• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

In the American Grain

John Adams

David McCullough
Simon and Schuster, 751 pp., $35.00

David McCullough is America’s most celebrated popular historian. Not only is he the author of a number of excellent best-selling works of history, including his Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of Harry Truman, but for years he has been the mellifluous narrator of PBS’s American Experience and several historical documentaries, including Ken Burns’s Civil War. When most people think about America’s premier historians, they think first about David McCullough. He has more than taken the place in American culture once occupied by Barbara Tuchman. Unlike Tuchman, who feuded with university professors of history, McCullough has the respect of academic historians, maybe because he respects them. McCullough actually attends historical conferences and sits patiently listening to long specialized papers.1 Anyone who does that, and doesn’t have to, deserves respect.

So well known is McCullough that any book he now writes becomes an expectant event. Learning that McCullough was working on a biography of John Adams, readers of popular history and professional historians alike have eagerly awaited its publication. They will not be disappointed. This big but extremely readable book is by far the best biography of Adams ever written. It may do for Adams’s reputation what McCullough’s last biography did for Truman’s. This much underappreciated Founder would be pleased. He never expected posterity to honor him or erect a monument in his memory. It is about time that we did.

McCullough did not set out to write a biography of Adams alone. He originally intended to do a study of both Adams and Thomas Jefferson. But the contrast between the two men’s letters—the hearty and revealing nature of Adams’s correspondence compared to the cool and controlled character of Jefferson’s—convinced him that Adams alone was worth a book. But because the two Founders’ lives were so intermingled, as both friends and political enemies, a life of Adams was bound to include a lot about Jefferson. And, indeed, Jefferson emerges as a major figure in this work, often as a foil for McCullough’s celebration of Adams’s distinctive personality and character.

Adams was born in 1735, the son of a respectable farmer and shoemaker in the small village of Braintree, Massachusetts, just south of Boston. He entered Harvard at age fifteen and was ranked fourteenth out of an entering class of twenty-five. Such ranking was based not on academic promise but on the dignity of the student’s family. Adams ranked as high as he did only because his mother was a Boylston and his father was a deacon in the church; otherwise he would have been very near the bottom of the list. His father wanted his son to become a minister, but Adams realized he was not temperamentally suited for a clerical life, and he chose the law.

Although he built a successful legal practice in Boston, Adams yearned to make it on a larger stage. “I feel my own ignorance,” he wrote in his diary in 1760. “I feel concern for knowledge. I have a strong desire for distinction.” But “I never shall shine, ‘til some animating occasion calls forth all my powers.” Five years later the Stamp Act, which precipitated the crisis between Great Britain and its North American colonies, became that animating occasion, and Adams’s powers turned out to be formidable indeed. Like so many of the Revolutionary leaders, including Washington, Adams first attracted attention by a piece of writing, in his case a newspaper essay in 1765, that became his Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law, which was later republished in England. He next drafted a set of instructions for the town of Braintree that was sent to the Massachusetts legislature expressing a determination to defend American rights. Forty towns in the colony adopted this document. By the late 1760s Adams had become one of the leading patriots of Boston.

By the time Adams joined the Second Continental Congress early in 1776, he had emerged as one of the most prominent patriots in all America. Indeed, in the winter and spring of 1776 no one in the Congress argued more strenuously and more effectively for independence than Adams. His May 15, 1776, resolution calling for the total suppression of all Crown authority in every colony and the assumption of all the powers of government under the authority of the people was tantamount to a declaration of independence—a fact that Adams later complained was “forgotten by all…but a very few.”

Adams threw himself into the Revolutionary cause and served in the Congress on twenty-six committees, including the all-important Continental Board of War and Ordnance, of which he was president. To this board of five members fell the burden of virtually running the war against Great Britain. Jefferson later called Adams “the colossus of independence.” Still, Adams himself never felt appreciated. “I have a very tender feeling heart,” he told his wife, Abigail, in the summer of 1776. “This country knows not, and never can know the torments I have endured for its sake.”

Although separation from his family was one of those torments, nevertheless in 1778 he once again left home and sailed to Paris to aid Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee in bringing France into the war on behalf of the fledgling republic. As McCullough points out, Adams was totally unprepared for this diplomatic mission. He knew nothing of European politics, he could not speak French, he had never laid eyes on a king or queen or the foreign minister of a great power, and he had never set foot in a city larger than Philadelphia. Still, he and the other American commissioners managed to muddle through and keep the war effort going. Yet when he learned in 1779 that Congress had dissolved the commission and made Franklin the sole minister plenipotentiary to France, he was hurt and angry. He returned home just in time to participate in the writing of the new Massachusetts constitution; indeed, he essentially wrote the state’s constitution, which, as McCullough notes, “is the oldest func-tioning written constitution in the world.”

Before Adams could get used to being back in Massachusetts, he learned that the Congress had appointed him one of the ministers to negotiate a treaty of peace with Great Britain. Thus in November 1779, a little more than three months after he had arrived home, the forty-nine-year-old Adams returned to France, where he had more difficulties in dealing with the French. Adams thought that Franklin was much too deferential to Vergennes, the French foreign minister. He believed he understood what Vergennes was up to. “He means…,” he told Congress in one of his typical vivid images, “to keep his hand under our chin to prevent us from drowning, but not to lift our heads out of water.”

When Vergennes ceased communicating with Adams, objecting to his stubborn, bumptious manner, Adams set off on his own for Holland, practicing what he called “militia diplomacy,” in order to secure financial help from the Dutch bankers. By determination and persistence he succeeded admirably. Not only did he get the Dutch republic in 1782 formally to recognize the new American republic, but he was able also to secure a $2 million loan from the Dutch bankers. He regarded his Dutch mission as the greatest diplomatic triumph of his life.

Adams returned to Paris to participate, along with Franklin and John Jay, in negotiating the peace treaty with Britain. Again his undiplomatic boldness and independence irritated everyone, but the treaty gave the Americans pretty much everything they had wanted. In a July 1783 letter to the American secretary of foreign affairs, Franklin famously summed up his view of Adams: “He means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.”

Between 1778 and 1784 John and Abigail had been separated all but three months. Now Abigail joined her husband in Europe, first in Paris and then in London after Adams was appointed the first minister to the Court of St. James. Although he got nowhere with the British, who received him coolly, in collaboration with Jefferson, who had been appointed minister to France, he was able to secure another much needed Dutch loan. In 1788 he returned to the United States, where he was promptly elected the country’s first vice-president. Abigail wondered whether leaving the diplomatic world in order to get involved in politics at home might be “a little like getting out of the frying pan into the fire.”

Although Adams felt humiliated by the fact that he received only thirty-four electoral votes to Washington’s total of sixty-nine, he accepted the vice-presidency, believing, as Abigail said, that any other office would be “beneath him.” His tenure was a difficult one. As president of the Senate he argued for a royal-sounding title for the President, and in his several writings, including his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, written while he was in London, he revealed an obsession with distinctions and with the English constitution and seemed to suggest that a dose of monarchy in America would be good thing. The outbreak of the French Revolution horrified him. “Ahead of anyone in government,” McCullough writes, “and more clearly than any, Adams foresaw the French Revolution leading to chaos, horror, and ultimate tyranny.” Adams was a loyal vice-president, but he was not intimately involved in Washington’s administration. He came to realize that “my country in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”

With Washington’s decision in 1796 not to seek the presidency for a third term, Adams saw himself as the natural heir to the office. Although he was elected president in 1796, he was embarrassed by the closeness of the vote; he received only seventy-one electoral votes to Jefferson’s sixty-eight, which, before the passage of the Twelfth Amendment in 1804, meant that Jefferson became the vice-president. Since Jefferson had emerged as the leader of the opposition Republican Party, Adams as the head of a Federalist administration soon came to realize that he could not count on the same kind of loyalty from his vice-president that he had given to Washington. Opposing views on the French Revolution and the threat to the United States posed by France destroyed the friendship of the two former colleagues, and they rarely consulted each other during Adams’s presidency.

As president, Adams felt the need to maintain Washington’s cabinet for continuity’s sake. It took him awhile to realize that the cabinet was loyal not to him but to Alexander Hamilton, who was calling the shots for the Federalist Party from New York, where he was in private business. Although Adams in his writings on politics had emphasized the crucial importance of the executive in government, he had never actually served as an executive in any organization whatever. He had never been a governor, or a cabinet officer, or a military commander. He hated parties and partisanship and was no lover of standing armies. Yet he was expected to be the head of the Federalist Party and chief executive and commander in chief of the country in a time of great crisis.

  1. 1

    The papers presented at a conference relating to John Adams that he attended are being published in June 2001 as John Adams and the Founding of the Republic, edited by Richard Alan Ryerson (Massachusetts Historical Society/ Northeastern University Press).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print