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John Adams

February 19, 2018

David McCullough writes about interesting people and events, and we love to read about them. Harry Truman, the Wright Brothers, the Johnstown Flood, Theodore Roosevelt are all his subjects. And I think his biography of John Adams (and his wife, Abigail) is the best one we have.

I first decided I should read the biography from a friend who gushed about it back in the early 2000s, when it came out. Later the wonderful and richly rewarded HBO miniseries with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney caught my attention and wouldn’t let go. Suddenly I had to reconcile my old ideas about Adams with this new version: How could I possibly admire or respect a U.S. president who agreed to block free speech? How could I relate to a man who often gave in to emotional and exaggerated outbursts? Did my William Daniels–inflected idea of Adams as an unstoppable but annoying patriot (“Sit down, John!”) have some truth to it? It was high time to find out.

What I didn’t expect was how much I would grow to like John Adams the man. Idealistic, first and foremost, and honest. Amazed at his good fortune in marriage and grateful of life’s blessings. A most loving husband and father. Impassioned about human rights and the future of the country. Unrelentingly sacrificing in service to his country. A loyal-to-the-end friend. But also imperfect: irascible, demanding, a little too pompous and self-aggrandizing.

But what a fabulous wit! So many words he wrote, so many letters sent to Abigail and others, that you might find more collections of his writings than good biographies (kind of the opposite of Washington). In fact, the entry for Adams in Wikiquotes is pretty extensive. Here are just a few of my favorites:

But America is a great, unwieldy Body. Its Progress must be slow. It is like a large Fleet sailing under Convoy. The fleetest Sailors must wait for the dullest and slowest. Like a Coach and six—the swiftest Horses must be slackened and the slowest quickened, that all may keep an even Pace.

Thanks be to God, that he gave me Stubborness, when I know I am right.

My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office [the vice-presidency] that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived; and as I can do neither good nor evil, I must be borne away by others and meet the common fate.

Old minds are like old horses; you must exercise them if you wish to keep them in working order.

McCullough does due justice to all the pieces of Adams’s character, and he does so in a  highly engaging, unceasing manner. He begins his narrative with intimations of what we will discover about Adams—his love of words and his service to country. From that coldly brutal ride from Braintree to Cambridge, the talkative but frugal man emerges from McCullough’s description and we feel we know him within just four pages. “John Adams was . . . a great-hearted, persevering man of uncommon ability and force. He had a brilliant mind. He was honest, and everyone knew it.” McCullough has much more to share with us, though.

We learn of his revolutionary fervor, his favorable and sustaining marriage, his lack of pretense in dress and material things, his undying friendship, and especially his abiding duty to country, even when it repeatedly kept him away from his beloved family and farm. McCullough takes us through the frustration with a snail-like Congress, the isolation of diplomatic positions in England and France, the celebrated friendship with Jefferson and marriage with Abigail, the accomplishments of the Dutch loan and the Treaty of Paris, the boredom of the vice-presidency, and the embroiled presidency during the birth of the two-party system in the new country.

For some reason, in McCullough’s telling, I don’t care that Adams couldn’t possibly live up to the ideal presidency that Washington had established before him. I don’t care that Adams often exaggerated his importance or contradicted himself. His life reads a bit like my sister’s; as flawed as both were, they nevertheless refused to compromise their principles of honesty and family and loyalty.

How can you not love someone like that?

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From → Loves, Uncategorized

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