The Bleak Realism of Our Neglected Colossus

John Rhodehamel is Norris Foundation curator of American history at the Huntington Library and the editor of "The American Revolution: Writings From the War of Independence" (Library of America)

America's moment of global preeminence would be a fine time for a John Adams revival. Not only does the second president deserve the recognition he has rarely achieved but, strangely enough, much of what the man had to say can be addressed to our own generation, the feckless children of this wildly successful United States. We'd do well to listen to the cranky old New England prophet of limits and responsibility. Now, right on time, a compelling new biography by the celebrated public historian David McCullough restores to life this wise and endearing American original.

Adams has languished as the half-forgotten member of that famous company once rendered in reverent uppercase as the Founding Fathers. He's the missing man, the unknown soldier of the American Revolution. In our hearts, on our money, it's always the same familiar triumvirate: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Even Alexander Hamilton, Adams' archenemy, gazes out, bigger than ever, from the face of the new $10 bill. Yet Adams did more to win independence and create the republic than any other statesman except Washington himself. Franklin was a generation older--a founding grandfather--who died in 1790, just a year after the U.S. government got its start. Jefferson won immortality for composing (at Adams' urging) the Declaration of Independence. But after 1776, Jefferson largely sat out the Revolution.

But Adams stood in the thick of battle for almost 40 years, from the beginnings of patriotic resistance to British imperial policies in the 1760s until his defeat by Jefferson in the crucial presidential election of 1800. The Harvard-educated lawyer first became a leader in his native Massachusetts, the most defiant of the 13 rebellious colonies. When Massachusetts sent him to the Continental Congress, Adams emerged as the most influential delegate--the "colossus on the floor"--and an outspoken radical. It was Adams who pushed his colleagues toward the unconditional break with England. The Declaration of Independence was Adams' child, even if the grandeur of its language was Jefferson's. Then Adams sailed to Europe, where he helped work out the all-important military alliance with France and later negotiated the 1783 peace treaty with a humbled Britain. He went on to London as first U.S. ambassador to the British court.

He came home to take office as the first vice president in 1789, serving eight years under Washington. (Adams summed up the vice presidency as well as anyone when he described it as the "most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived," while also observing that "I am nothing, but I may be everything.") When Washington said farewell in 1797, Adams was elected. He was the first president to preside in Washington, D.C. (The man who gave his name to the new capital had served his presidential terms in New York and Philadelphia.) John and Abigail Adams were the first to live in the unfinished Executive Mansion. Progenitor of a distinguished political and literary dynasty, he was also the first and, until this year, the only president to father a president. And, to his abiding chagrin, Adams became the first one-term president, the first incumbent defeated for reelection.

The presidency had been his finest hour. At the sacrifice of his political career, Adams avoided an unnecessary war with France and, by so doing, saved the Union, preserving the fragile experiment in popular government. The United States was a small power struggling to stay afloat in a world convulsed by war between the European superpowers, revolutionary France and monarchical Britain. But the threat was not invading armies or hostile fleets. Domestic turmoil, even civil war, was the real danger facing a country so divided into fiercely ideological "French" and "British" parties. The decade of the 1790s is remembered with good reason as an "age of passion," a time when clinical paranoia seemed to undergird every political platform. The two-party system was only beginning to take shape; rivals were not viewed as legitimate opposition so much as traitors, criminals, enemies of the people. In this overheated climate, the war against France demanded by the pro-British Hamiltonian wing of President Adams' own Federalist party would have shattered the 10-year-old Union. When Adams made peace with France, Hamilton resolved to bring him down, assuring the election of Jefferson, Adams' vice president and an old friend now turned bitter enemy. With his party united behind him, Adams would have been reelected. The presidential election of 1800 was every bit as close as the one that took place exactly 200 years later: Just 250 additional votes would have given the incumbent New York's electoral votes and a second term.

Adams left public life forever when he rode out of Washington on March 4, 1801, a few hours before Jefferson's inauguration. (The two old revolutionaries eventually became friends again.) Adams lived in quiet retirement a quarter of a century longer, dying, remarkably enough, on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. More remarkable still, Jefferson died the same day. Their timing was exquisite. A Yale math professor calculated the odds at 125 million to 1. Americans everywhere saw it as a sign of God's favor on the exceptional nation ordained to lead the world to liberty. And yet, although both men were mourned in death, Adams' reputation continued to decline, Jefferson's to soar. Jefferson's eloquence had made him an all-purpose champion of democracy; Adams was falsely typecast as a grudging reactionary.

If anyone could bring off an Adams revival, it would be McCullough. His last presidential biography, "Truman," was a huge bestseller that won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize and boosted the reputation of the man from Missouri. Part of the vast popular appeal of McCullough's books springs from the unmistakable, contagious affection he feels for his subjects. He probably could not write a satisfactory book about a person he didn't personally like. He has clearly fallen hard for Adams and his wife, Abigail. This is not surprising. John Adams remains, by a wide margin, the most human, most approachable and most lovable of the founders. And his beloved partner in a marriage that flourished for 54 years is an equally remarkable figure. We know this from the Adamses' own writings--tens of thousands of pages of correspondence and diaries, most of which McCullough seems to have made his way through. (Unrolled end-to-end, the microfilm edition of the Adams papers would stretch for about five miles, some 508 reels of film with about 1,000 pages on each reel.) In an age in which all public men were obliged to be accomplished prose stylists, Adams' writing stands out for its vigor, honesty and sardonic wit. The most unusual, and most appealing, aspect of Adams' writing was his habit of dissecting his own character and revealing his most personal emotions. (One can read hundreds of pieces written by Washington or Jefferson without encountering the confessional candor of a single Adams letter.) McCullough knows a good thing when he sees it. Throughout the book, he lets his subjects speak for themselves. The words of John and Abigail Adams, with frequent assists from Jefferson, constitute a substantial fraction of the text. If the book sometimes reads like the collected sayings of John Adams, the result is so captivating that few are likely to complain. (Specialists, though, will be disappointed by the many quotations taken from unreliable 19th-century editions of writings of John and Abigail Adams.)

McCullough is clearly determined not to get bogged down in textbook history. He focuses instead on personalities, bringing his characters vividly to life while unfolding a story that fairly sweeps his readers along--sweeping them, indeed, right past many of the great events that made Adams a great man. It may be his very skills as a storyteller that have made McCullough shy away from the enduring complexities of the American Revolution: What kind of government did the core principle of equality demand? Could that equality ever be achieved? How could freedom and slavery exist side by side? Would a vigorous federal government threaten liberty? How could a republican state hope to rule a territory so large and diverse? Was America's future agrarian or commercial, rural or urban, slaveholding or free labor? McCullough usually elects to sidestep big issues like these, concentrating his considerable talents on keeping the story moving.

At a time when biographies of ballplayers and crooners warrant massive volumes, a life of John Adams in less than 650 pages (excluding notes) seems almost modest. McCullough achieves this welcome economy by beginning in 1776, consigning the first 40 of Adams' 90 years to a 50-page summary and occasional flashbacks. Starting the narrative so well into the life has made for a stronger book.

But one can argue with the choice of opening date. The story might well have begun a year earlier, with the meeting of the Continental Congress in 1775, the year the war started. For all the drama of 1776, the Congress of 1775 was the turning point when the colonies decided to fight together as a 'Continental' league. After that, independence was all but inevitable. Never was Adams' political genius more conspicuously displayed than when he brokered in the spring of 1775 the alliance between Massachusetts and Virginia that assured a united military response.

So why have Americans ignored Adams? McCullough provides some answers and hints at others. Adams made enemies. And he made mistakes. In his first months as vice president, he stupidly gave his opponents a chance to brand him a crypto-monarchist. (The most egregious blunder was a proposal that the chief executive be addressed as "His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of the Liberties of the Same." George Washington reckoned that "Mr. President" would do nicely.) Later, as president, Adams supported the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts, which sought to suppress free speech.

The more important reason for the eclipse of Adams' fame, however, is implied through McCullough's contrast of Adams and Jefferson, the two figures that one fellow revolutionary called the 'North and South Poles of the American Revolution.' Although McCullough's judicious treatment of Jefferson almost conceals his distaste for the Virginian's all but unconscious dishonesty, he does suggest why Americans have always been more eager to embrace Jefferson's sunny optimism than Adams' bleak realism. Jefferson told people what they wanted to hear; Adams told them the necessary truths they didn't want to think about. Adams' wintry precepts were not verses from the gospel of American exceptionalism: He dared to suggest that liberty must be tempered by responsibility, that personal freedom may not be the highest aim of human existence. He argued that abundance itself could be a trap. He could not bring himself to believe that the Revolution had somehow changed human nature and made America forever immune to the selfishness, corruption and decay that have overtaken other nations.

Adams has always been out of step with his country. The young republic was poised to gobble up the continent. The state religion was the pursuit of money and the good of the sovereign individual--some individuals, of course, being more sovereign than others. The Jeffersonian vision that Americans have feasted on so exuberantly for the last two centuries is still largely untroubled by much recognition of the consequences of limitless growth. But success itself is inexorably pushing the United States toward a new age of limits. This is no longer such a young country. Achieving national maturity was what John Adams was talking about all along. Maybe his time has finally come.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World