12 January 2009

Review of David McCullough’s John Adams

David McCullough. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. (ISBN 0-684-81363-7, 751pp., index, ill.)

After seeing the HBO miniseries John Adams on DVD (we don’t waste our hard-earned money on an HBO subscription) I was intrigued enough to find out more about America’s second president, so I bought McCullough’s book on which the tv-series was based.

Adams is a relatively little-known figure among the Founding Fathers. The extravagant and heroic Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin make for much more interesting reading in history textbooks than Adams, who was never caught out on any sexual sin, never owned any slaves, never invented anything, and never led any battles.

Seen in that light, Adams must seem a terminally boring person, a president who swam against the tide of popular opinion when the country clamored for war with France and who made himself extremely little beloved by signing into law for which any 21st century president would be run out of town for even if he just wondered out loud about the desirability of such a provision: the Alien and Sedition Act. Fair enough, this monstrous law, which elevated personal insults of the president to the level of a criminal offense, ought never even have come to his desk and he should never have signed it.

Yet the second president was no more a monster than the forty-third for all the bile that was directed at both. Though Adams’ transgression of Constitutional safeguards was much more acute than George Bush’s creation of separate judicial procedures for enemy combatants at Guantánamo, since it criminalized speech—and speech against Adams—, there was a context in which Adams agreed to sign this legislation. This context also produced probably his greatest legacy to his country and almost certainly ensured that the infant United States did not die an ignominious crib death. It was Adams’s resolve to avoid war with France, almost at all costs and certainly at great personal political cost, that prevented a disastrous military conflict at a time when the young country could not have prevailed. The Revolutionary War had crippled any military strength the United States could muster from among the untrained farm hands that formed the core of the militia.

At the same time, though, that Adams resisted the evil machinations by Alexander Hamilton—surely the vilest character ever in American politics, period.—to militarize America and prevented the costly and unnecessary build-up of a standing army in peace time, President Adams was enough of a forward-looking realist to see that America’s future safety depended on what he referred to as the “wooden wall:” a strong navy. All of America’s enemies lay across the ocean. Though military success against the Barbary pirates is credited to Adams’s successor Thomas Jefferson, it was thanks to the second president’s insistence not to be distracted with ground troops and funding of a navy that Jefferson had the disposal of a fleet strong enough to defeat a band of Islamic thugs that had so far held all of Europe hostage over right of sea passage in the Mediterranean.

David McCullough’s book is much more than a chronicle of Adams’s presidency or his underestimated involvement in the Revolution. This biography paints a great picture of the man Adams as he was from cradle to grave. A lot of contemporary records have come down to us about John Adams, not in the least because the man was more than merely a prolific correspondent and a firm believer in keeping diaries. There are few people in world history who wrote more than Adams. But in addition to this boon to historians, Adams happened to marry a woman who, if perhaps not a more prolific writer, ranks but little lower on that scale. Most of his children and grand-children also kept diaries. This biography clearly benefits from the enormous library of letters and diaries from the Adams family, his correspondents, and his contemporaries.

One cannot help but gain enormous respect for John and Abigail Adams—and even come to love them in a sense. Their marriage was certainly not idyllic. Abigail suffered from many illnesses and infirmities that sometimes confined her to her bed for weeks or months. The pressures of public life, the burdens of which Abigail often did not feel herself able to endure, led to numerous years of separation while Adams was in Europe, in Philadelphia, or in Washington DC, while his wife remained at home in Massachusetts. And yet these two people were very well matched in every way. Abigail was able to provide her husband not merely the emotional support that would have been expected of a wife in the 18th century. In possession of a keen intellect herself, she was able to provide him with a sounding board and advice on practically any issue he encountered both in his legal and his political career. Abigail is also known to have argued with her husband in favor of incorporating full equal rights for women in the nascent republic. John Adams never committed to supporting such a notion, though he hinted that his reluctance stemmed from a correct appreciation of the mood of the times, which would never have supported it.

Adams stands apart from many of the Founding Fathers by being so normal and mainstream, but also in a sense ahead of his time. Especially on the subject of slavery and racism, the Adamses (both John and Abigail) were very outspoken. While Jefferson too claimed, limply and completely incredibly, to abhor slavery while never doing anything against it, John Adams spoke openly of his belief that all men were truly created equal and that any distinctions on the basis of skin color were morally repugnant. Adams described slavery as a “foul contagion in the human character,” and “an evil of colossal magnitude” (p. 134). Abigail was perhaps even more outraged by slavery, possibly because her father had owned a slave. Yet Adams refused to bring up the topic in the Continental Congress, aware of the fact that it would have killed among the southern states the taste for resistance against the British suppression that Massachusetts was suffering under more than any of the other states. Nevertheless, in his later years, Adams correctly predicted that the issue of slavery would be the cause of civil war between the north and south.

McCullough describes all the important (and many not-so-important) events of his life in admirable detail. Yet I have a few quibbles with the book. The biggest one is that Adams’s faith is hardly ever described. To the modern reader it may seem at times as if Adams believed only in some nebulous spirit-God who smiles benevolently on everything man does as if they are His pets. Adams’s faith seems to play almost no role in his thoughts or his actions. Nowhere are we even told what theology he subscribed to or what sort of church he went to, though one may assume (I do not know this) that he was a Congregationalist like most of rural Massachusetts in the 18th century, and therefore similar to what today would be called a Reformed Baptist. But Adams’s faith, and that of his wife, played a huge role in their lives and, as even the momentary glimpses in McCullough’s book show, provided him with the moral framework that guided him in his political beliefs and his policies. Also, Abigail believed that the calamities that befell Americans may well be the result of God’s wrath on the country for the evil of slavery. Both Adamses lived out of the Bible and enjoyed all of Creation as a gift of God.

I also think that McCullough’s style is, as others have said, too much on “autopilot.” The material seems a little disorganized and often one wonders why some items are even included. At 650 pages it is also simply too long for a popular biography. Many things could have been condensed and left out. What is more, McCullough offers very little argument. The book at times seems like an arrangement of personal writings, but the author provides no framework in which to place the material. Though it is possible to gain an understanding of the historical context of the Alien and Sedition Act through this book, Adams’s biographer includes little or no discussion of this highly controversial scene in American politics. If this were sold simply as a digest of the Adams Papers that would be fine, but McCullough claims it as a biography.

In the end, this is neither the hyped super-biography that it was sold as, nor the horrible failure some reviewers believe it to be. The book avoids the label “mediocrity” fairly easily because it is too well researched and too comprehensive in its inclusion of the various aspects of Adams’s life. But it is true that many topics are treated too superficially. Because of its length, these flaws are quite grave. 3 out of 5 stars.

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