Recovering a 'Fusty' President From Obscurity


It is but the farm of a patriot, a small sign reads. But the estate on a hillside here is so much more: the summer White House of the nation's second president; a monument to the skills and sensibility of a wife who kept the place afloat while her husband worked abroad; a repository of 78,000 artifacts and letters--all original to four generations of John Adams' family.

"This wonderful house," historian David McCullough said during a visit last week. "It is remarkable because everything in it is real. It is all real. It is all theirs. The pictures of George and Martha Washington are the pictures that John and Abigail had commissioned, and they hang in exactly the same place, to this day, where they hung when John and Abigail lived here. Furthermore, the bill of sale is on the back of each one."

With his new biography, "John Adams"--it hit No. 1 on its first day on the market--McCullough is on a mission. First, the 67-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner hopes to reverse the image of Adams as a fussy, fusty figure properly sentenced to an eternity of obscurity as the president who followed Washington. Indeed, in 1819 Adams himself grumbled: "Mausoleums, statues, monuments will never be erected to me."

While he is at it, McCullough would like the National Park Service and the city of Quincy to restore the property to its agrarian roots. McCullough envisions sheep and cows grazing in green pastures, just as they did when Abigail Adams tended the farm while her husband served as this country's ambassador to France.

"It is high time," McCullough said, "that the country woke up to John and Abigail Adams."

McCullough himself woke up to Adams while researching what he thought would be a book on the curious relationship between two of the architects of American independence, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The men were very different. Adams was short, stout and sensationally lacking in tact. Jefferson was a dandy and a diplomat. Jefferson kept slaves; Adams was the only Founding Father who as a matter of principle never owned a slave. Adams compulsively saved his personal correspondence. Jefferson burned his family letters. "We don't even know what his wife looked like," McCullough said.

Though Adams rose from meager beginnings, he left an estate of $100,000, a princely amount for the time. Jefferson died in debt. They respected and sometimes loathed one another. On July 4, 1826, both men died. "Jefferson survives!" Adams said with one of his final breaths.

Jefferson himself called Adams "the Colossus of Independence," McCullough said, adding, "If Jefferson was the pen to the Declaration of Independence, Adams was the voice."

Barely into seven years of research and writing, McCullough opted to turn his full attention to the farmer's son from Braintree, Mass.

"I found him more interesting, more reachable," he said of Adams. "He tells us more about himself than any of the other patriots of the day. He is more forthcoming. He is pungent and opinionated. He is funny. Of course, he is also brilliant. He is four-dimensional, not three."

Adams, McCullough pointed out, crafted the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the oldest democratic constitution still in use anywhere in the world. That document provided the framework for the U.S. Constitution.

With Abigail, Adams also lived out "one of the great love stories of history," McCullough said. Their passion was so deep, their devotion so relentless--and their correspondence so thorough--that McCullough found himself writing, essentially, two biographies at once.

"Someone asked me if now I planned to write about Abigail Adams," he deadpanned. "I said, 'I already have.' "

At the Adams homestead, National Park Service curator Kelly Cobble said, "We all just gasped" when McCullough proposed returning the site to a working farm. The idea was fine, Cobble said, but impractical. Not until the 1970s did the land come to the park service, via the Quincy Historical Society, the Daughters of the American Revolution and, finally, the descendants of John and Abigail Adams.

"My whole image is of the apple orchards that were here when John Adams was a boy. When we're trying to interpret John Adams and there are cars and trucks and buses flying by, it's kind of difficult," Cobble said. "But we would never want to offend anyone in Quincy by taking their land."

In any case, he said, budget limitations make the historian's plans for expansion unlikely.

As the father of a future president, John Quincy Adams, John Adams' story also sheds some light on the only other father-son pair of presidents in American history, McCullough said. Among the many similarities between John and John Quincy Adams and George and George W. Bush, Adams noted, is that the two fathers each adored their first-born sons--and vice versa.

Both sons grew up with access to the finest educations: John Quincy Adams went to Harvard University; George W. Bush to Yale University, then to Harvard. The Texas twang of the current White House occupant notwithstanding, both sets of father-son presidents claim strong roots in New England. Both John Quincy Adams and George W. Bush were raised by powerful mothers.

"And both John Quincy Adams and George W. Bush ascend to the presidency with less than the popular vote of their opponent--who in each case is from Tennessee," McCullough said. "Beyond that, I think you begin to run out of comparisons."

Americans, McCullough said, need to know about the individuals and the ideals that created this country. Young people in particular, he went on, need to see the past as more than a costume pageant.

"We are raising a generation of Americans, sadly, in this country that is historically illiterate," McCullough said. "How can we know where we are going if we don't know our origins?"

His voice turned stony as he concluded: "To be ignorant of that past on a massive basis is plain dangerous. The system will not work if we don't have people who understand it."

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