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.
The crisis was caused by the European war between revolutionary France and monarchical Britain, with the Jeffersonian Republicans supporting France and the Federalists supporting Britain. Despite the fact that the neutral United States had signed Jay’s Treaty with Britain in 1795, France believed that most of the American people were really behind their revolution and opposed to Britain. Encouraged in this belief by the Jeffersonian Republican opposition, the French began seizing American ships and threatening an invasion of the United States.
In 1797, Adams attempted to emulate what Washington had done in 1794– 1795 in sending John Jay as a special emissary to Britain to head off war. But Adams had no such luck with his three-man mission to France. The French government refused to receive the American emissaries, and indeed humiliated them by having the French agents X, Y, and Z (as they were designated in the American dispatches) demand a bribe from the United States. Learning of this XYZ Affair in 1798, many Americans went into a frenzy and Adams’s administration prepared for open war with France. Believing that the Republican supporters of France were being aided by recent immigrants and opposition newspaper editors, the Federalists in Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, designed to curb immigration and political dissent.
Although Adams had not asked for these bills, he signed them, and they became in history’s eyes, as McCullough admits, “the most reprehensible acts of his presidency.” But the crisis seemed real at the time; Abigail actually feared for her husband’s safety from mobs in Philadelphia. Washington was called out of retirement to lead an army numbering in the tens of thousands, with Hamilton second in command and the de facto commander in chief. Adams felt himself carried along by these developments, but in creating a Navy Department in 1798 and in building ships to defend the country he took the lead. Indeed, his support for the navy was one of his proudest achievements.
Yet Adams hated war and militarism as much as any of the Revolutionaries, and in what McCullough rightly calls “the most decisive action of his presidency” and “perhaps the bravest” act of his career, he sent another mission to France in search of peace. He made this momentous decision without consulting anyone, even Abigail; he knew that his cabinet and most of the Federalist Party would fiercely oppose any attempt at peace with France. Although Jefferson as the leader of the Republican opposition also wanted peace with France, “he was,” writes McCullough, “unable to accept what Adams had done at face value, or to give him any credit.” Adams was as alone in this decision as he ever was in his life. Before word could come back that France had accepted the mission and made peace with the United States, Adams had lost the presidential election to Jefferson.
The election of 1800, says McCullough, was “a contest of personal vilification surpassing any presidential election in American history.” Not only did his former friend Jefferson secretly participate in spreading scurrility against Adams, something Adams never did to Jefferson, but Hamilton and the hard-line Federalists also worked against his election. Despite all these difficulties, Adams came close, with sixty-five electoral votes to Jefferson’s seventy-three. Unlike his response to many of his earlier setbacks, Adams expressed no bitterness, envy, or anger at his defeat. The sixty-five-year-old man was desperate to get back to Quincy, Massachusetts, and to Abigail. But before he left office in 1801 he appointed John Marshall as chief justice of the United States in what was surely the most significant presidential appointment he ever made.
These are the public events in the career of this extraordinary American, and McCullough takes us through them in graceful and readable prose. But public events are not the central point of his book. As McCullough once wrote in a collection of his essays published in 1992, “I am drawn to the human subject, to people and their stories, more often than to large current issues or any particular field of academic inquiry.” McCullough’s focus remains always on Adams and his personal relationships, especially his relationship with his wife, Abigail. Consequently, he does not engage in any academic debates with historians about their views of Adams. Although McCullough notes Adams’s wide range of reading, from Adam Smith and Samuel Johnson to Shakespeare, and his stress on “the perils of unbridled, unbalanced democracy,” he does not analyze in any depth Adams’s very formidable theories about government and politics and the changes they underwent during the course of his career.2
McCullough mentions Adams’s draft of a Model Treaty for the Continental Congress in 1776, but he does not spell out the radical significance of this Model Treaty for American ideas of foreign policy in the decades to come. The Model Treaty envisioned a world of nations without any traditional military and political alliances and tied together solely and peacefully by commerce. Were the principles of the Model Treaty “once really established and honestly observed,” Adams later said, “it would put an end forever to all maritime war, and render all military navies useless.” Since his book is very much a study of Adams the person, McCullough does not explore these kinds of issues.
McCullough, of course, does not ignore what he calls the “settings” or “background” of his characters. He wants us to know just how cold it was in Boston in the winter of 1776 or how noisy the streets of London were in 1785. The details of the public world of his characters are always important. But he does not want the background or the public world to overwhelm his human subjects. In this biography McCullough gives us just enough information about the principal events that Adams was involved in to make his participation comprehensible. In other words, this is not “a study of a life and times.” It is almost all “life,” and we come to see all these stirring events in this turbulent period of revolutions, wars, and nation-building through the eyes of Adams and his family.
Because McCullough writes from Adams’s point of view, he occasionally takes Adams’s word for events that were sometimes questionable. In 1768, for example, Adams had become sufficiently prominent that royal officials tried to buy him off by offering him the office of advocate general in the Massachusetts Court of Admiralty. Although the office was “a plum for an ambitious lawyer,” McCullough says that Adams “had no difficulty saying no.” Perhaps, but there is some contemporary evidence that he did have some difficulty saying no. Likewise, in dealing with Adams’s taking on the legal defense of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre of 1770, McCullough describes Adams simply as he later saw himself, as the courageous and isolated defender of a fair trial for the enemy in defiance of public opinion. But McCullough doesn’t mention that Samuel Adams and other Boston patriots were actually eager for Adams to take on the defense of the soldiers, perhaps in an effort to protect the reputation of Boston in the Empire.
Despite a few examples of this sort, in general McCullough is almost always as honest about Adams as Adams was about himself. He criticizes Adams when he thinks he was wrong, as with the Alien and Sedition Acts. But mostly he sees Adams as Adams saw himself. This is understandable when we take into account the extraordinary character of the John Adams Papers, lodged at the Massachusetts Historical Society.3 Anyone working with them is bound to be captivated by Adams’s point of view.
None of the other Founders passed on such a rich and revealing body of personal documents as Adams did. Franklin and Jefferson left huge collections of their papers, but both men always seemed to have written their letters with the larger world very much in mind, and their correspondence conceals as much as it communicates. Not Adams. He was, as his friend Benjamin Rush explained, “a stranger to dissimulation.” He wrote as he talked. He could not hide his feelings, and he spilled out his innermost passions onto the pages of his diaries and his personal letters to friends and especially to Abigail. He was ambitious and sensitive, vulnerable and wide-eyed in the face of the larger world that he confronted. Although on first impression he might have seemed stiff and austere, he was actually a man of great feeling. His sensuousness, his attraction to “every thing which can lay hold of the Eye, Ear, and Imagination,” was astonishing. A view of a Roman Catholic Mass or the sounds and smells of an early morning evoked a vividly descriptive prose that is unmatched by any of the other Founders. Here, for example, is Adams’s private description of his minister in Braintree, Massachusetts:
P[arson] W[ibird] is crooked, his head bends forward…. His nose is a large Roman nose with a prodigious bunch protuberance upon the upper part of it. His mouth is large and irregular, his teeth black and foul and craggy…. His eyes are a little squinted, his visage is long and lank, his complexion wan, his cheeks are fallen, his chin is long, large, and lean…. When he prays at home, he raises one knee upon the chair, and throws one hand over the back of it. With the other he scratches his neck, pulls the hair of his wig…. When he walks, he heaves away, and swags one side, and steps almost twice as far with one foot as the other…. When he speaks, he cocks and rolls his eyes, shakes his head, and jerks his body about.
Henry Fielding could scarcely have done better. Indeed, writes McCullough, “In another time, under different circumstances, [Adams] might have become a great novelist.” Connected with his acute sensibility was his love of friendship. “He was,” writes McCullough, “lively, pungent, and naturally amiable—so amiable, as Thomas Jefferson would later write, that it was impossible not to warm to him.” Reading this biography we cannot help coming to the same conclusion.
Jefferson earlier did not have such a warm view of Adams. In 1783 Jefferson told Madison that he was at a loss to judge how Adams would act in the peace negotiations with Britain. “He hates Franklin, he hates Jay, he hates the French, he hates the English. To whom will he adhere?” Adams was vain and without taste, said Jefferson. Yet he seemed to have integrity. “At any rate,” Jefferson concluded, “honesty may be expected even from poisonous weeds.”
The relationship of Adams and Jefferson is a major theme of the book, and McCullough misses no opportunity to compare and contrast the two men. In character there is no contest. Adams emerges as the more honest, the more humorous, the more lovable, and the more sensible, at least in his personal economy. While John and Abigail in France scrimped and lived in what Jefferson called an extremely “plain” style in order to stay within Adams’s salary, Jefferson spared himself nothing. In Paris, as earlier in Philadelphia, he was “an irrepressible shopper.” He bought everything he saw—a new dress sword, silver forks and spoons, candlesticks, wine, violin strings, the model of a hydraulic engine, new French clothes, paintings, terra-cotta busts, and hundreds of books. He never held back, says McCullough. He spent 200 francs (the equivalent of three months’ wages for the average French worker) on fifty-nine bottles of Bordeaux. He spent 15,000 francs fixing up a chariot he fancied. He remodeled his house in Paris and, according to McCullough, “spent half his salary buying more and finer furniture than needed.” When he finally got to London, “he thought only the shops worthy of attention, and devoted ample time to them, spending lavishly” on a variety of goods.
Although Jefferson recorded all his expenses in his tidy accounts, never once did he add up his profit and loss for any year. He turned to French bankers for loans to cover his expenses, and when they balked at lending him money, he asked Adams to arrange a loan for him from Dutch bankers. When he was later unable to repay this advance, he turned to private creditors and went still deeper in debt. By the time he became secretary of state in 1790 he owed British creditors the colossal sum of £7000. Not surprisingly Jefferson, unlike Adams, died deeply in debt, forcing his heirs to sell both his slaves and Monticello.
One of the greatest contrasts between the two Founders, of course, was their different involvement with African-American slavery. Although Jefferson hated slavery as much as he hated debt, he never was able to free more than a few of his many slaves any more than he was able to pay off his debts. As Northerners, the Adamses naturally found it much easier to condemn slavery, John calling it “that foul contagion in the human character.” As early as 1774 Abigail saw the contradiction between slavery and the freedom that Americans were presumably fighting for. She felt her own racial prejudices and fought against them, believing that “the liberal mind regards not what nation or climate it springs up in, nor what color or complexion the man is of.” In the 1790s she single-handedly forced her reluctant Quincy neighbors to accept the presence of a free black boy in the local school, arguing that “the boy is a freeman as much as any of the young men,” and he was not to be denied instruction “merely because his face was black.” Adams and Jefferson never really could talk frankly about slavery. Once near the end of his life Adams did write an impassioned letter to Jefferson on the evils of slavery and what it portended for the breakup of the Union. In response Jefferson chose to say nothing, and Adams never pressed him further. By and large most of the Founders chose to avoid the issue.
McCullough is well aware of the ironies involved in any comparison of these two Founders, especially as they faced one another in the election of 1800. Jefferson, the Virginia aristocrat and slave master who lived in a style fit for a prince, as removed from his fellow citizens and their lives as it was possible to be, was hailed as the apostle of liberty, the “Man of the People.” By contrast, “Adams, the farmer’s son who despised slavery and practiced the kind of personal economy and plain living commonly upheld as the American way, was scorned as an aristocrat who, if he could, would enslave the common people.” But, of course, Jefferson always said the right things about the American people, whereas Adams in his voluble writings went out of his way to stress the American people’s faults—their love of distinction and lack of virtue. In his lifelong quarrel with the American people Adams was always his own worst enemy.
But despite all the time McCullough spends on the relationship between Adams and Jefferson, especially during their long correspondence carried on in retirement, he still devotes most of his attention to the remarkable relationship that existed between Adams and his wife, Abigail. In an important sense this biography is the story of a marriage, and what a wonderful marriage it was. John and Abigail needed each other, and for all the time they spent apart, they never became used to being separated. “They were,” as McCullough says, “of one and the same spirit.” Adams needed someone to confide in, someone to salve his many wounds, someone who was as smart as he was, and who had good judgment and could keep his exuberance and passion under control. “I can do nothing without you,” he told Abigail over and over. For her part, she needed someone she could respect and love at the same time. “Where others might see a stout, bluff little man,” writes McCullough, “she saw a giant of a great heart, and so it was ever to be.”
Because they were so much apart—their love story, said Abigail, rivaling that of Penelope and Ulysses—they exchanged letters, over a thousand of them, only half of which have ever been published. They were not just man and wife and lovers; they were also each other’s best friend. “My dearest friend,” wrote Abigail on Christmas Day, 1780. “How much is comprised in that short sentence? How fondly can I call you mine, bound by every tie which consecrates the most inviolable friendship, yet separated by a cruel destiny, I feel the pangs of absence sometimes too sensibly for my own repose.” Age and the end of the dangers of war did not ease the pain of separation. “Years subdue the ardor of passion,” she wrote in 1793, “but in lieu thereof friendship and affection deep-rooted subsists which defies the ravages of time, and whilst the vital flame exists.”
The tragedy of their children’s lives made them even more dependent on each other. Except for their eldest son, John Quincy, who was everything they could have wished for, their three other children suffered terribly, and even John Quincy experienced severe bouts of depression. Their sole surviving daughter, Nabby, whose husband landed in debtors’ prison, died of breast cancer at age forty-nine. Their second and third sons, Charles and Thomas, were failures and became alcoholics, Charles dying of drink at age thirty.4 Whatever Adams’s public difficulties, they paled beside the family’s private sorrows.
Indeed, the private sorrows made the public difficulties more bearable. Through it all, Adams and Abigail clung to each other. They exchanged views on everything—from politics to the price of clover seed. “I want to sit down and converse with you, every evening,” wrote Abigail, and she did, in her letters. He felt neglected, scorned, and he yearned for praise, and she gave it to him, along with shrewd political judgments. She was, as Congressman Fisher Ames observed, “as complete a politician as any lady in the old French Court.” When she died in 1818 at the age of seventy-four, Adams was devastated. She was, he said, “the dear partner of my life of fifty-four years as a wife, and for many years more as a lover.”
That McCullough can make us care about this couple as if they were our intimate friends is a measure of his achievement. Indeed, his special gift as an artist is his ability to recreate past human beings in all their fullness and all their humanity. In John and Abigail Adams be has found characters worthy of his talent.
June 21, 2001
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). ↩
For a recent sophisticated study of Adams’s political thought, see C. Bradley Thompson, John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty (University Press of Kansas, 1998). ↩
Although the Adams manuscripts are available in microfilm, they are gradually being published in a magnificent letterpress edition by Harvard University Press. ↩
For insightful analyses of the tribulations of the Adams family, see the several splendid works of Paul C. Nagel, which include a biography of John Quincy Adams, a study of four generations of the John Adams family, and a book on the Adams women. ↩