Hail to Which Chiefs?


Like hemlines and stocks, historical reputations rise and fall on the unseen hands of fashion and the market.

At the moment, for example, John Adams' reputation is enjoying a raging bull market. Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson's personal stock, once the historical epitome of a blue chip equity, is sinking like a telecom. Adams, in fact, is probably more popular today than when he pushed the resolution for independence through the Continental Congress or was elected president.

David McCullough's weighty new biography of Adams has sold an astonishing 820,000 copies since its publication by Simon & Schuster in May; the second president also emerges as the hero of historian Joseph Ellis' bestselling group portrait of the men who made the Revolution--"Founding Brothers." Both authors weigh Jefferson in the balance with Adams and find the Sage of Monticello wanting in both principle and character.

As a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Harry S Truman and popular public television host, McCullough commands a formidable readership of his own. His Adams book is the first nonfiction bestseller in a decade to outsell the summer's most popular fiction title. McCullough has been the voice of American history since his narration of filmmaker Ken Burns' wildly popular history of the Civil War on public television. Still, not all historians are enamored of his character-driven narrative histories.

"The success of his books is further evidence of the gulf between the popular taste in history and serious scholarship," said Jon Wiener, professor of history at UC Irvine.

The popular reputations of historical figures often have as much to do with the attitudes and anxieties of the moment as they do with facts. Americans are as enamored of the personal and confessional in their historical icons as they are in their elected officials. They have as little taste for ideas and ideology in their histories as they do in their candidates.

The public, however, is sufficiently pragmatic that wishful historical thinking and good story sometimes yield to the facts. Thus, the balance of esteem between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee also is being recalibrated. Grant's military reputation has waxed in recent years and, now, an authoritative new history of his two-term presidency--Jean Edward Smith's "Grant" (also published by Simon & Schuster)--has rehabilitated the reputation of an administration that once was a watchword for sloth and corruption. That view was summarized most witheringly by another Adams--John's great-grandson, the historian Henry--who sneered memorably, if unfairly, that "the progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin."

The President Grant who emerges from Smith's convincing book is hardly the negligent drunkard so often placed alongside the inexcusable Warren G. Harding on lists of America's worst presidents. The rehabilitated Grant is an Eisenhower-like chief executive, a serious and efficient administrator who cured the economy of its wartime inflation, pursued a forward-looking foreign policy and was a vigorous friend of civil rights for recently emancipated African Americans.

Academic historians generally have been well-disposed toward the books by their professional colleagues, Ellis and Smith. McCullough--an elegant writer of historical narratives, who once worked at American Heritage Publishing--has fared less well. He has been accused of idealizing and sentimentalizing his subject and of giving undue weight to Adams' unassailably good personal character. Other critics have taxed him with turning a blind eye to the engaging Adams' considerable shortcomings, while judging Jefferson to be cold and distant, sometimes sly and often manipulative.

In one particularly sharp critique in the New Republic, for example, Princeton professor Sean Wilentz tartly observed that, "If sterling character were the main guide to greatness, all America would formally commemorate the birthday of Robert E. Lee instead of the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr."

(It is a comparison that brings to mind another of Henry Adams' acidic appraisals: Given the harm that Lee had done the nation, the historian wrote, it made no difference that the Confederate commander was "a good man. It is always the good men who do the most harm. ... He should have been hanged.")

According to Wiener, "many scholars in the field are very critical of McCullough's biography" and "appreciate the fact that Wilentz took him on. It's not only because McCullough isn't, as it were, a member of the guild. What troubles people is his focus on character at the expense of any serious political analysis.

"Adams, though he came from the great free state of Massachusetts, was the leading conservative of his age," Wiener said. "He favored establishment of a titled aristocracy and jailed people who criticized his presidency. These are things way beyond even the most conservative part of our political spectrum. As far as I know, not even George W. Bush favors a titled aristocracy or favors limiting the franchise to white men of property, which was another of Adams' favorites notions."

None of that appears to have diminished book buyers' enthusiasm for McCullough's particular portrait of John Adams, which in turn suggests a number of interesting things about the state of the nation he was so instrumental in creating.

Small wonder, in fact, that a country still reeling from the one-two punch of Bill Clinton's impeachment and Bush's contested election should renew its admiration for Adams and Grant.

After all, Adams' personal integrity and lifelong devotion to his remarkable wife, Abigail, were celebrated even in his own time. More than 1,000 of the lengthy and eloquently affectionate letters they exchanged still survive. (By comparison, Jefferson burned the letters he exchanged with his late wife.)

Grant's deep attachment to his beloved Julia was similarly storied. He drank excessively only when they were separated. His steadiness and candor in public life seem suddenly bracing. This was a president who, his secretary of state, Hamilton Fish, said, was incapable of telling a lie, "even if he had composed it and written it down" in advance. According to James McPherson, the preeminent Civil War historian, Grant was also the incumbent chief executive whose oversight of the election of 1872 made it "the fairest and most democratic presidential election in the South until 1968."

Moreover, both Adams and Grant have qualities and--almost as important--faults likely to be admired and excused by the country's most influential group of consumers and popular taste-makers, the 78 million aging baby boomers, who now make up one-third of all Americans. Jefferson and Lee, on the other hand, increasingly appear to be on the wrong side of demographic history.

"If you take the central figures among the Founding Fathers--Washington, Jefferson and Franklin, for example," said Leo Braudy, the Bing Professor of English at USC, "they can be rotated so that different facets of their personalities can be used to reflect popular taste. It's a little like asking which of the Beatles you like most: Is it the nice Beatle or the smart Beatle or the reticent Beatle?

"At a cultural level," said Braudy, "what's important is what these popular historical figures enable politically. One of the things that interest me about Adams was his jaundiced view of celebrity.

"He was very aware of the whole premeditated quality that went into the new government's presentation of America on the world stage, of how Washington was chosen for his role, in part, because he was tall and looked good on a horse. I think people today may be attracted to Adams' skepticism about such things," Braudy said.

This year, the vanguard of the huge population bulge born from 1946 to 1964 will reach the sober 55. And if ever there were an American figure calculated to ennoble the satisfactions and anxieties that now accompany progress into stolid middle age, it probably is John Adams.

As prime mover behind the political consensus that charged Jefferson with drafting the Declaration of Independence, he had a past marked by moral courage and intellectual audacity.

As example of the former, McCullough rightly cites his legal defense of the British soldiers who had fired into the crowd during the Boston Massacre. Unlike the aristocratic Jefferson, Adams was a self-made man, son of a small farmer and an illiterate mother. During many years of public service, he was sustained not by the revenue of a great plantation but by Abigail's management of the family farm in Braintree, Mass.

Throughout their lives together, she was his friend and confidant. She held--and expressed influentially--views on race and sexual equality that stood apart from the prejudices of their time.

In the celebrated "Remember the Ladies" letter she wrote to John in March 1776, Abigail credited slave-holding Virginia with having "produced a Washington" but worried that "the passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs." Further on, she concluded an eloquent demand for legal protection of women's interests by writing, "Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex."

He was ambitious but circumspectly modest; he was anxious for his family's material welfare and, therefore, frugal rather than tempted into venality while in public service.

On July 3, 1776, for example, he wrote to Abigail from Philadelphia and before describing passage of the resolution for independence expressed apprehension that his lack of means soon would force him from public life "to support my Family."

Adams went on to describe himself--rather improbably--as one who "delight(s) in nothing so much as Retreat, Solitude, Silence and Obscurity. In private Life, no one has a Right to censure me for following my own Inclinations, in Retirement, Simplicity and Frugality; in public Life, every Man has a Right to remark as he pleases, at least he thinks so."

He was also in the view of many of his contemporaries vain, irritable, difficult and toweringly opinionated. He was deeply suspicious of how ordinary people might exercise their franchise, and in the same letter heralding the advent of independence expressed his wariness that "the People will wield unbounded power. And the People are extreamly addicted to Corruption and Venality ..."

His deference to executive power was such that he sought to have Washington addressed as "His Majesty, the President." As chief executive himself in 1798, he enthusiastically signed the Alien and Sedition Act, which sought to fine and imprison critics of his government. It was the single most repressive piece of legislation ever enacted by the American republic and remains the archetypal affront to basic notions of civil liberties. And after one term, the voters spurned him for Jefferson.

Even McCullough assesses Adams' embrace of the act as "reprehensible," though he argues that it must be viewed "in the context" of possible homefront subversion during the undeclared naval war with revolutionary France.

Clearly, a significant number of Americans are willing to do just that. Many of them, particularly the aging boomers, also appear drawn to Adams' "authenticity" as a recognizable contemporary type with admirable virtues and forgivable faults.

It is an accommodation many--particularly among the baby boom generation--find increasingly hard to concede Jefferson.

As an exemplary 18th century man, who esteemed the life of the mind as no less real than any other, he seems in the contemporary eye increasingly remote and "inauthentic." His interests--architecture, philosophy, connoisseurship of all sorts--were elevated.

Fewer and fewer seem to know quite how to take his friend James Madison's famous remark that Jefferson "believes all men are equal not because he feels it in his heart, but because he reasons it must be so."

Fewer still find it possible to accept any "context" in which intellectual provision could be made for Jefferson's personal reliance on slavery or his covert sexual relationship with Sally Hemmings, who was not only decades his junior, but also his legal property.

In the boomers' collective consciousness, sexual coercion and racism are social sins unexpiated by authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia statute of religious freedom. Taken together, contemporary popular taste judges these contradictory characteristics as hypocrisy and not the inconsistencies of a man who rose above his time in some ways and not in others.

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