obdurate, vain and obnoxious, John Adams was nevertheless devoted, inspiring and honorable, and no single man did as much to make this country an independent nation than he. McCullough wants us to understand that, but he does not resort to preaching. He doesn't have to. No one could read John Adams and not be astonished by the man, the nearly perfect moderation of his political stances and his drive.

There are any number of fine biographies out there, but this 650-page (without the additional hundred for endnotes and sources) book is the first I've read that I could easily have restarted instantly upon finishing and would have were it not for my backed-up list of reading material. When people abuse the memory of the Founding Fathers for political gain today, they get some of the proposed ideals but attributed them en masse to the group. McCullough proves that each of the men who helped found this nation was nothing more than a human being, but it was their arguments, their wildly conflicting views and even their gross contradictions and hypocrisies that collided into something beautiful and lasting. By focusing on a farmer's son as he rose through the ranks of a new empire, McCullough eventually charts not simply the life of a great man but a personification of the most idealistic and optimistic conception of this country. It should be required reading in every school in the Union.

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