Simon & Schuster, 2001, 752 pages
The enthralling, often surprising story of John Adams, one of the most important and fascinating Americans who ever lived.
In this powerful, epic biography, David McCullough unfolds the adventurous life-journey of John Adams, the brilliant, fiercely independent, often irascible, always honest Yankee patriot -- "the colossus of independence," as Thomas Jefferson called him -- who spared nothing in his zeal for the American Revolution; who rose to become the second President of the United States and saved the country from blundering into an unnecessary war; who was learned beyond all but a few and regarded by some as "out of his senses"; and whose marriage to the wise and valiant Abigail Adams is one of the moving love stories in American history.
I know him
That can’t be
That’s that little guy who spoke to me
All those years ago
What was it, eighty-five?
That poor man, they’re gonna eat him alive!
Next to Washington, they all look small
Watch them run
They will tear each other into pieces
Jesus Christ, this will be fun!
— I Know Him, Hamilton
Book three in my journey through American history via presidential biographies. (Yes, Adams was POTUS #2; I started with Lyndon Johnson.) I don't know if any of them will live up to Robert Caro's LBJ epic, but David McCullough's biography of John Adams is certainly equal to Ron Chernow's biography of George Washington.
So, speaking of Ron Chernow, it was his biography of Alexander Hamilton that was the basis of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton. Now, I quite like Hamilton, but after reading this book, I really want to read Chernow's bio, because it's pretty clear that Miranda took some liberties. Of course, Miranda was writing a musical, not a biography, but seeing as how it appears that Hamilton is going to be this generation's Schoolhouse Rock, it's a shame if they come away with the impression that Adams was a petulant, inept one-term nobody, because he really wasn't.
John Adams was a mellow Massachusetts Puritan (he later became a Unitarian) whose father wanted him to be a minister, but he went to Harvard and became a lawyer instead. He was defense counsel for the British soldiers responsible for the Boston Massacre, and only came to the revolutionary cause with some reluctance. He was America's first Ambassador to France and England, then America's first vice president, and then its second president, and its first one-term president and the only president ever to have to run against his own vice president. He and his wife were perfect little lovebirds and intellectual equals. Adams outlived his wife and three of his children. One of his sons would also become president; two others would die penniless alcoholics. His early political career was in the shadow of George Washington; the second half of his career was a constant war with his old frenemies, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.
David McCullough's biography of John Adams is the current gold standard. There was an HBO miniseries based on it, starring Paul Giamatti. (I haven't seen it yet.) McCullough approaches John Adams with enthusiasm, considering him to be one of our most neglected historical figures, and giving him the love and attention he deserves. This is overall a very favorable biography; McCullough clearly liked the guy. After reading it, you'll probably like the guy too. It's also becoming a lot harder to like Alexander Hamilton... or Thomas Jefferson.
Contrary to Hamilton's frankly scurrilous attacks on him, Adams could occasionally be grumpy and sharp-tongued, but he always held his temper in public, and his persona in public and private was that of a genial gentleman who was always prepared to believe the best of everyone. This was perhaps a flaw that afflicted him throughout his life, from his diplomatic missions to Europe to his single term as president, when he made the mistake of keeping Washington's cabinet.... all of whom were Hamilton's men and working against him.
"Remember the ladies"
Abigail Adams deserves a biography of her own — unlike dear old Martha Washington, she actually had opinions, and her husband listened to them. It was charming reading about John and Abigail's relationship throughout their lives, often told in letters during their long separations. Ironically, Abigail hadn't been John's first choice; he almost proposed to another girl but was interrupted, and some other guy swept her away first. He admitted to being a little girl-crazy in his younger years, though for this conservative Puritan, that probably didn't mean much more than a lot of lusting in his heart. But then he fell for his third cousin, Abigail Smith, and the two of them were very much in love until Abigail's passing 54 years later.
Abigail Adams is often considered a proto-feminist for a famous letter she wrote to her husband at the Continental Congress in 1776:
"I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation."
According to McCullough, who puts this in context of their other correspondence, and their general tone towards one another, this was a sort of half-serious, joking-but-not-entirely suggestion. Abigail probably really did mean what she wrote, but she was also teasing her husband, and certainly wasn't serious about the ladies "fomenting a rebellion." She might have liked the idea of women being given the vote, but she didn't really expect it... at least, not in 1776.
There is another famous pair of letters in which John sends Abigail a "Catalogue of her Faults". He's clearly teasing — one of her "faults" is that she's terrible at playing cards. But Abigail responded quite cheekily in kind, telling him, among other things, when he criticizes her habit of sitting cross-legged, that he shouldn't be paying attention to a lady's legs. During the years John spent in Europe, Abigail begged him to say "I love you" in his letters, and poor sappy John explained that he was afraid of them being intercepted and the British making fun of him.
(In fairness, his letters being intercepted, and anything worthy of mockery being printed in the British press, was a real possibility. Imagine the country you're at war with intercepting your love letters to your wife and printing them in the papers to make you the 18th century equivalent of a lolcow.)
Abigail was pretty progressive for her time (like John), and while she was always supportive of him, she also had some choice words for other gentlemen, including a certain Thomas Jefferson, whose relationship with John Adams would have epic ups and downs until they day they both died, hours apart.
Ambassador to France and England
Adams' adventures in Europe were in a lot of ways much more interesting, and impactful, than his later term as president.
In 1777, John sailed to France, along with his 10-year-old son, John Quincy. He met Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. He clashed frequently with Benjamin Franklin, who had become rather lazy and complacent. Adams was less enamored of the French than Franklin, believing (correctly) that the French were not supporting the Americans out of any sympathy for their ideals, but in hopes of snapping up their territories from Britain. Adams had a lot of difficulty in Paris, especially because the French foreign minister didn't like him. He ended up returning to the U.S. feeling frustrated and slighted, but in 1779, he was sent back. He disliked Franklin, and spent the whole time intermediating between Franklin and their other envoy, Arthur Lee. The French minister wanted the American Congress to subordinate itself to the French court in its negotiations with England; Adams finally got Franklin to agree to negotiate without "approval" from France.
He traveled to the Netherlands to negotiate Dutch loans, and tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a Dutch-American alliance. After the Treaty of Paris, Adams was sent to London as America's first ambassador to Great Britain. He had polite meetings with King George III, who a few years earlier had made it clear that while he was prepared to pardon some of the other signers of the Declaration of Independence if they ceased their rebelling, Adams was going to get the noose. He was treated contemptuously by the British press, considered inelegant and undiplomatic by his fellow ambassadors, and generally had a miserable time. Abigail joined him this time, and while she grew to enjoy London arts and culture, she didn't like the city either. Among other things, it was extremely expensive, and Adams was not being highly paid.
While in London, they also spent time socializing with their old friend, Thomas Jefferson, and met his 14-year-old Negro maid (diplomatically not called a "slave" while in London) Sally Hemings, who struck the Adamses as a bit hapless and too immature for the nanny duties she was supposedly there for. But their son John Quincy spent a lot of time with the Jeffersons, who lived large and well beyond their means.
Upon returning to America, Adams was chosen by George Washington, without a lot of enthusiasm, to be his running mate in what was an essentially uncontested election. Washington being a Southerner, he needed a New Englander to assuage the North.
Under the U.S. Constitution, the vice president's only duties are to break ties in the Senate, and otherwise hang around as a spare. Thus John Adams began the tradition of VPs mostly fading to invisibility and rarely having much to do with the running of the government. But in his eight years as Washington's vice president, as he generally sided with Washington and the Federalist party, he came under increasing attack from Jefferson's Republicans. Republican papers began attacking Adams viciously in ways they wouldn't quite dare to attack Washington (yet). After Adams suggested that the president should be addressed as "His Highness" or "His Majesty," the press called Adams "His Rotundity." Accusations of monarchical sentiments would plague him for the rest of his political career (accusations that were also made against Washington, equally unjustly). Like Washington, Adams avoided parties and politicking, only to find that even if he wasn't interested in political parties, political parties were interested in him.
It was during this time that Adams' estrangement with Thomas Jefferson began. They were on opposite sides in the developing party politics of the early Republic, and while Adams tried to preserve their friendship, Jefferson was a very political animal. Additionally, Alexander Hamilton was pulling strings behind the scenes, an enemy of Jefferson but also no friend of Adams.
Despite all this, as John jokingly said to Abigail, "I am the heir apparent, you know." He ran against Jefferson in the first contested election, in 1796. After he won, he became the first president who had to serve with his opponent as vice president. He wanted Jefferson to stand with him and signal they would work together, and in a tragic "what if?" moment in history, Jefferson wrote a very flattering, congratulatory letter to Adams that probably would have altered the entire tone of both their administrations — but he ran it by his fellow Republican James Madison first, and Madison told him it was too complimentary, and they needed to be more political. So Adams never received the letter, and his estrangement from Jefferson grew.
When the French Revolution broke out, Adams was appalled by the bloodshed; Jefferson thought it was just what any growing country needed. Meanwhile, neither America nor Great Britain were strictly upholding the terms of the treaty that had ended the war, but America was in less of a position to do anything about it. When special envoy John Jay came back from London with a lame treaty that got very few of the concessions Americans wanted, much of the country, especially the Democratic-Republicans, were enraged. Adams, whose sentiments were not precisely pro-Britain, but who had a realistic view of what could be accomplished from having been there, backed Jay, knowing he'd done his best. Jefferson, who hated Britain and wanted closer ties with France, only became more enraged, even as France went to war with Britain, and then began seizing American ships. Adams ended up sidelining Jefferson completely.
How does Hamilton the short-tempered
Protean creator of the Coast Guard
Founder of the New York Post
Ardently abuse his cab’net post
Destroy his reputation?
Welcome, folks, to
The Adams administration!
Jefferson’s the runner-up, which makes him the Vice President
Washington can’t help you now, no more mister nice President
Adams fires Hamilton
Privately calls him “creole bastard” in his taunts
Hamilton publishes his response
Sit down, John, you fat mother—[BLEEP]
So, back to Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda didn't even bother to cast John Adams as a character in his play, but the poor guy got portrayed as a butt-monkey in the war between Hamilton and Jefferson, and rather ahistorically so.
John Adams never fired Hamilton. Hamilton resigned as Secretary of the Treasury at the end of Washington's administration. Adams kept the cabinet Washington left him... all of whom were Hamilton's men. They were practically laughing behind his back (in a very genteel 18th century way) during most of his administration, until he finally did get around to firing a couple of them, much too late.
Hamilton was mostly pissed at Adams because he wanted to raise a standing army and go take Florida and Louisiana. Adams put the kibosh on that because he quite sensibly thought that the last thing America needed was wars with France and Spain. They were already in practically an undeclared war with France.
Hamilton was pulling strings to sabotage both Adams and Jefferson and try to get his handpicked successor into the White House. He really did write an incendiary polemic about Adams: Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States, [24 October 1800]. For about 50 pages, he went on about how unfit Adams was and all the mistakes he'd made as president, only to end by.... praising his virtues and saying he wasn't telling anyone not to vote for him. Uh???
The effect of this polemic was to damage John Adams, but make Hamilton look like he was the unhinged loser. It pretty much ended his political influence.
And as far as I can tell, John Adams never called Hamilton a "creole bastard." The closest he came was in a letter to his friend Benjamin Rush, in which he said:
Yet I loose all Patience, when I think of a bastard brat of a Scotch Pedler, daring to threaten to undeceive the World in their Judgment of Washington, by writing a history of his battles and Campaigns.
In 1800, Jefferson ran against the sitting president he served under. Adams was trying to negotiate peace with France from a very tenuous position. One of his sons had died a dissolute alcoholic. The papers were calling him an outright monarchist and worse.
Adams was also (with justification) being heavily criticized for the Alien & Sedition Acts, which essentially made it illegal to "defame" or speak "maliciously" about the government. They weren't Adams' idea, but it was the Federalist Congress that passed them, and he signed them into law. While Adams himself never used them to prosecute anyone, people were prosecuted under them for sedition.
Losing to Jefferson and becoming America's first one-term president might have stung initially, but in his subsequent life, it was pretty clear that he enjoyed being an ex-president much more than he'd ever enjoyed being president.
"Thomas Jefferson survives."
Adams spent the rest of his life as a gentleman farmer. He became a grand old elder statesman, mostly refraining from politics. He started to write an autobiography, being somewhat concerned with how history would see him, but he never finished it.
He lived to see a second son die of alcoholism, his daughter die of breast cancer, and he outlived Abigail by eight years.
But he also lived to receive Lafayette as a visitor on his return to the United States, and he lived to see his son, John Quincy, become president.
During the period after Jefferson too retired from public life, the two of them took up correspondence and renewed their friendship, despite their bitter feuds of the past. They still sparred a little philosophically and politically, but both of them had become mellower old men. Abigail Adams never forgave Jefferson (and wrote him a few blistering letters when he tried to explain himself to her). The Adams were particularly incensed by the Sally Hemings affair, which broke into the public while Jefferson was president. But John exchanged letters with Jefferson for years, talking about everything from literature and philosophy to slavery, which Adams had always opposed and thought would always be a stain on the country until it was abolished.
(It's fair to note that Adams did very little during his presidency to end slavery, but it's also fair to note that there isn't much he could have done — the great battles over free or slave-owning territories were in the future, and there was simply no will to end slavery in Congress without dissolving the Union.)
On July 4th, 1826, John Adams lived to see the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Then he passed away, at the age of 90. His last words were "Thomas Jefferson survives." Unknown to him, Thomas Jefferson had passed away a few hours earlier.
The Forgotten Founder
Well, it's an exaggeration to say John Adams is forgotten. But he's among the least famous of the early presidents. He had George Washington on one side of his one term, and Thomas Jefferson on the other. He was plump, vain, and occasionally acerbic, remembered as a good man but maybe not such a great president.
As McCullough says, "Popular symbolism has not been very generous toward Adams. There is no memorial, no statue in his honor in our nation's capital." And Lin-Manuel Miranda didn't even give him a part in the musical that trashes him.
McCullough's book does him more justice. It's clear McCullough has a favorable view of his subject. Even when Adams' occasional faults are brought up (his ego, his private fits of pique) and his public mistakes, McCullough generally takes an apologetic tone. But I did not feel that he covered over anything or rendered an inaccurate picture. If Adams the man was perhaps less dynamic a character than his predecessor and successors, he lived through interesting times and he had a seat at the table in places where Washington and Jefferson never went, and he had a bigger impact than he's given credit for (such as probably preventing a full-on war with France). Seeing the Revolution, the diplomatic negotiations following it, and the evolving party politics of early America from Adams' point of view was well worth the length of this fat biography.
Up next... Thomas Jefferson.
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