Saturday, August 18, 2012

John Adams

John Adams
© 2001 David McCullough
751 pages

The memory of some American presidents looms over the national mind like their monuments tower above the landscape. But John Adams has no monument on the National Mall: his face does not stare down from Mount Rushmore or any piece of currency. He is, or was, until the publication of this book, largely forgotten – a downright shameful fact given the importance of his accomplishments.

Name an aspect of the American Revolution, and John Adams was there.  In the early years, his voice was among the most ardent scolding Britain for its abuse of colonial legal rights: at the Continental Congress, he began and led the charge for independence, championed George Washington as leader of the Continental Army, and defended the Declaration of Independence as its author Thomas Jefferson sat by idly.  During the revolution, he endured a long separation from his wife while working to effect war-winning alliances and afterwards, established the new nation’s  credit. Upon his return to the new United States, he served as vice president and then president, pursuing a solitary course of action that kept America from being embroiled in the Napoleonic wars, earning him the contempt and hostility of both parties, but the praise of historians to come.  John Adams was constantly making American history despite not being born into power, wealth, or influence – he was there because time and again he inserted himself into history’s way and stubbornly stood for what he viewed as the right course of action.

While John Adams isn’t a hagiography,  McCullough’s appraisal of his subject is mostly complimentary.  Adams’ heroic aura comes not from grand idealism – for Adams was a pragmatist – or dashing military deeds, but in more mundane virtues. He was hardworking, morally upright, faithful to his cause, driven by duty to live up to his potential, and ever-constant.  When compared to his mercurial and petty contemporaries, not to mention the current lot of demagogues masquerading as public officials, Adams seems the embodiment of statesmanship. McCullough’s criticism is limited to acknowledging that Adams could have, at times, a bit of a temper.

Modern readers may find Adams’ comparative conservatism more problematic than any hot-headedness. Although Jefferson might have viewed the Revolution as being a progressive step forward in the history of mankind, Adams saw colonial rights as being a function of British, and then American, law: they were not so much newly proclaimed as redeemed from the recent abuses of the king. He put little faith in the judgment of excitable masses especially the judgment of men who didn't own land enough to make them financially independent:  men beholden to bosses were too easily influenced to build a free republic on. He also believed that aristocracies were inevitable, and should be thus planned for – their influenced acknowledged, and limited and removed from actual power – and that a government functioned best with a powerful executive whose decisions could not be easily over ridden. Given his fondness for English law, little wonder that the pro-French party railed against him as a closet monarchist with British sympathies and that members of his own party distanced themselves from him at best (as did George Washington) or openly reviled him, like Alexander Hamilton. With Jefferson conspiring with the French minister and both political parties acting as though civil war was about to break out and planning extralegal martial action, little wonder that Adams sullied his reputation somewhat with the Alien and Sedition acts. To his credit, he lived to regret signing those acts – something Wilson never did, and something it is doubtful Bush or Obama ever will do.

 John Adams was no idealist, but his actions speak louder than the words of those we cherish as champions of human progress, like Jefferson – who repeated the thought that all men were created equal in his Declaration, but persisted in keeping his own slaves.  Adams reviled the practice and refused so much as to hire someone else’s slaves: he and his family did most of the work  on their farm while Jefferson sat idly in Monticello, singing praises of Napoleon and tinkering with his gadgets. And for all his conservatism, Adams looked to the future and prepared the United States for it. While Jefferson dreamt of a pastoral republic filled with gentleman farmers (and their slaves, one assumes), Adams saw the future of the nation writ in industry, and commerce. One wonders – had the Erie Canal been proposed in a second Adams administration, instead of Jefferson’s first, would it have found presidential support instead of being a project of New York State alone?

 John Adams is an extraordinarily rich biography. McCullough’s reputation as an historian speaks for itself: this is as engrossing as a novel, and filled with details about Adams as a husband, father,  farmer, public official, statesman, and friend. Of the three McCullough works I've read, this was the most outstanding, in part because of its subject. I've found in him much to admire. 


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