By David McCullough
Simon & Schuster. 752 pp. $35
Ever since 1776 John Adams and Thomas Jefferson have been nearly joined at the hip: collaborators and strong supporters of the movement for independence; members of the Committee to draft the Declaration of Independence; leaders of the American diplomatic corps in France and Britain during and after the Revolutionary War; Vice President and Secretary of State respectively under the new constitution; correspondents extraordinaire during their post-politics years of retirement. Most strikingly, they “rode off into the sunset together,” dying on the same day, which happened to be the Fourth of July, and the fiftieth Fourth at that. As their mutual friend Benjamin Rush put it, one was the “North Pole” and the other the “South Pole” of American independence. Or, as Rush said in another place, Adams was the voice and Jefferson the pen of the Revolution, for the one led the debate in Congress while the other drafted the document that immortalized the American decision to break with Britain. That jointure has lasted into our time, for it was but a few years ago that Joseph Ellis’ biography of Jefferson made the best-seller lists, now matched and even topped by David McCullough’s John Adams .
The image of Adams and Jefferson as the Siamese twins of the founding is not quite accurate, however. Joined they are, but from 1790 or so on they stand to each other more as figures tied to opposite ends of a rope wound round a pulley”as one rises the other falls. Almost from the moment the Constitution was set in place political parties emerged, with Adams, the Vice President, and Jefferson, the Secretary of State, taking the part of leading figures in the two camps. Twice they ran against each other for the presidency, with Adams narrowly winning the first time (in 1796, when he was heir apparent as Vice President), and Jefferson winning the second (in 1800, when Adams the sitting President was effectively renounced by the nation).
In the minds of most of his fellow citizens, and in Adams’ mind as well, Jefferson had thoroughly eclipsed his fellow revolutionist in 1800. The election of 1800 and all the events leading up to it effectively quelled a friendship that had lasted nearly a quarter century. Over a decade later, in retirement at Quincy, Adams wrote to Jefferson in retirement at Monticello, in part to restore the old friendship and in part to set the record straight (as he saw it) in an appeal over the head of the eighteenth and nineteenth century to a more distant posterity: an attempt to pull the strings of that pulley from afar.
In recent years Jefferson’s reputation has taken one hit after another, for failings as disparate as being wrong (very wrong) on race and slavery, to being “revolution-crazed,” as Adams then and Conor Cruise O’Brien now have charged, to being cold, distant, unknowable as a person, as almost all his biographers ultimately conclude, to being a hypocrite on such matters as civil liberties, as Leonard Levy classically charged four decades ago. The recent DNA study that was (wrongly) taken by many to “prove” that Jefferson hypocritically and exploitatively had a long-standing sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, fathering at least one and perhaps many children by her, was only the latest in this string of charges serving to diminish Jefferson in the hearts and minds of his countrymen. As in the past, Adams’ reputation has risen as Jefferson’s has sunk. McCullough’s near lionizing biography goes a long way toward ensuring that this trend continues and deepens.
Those of us”political scientists, historians, and other scholars”who make the study of the Revolution and early republic our professional concern are tempted to dismiss, even to sneer at, efforts like McCullough’s. For one, he is an amateur, having written Truman , for example, another massive biographical study of a President, but nothing previously about a figure from our period. For another, he just does not live up to the standards of scholarship we professionals demand of each other. He does not document as we think one ought, he does not engage the “great debates” that rock the scholarly world. Most unforgivably, perhaps, he is popular, selling more books and reaching a wider audience than the rest of us are likely to do anytime in the near future.
We must resist this temptation, however, and appreciate McCullough’s book for the many merits it does possess. He may not specialize in our period, but he sure knows a lot about it, and general readers will come away knowing much more than they did going into it. He knows how to tell a story; perhaps the greatest strength of the author is his ability to relate enough of the concrete detail to give a feel for things, but never so much as to bog us down or even seriously challenge us. Perhaps most importantly, he likes and admires John Adams (not always”is it usually?”the case with us professionals and our subjects), and he gets his readers to share some of his obvious delight in Adams. He accomplishes this often by just quoting from Adams’ plentiful supply of endearing statements or witty comments; often he does it by showing us Adams’ talent for ironizing about himself, his genuine affection for his family and his gift for friendship, and his admirable sense of duty, which led him to spend many more of his prime years away from his family and friends than with them.
McCullough clearly looks up to Adams and wants us to do so as well, but this does not blind him to Adams’ flaws, or at least to reporting what others took these flaws to be. He admits Adams made a series of foolish mistakes when he served as Vice President, not least when he pressed for a “high tone” for the new government and its officers, favoring titles akin to those in use at the English Court. For this mistake, Adams earned from his detractors the title “His Rotundity,” not exactly the form of address he had in mind. McCullough is not so besotted by Adams, in other words, that he misses all the “warts.”
Let us also give McCullough a cheer or two at least for his genuine and contagious enthusiasm for the great figures of the founding era. He is quoted as saying: “Who were these people? I don’t think we can ever know enough about them.” Amen, say I, a long-time admirer of John Adams and others of his era.
McCullough gives us here the right standards for measuring his book: Does he allow us to know “who these people,” or this person, John Adams, was? Does he convey what it is about them that makes them worthy of such enthusiasm? It is, unfortunately, when he is measured against his own standards, and not those of the professionals, that McCullough falls short in a number of important ways. Let me mention three.
Much of Adams’ greatness”along with that of so many of his late-eighteenth-century countrymen”derives from his prominence as a political thinker and writer. We hear a good deal from McCullough about Adams’ living quarters preceding the Revolution, but we do not learn about the fact that he authored the Novanglus essays, probably the best statement of the colonial constitutional position produced during the conflict with Britain. We do learn that there was some sort of conflict, but we leave the book not very knowledgeable about what it was. We also learn that Adams published an influential brief, Thoughts on Government , as the soon-to-be states turned to the task of constitution-making in 1776, but McCullough does not tell us what is unique or specially characteristic of Adams’ position, beyond some rather trite observations on checks and balances. McCullough gives a bit more space to Adams’ magnum opus, the Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States , but once again, we learn little from his discussion of it beyond the fact that Adams favored checks and balances.
According to McCullough, the Defense “remained at heart a lawyer’s brief for what he had said in his Thoughts on Government ,” despite the fact, unnoted by McCullough, that the Defense made such modifications in Adams’ earlier position that a leading scholarly survey of his thought is titled The Changing Political Thought of John Adams . McCullough never tells us enough about Adams’ political thought to understand how his Defense contributed mightily to the perception, so widespread in the 1790s, that he had been corrupted by his time in England. Something about the Defense obviously offended in a way that his Thoughts had not. By failing to think about what it might be, McCullough ignores one of the defining aspects of Adams’ life and work. In this respect, C. Bradley Thompson’s recent study of Adams’ political thought, John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty , is far superior.
McCullough makes a stronger attempt to present Adams as a political actor than as a political thinker. He does especially well in his account of what may have been President Adams’ finest hour, his search for a way to avoid war with France. This was a delicate and difficult policy, for his own Federalist party, led by Alexander Hamilton, hungered for such a war, while Jefferson’s Republican Party was inclined to impugn the sincerity of every pro-peace move he made. In other words, he had to achieve his goal with no appreciable base of support.
Yet it must be said that McCullough is only intermittently successful at presenting Adams the statesman, or even at presenting events and issues concretely enough to enlighten the reader about the happenings of Adams’ career. For example, the first great battle of the 1790s occurred over Assumption”Hamilton’s proposal that the federal government assume the debts incurred by the states during the Revolution. Nobody reading McCullough’s book would come away with any understanding of what were the real issues in this debate. McCullough dutifully reports on the controversy that surrounded Adams’ diplomatic service in France”how Franklin and others thought Adams particularly unsuited to diplomacy”but McCullough himself does not investigate closely enough either what Adams did or what he should have done to give us any clear idea of whether this episode represented a failure or a success of Adams as statesman.
Finally, McCullough contributes less than he might have toward understanding John Adams as a person, no small defect in a biography. McCullough shows us Adams acting, he quotes him speaking, he reports what others said of Adams’ character, but he stays remarkably near the surface of the man. How to understand Adams’ devotion to public service? What to make of his alacrity in leaving Abigail and his children so often and for so long? (Compare here the cold Mr. Jefferson’s very different behavior.) Was he really vain, as many (then and now) have alleged? Did his vanity cloud his political judgment? What sort of “self” was he? It is not psychobiography that is needed, but more sustained and probing analysis of character. It can be done better than McCullough has here. For instance, a little book by Peter Shaw called The Character of John Adams gives us more about our hero in its 300 pages than McCullough does in his 750.
When all is said and done, these deficiencies appear to be just the obverse of some of the virtues of this book, especially its accessibility to the general reader. To have done better, McCullough would have had to jeopardize the very thing that makes the book so appealing to a wide public. A better book would have been more challenging. It would have required both author and reader to grapple more profoundly with more facts and situations, ideas and actions, more analysis and less narration. It would have required that McCullough’s book not be what it is: a summer book, well suited for vacation”that is to say, beach reading. Adams deserves, and re quires, more than that. But if even a fraction of McCullough’s readers are lured to more challenging writing on what is truly America’s “greatest generation,” then his book will have deserved its considerable success.
Michael Zuckert is the Nancy R. Dreux Professor of Government at the University of Notre Dame.
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