Saturday, March 26, 2016

Book Review: John Adams

I had been meaning to read David McCullough's biography of John Adams for awhile. McCullough has been popularizing history for decades and is good at it. He's done biographies of multiple Presidents (Theodore Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman) as well as written a great book about the Panama Canal. I thought his most recent work, The Wright Brothers, was a bit light-weight, but, hey, the guy is getting old. It was still better than average.

John Adams is definitely not light weight. Thanks to the Adams family being hoarders, there is a historian's wet dream of archived materials. A gazillion letters to and from Adams, his wife Abigail, and various family members (their son John Quincy Adams, their daughter Abigail, and others) have survived. Even better, both John and Abigail had great handwriting. A person has no trouble whatsoever reading anything they wrote; they definitely had a clear hand. Adams also kept a diary, some sections of which are fairly terse (quick summary of the weather and a notation or two of what he did on any particular day) and others are definitely more of a journal in which he wrote at length about events and people. Then when you toss in the fact that many of the people Adams interacted with (Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, etc.) also tended to hoard documents, it's obvious McCullough had a lot to work with. End result? A book that is heavy in more ways than one. It's packed with details and fat enough to serve as a door stop.

This is the book that served as the basis for the HBO series about John Adams. It was interesting to see both how closely the series paralleled the book and where it deviated for dramatic license. A minor example is the smallpox inoculation incident. In the series, Abigail and the children are living out in the country on the farm, and it's a fairly small household: her, the kids, a serving girl. John is off in Philadelphia serving as a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress. A person infected with smallpox is being carried from farm to farm on a wagon. In reality, Abigail and the children had moved into Boston during the epidemic. They were living in a house with over a dozen other people. Instead of quiet, occasionally worrisome rural isolation, the Adams family was experiencing urban noise and squalor along with worries about what the British might do next. Two sentences in the book turned into multiple lines of dialogue in the script.

But that's a minor point and serves only to illustrate that even when dealing with nonfiction, scriptwriters like to embellish. Unlike the television series, the book sticks with (as far as I can tell) the truth, even if it isn't always particularly exciting. Adams may have been around for some of the more dramatic moments in American history -- e.g., the signing of the Declaration of Independence -- but he also got to spend a lot of time just sitting and waiting. Sent to France during the Revolutionary Way as a diplomatic envoy tasked with persuading the French to (a) provide more material support to the American rebels and (b) recognize the new country, Adams spent months killing time and feeling frustrated. He was not good with languages so began with the handicap of being unable to understand a word the French were saying. The fact he and the other two envoys, one of whom was Benjamin Franklin, seemed to have different goals and approaches didn't help. McCullough paints a picture of Franklin as an aging roue who is more interested in enjoying the sybaritic delights of the French court than he is in tangible diplomatic results. The other envoy doesn't get as much page space as Franklin, but it turns out he dislikes and distrusts the French and doesn't care much for Franklin or Adams either. He apparently spent a lot of time sulking and writing letters home complaining about how incompetent and useless Adams is. In short, not a whole lot of team spirit.

Labeling Adams as incompetent and useless is a recurring theme in the book. It's a bit odd. McCullough seemingly had a wealth of archival material to pick from so I was a little baffled as to why so much page space got spent talking about all the people whose primary hobby seemed to be bashing John Adams. If no one thought he was doing a decent job as a diplomat, why did he get tapped for multiple important diplomatic missions? And then when he's back in the United States, he ends up on the ballot for the first Presidential election. In that first election, he's apparently viewed as being enough of a political threat that a number of his colleagues conspire to undermine his candidacy. They're afraid he'll embarrass George Washington, theoretically the man of the hour and the most beloved figure in the country, by getting more votes. There was genuine fear Adams would be elected the first President of the United States. At the time, there was no separate ballot for Vice President -- whoever finished second in the electoral vote count got stuck with the VP's job. Adams comes in second and serves as Vice President for 8 years. He's then elected to the Presidency in his own right.

Why? And how? McCullough does provide a few quotes from people who describe Adams as unflinchingly honest and a man who sticks to his principles, but overall the material cited goes on and on about how horrible Adams is. He's vain, he wants a monarchy, he's spent so much time in Europe that he's been corrupted by the aristocracy there. He is, in short, not a true American. Still, people vote for him multiple times. It's a mystery.

The other mystery is how Adams could manage to be so bad at reading people. He retained Washington's cabinet officers, all men he'd known for years and thought he could trust, and figured out much too late that most of them had their own agendas and had no intention of following his directions. He also believed Thomas Jefferson was his friend when in fact Jefferson had been busily backstabbing Adams for years. It isn't until one of Jefferson's minions gets ticked off and publishes material describing how Jefferson paid him (a journalist) to slander Adams in the lead-up to the 1800 election that Adams realizes just how shabbily he'd been treated.

The political intrigue in the first decades of the country, in fact, makes contemporary politics look pretty darn clean in comparison. Newspapers were openly partisan and had no qualms about libeling political candidates. The vitriol expressed in what passed as editorials or opinion pieces go way beyond being simply nasty. As for the maneuverings. . . at one point Alexander Hamilton was pushing hard to lead a standing Army. Like his rival Aaron Burr, it seems pretty clear Hamilton was nurturing delusions of grandeur about military coups and heading an empire. He wanted an open war with France in the 1790s, but fortunately never got it.

The political intrigue is interesting, too, because any and all maneuvering by actual candidates is done by their surrogates. The people whose names were going to be on the ballot never campaigned themselves. They sat at home and pretended they didn't really care about the outcome. "If elected, I'll serve, but reluctantly." They might be scheming like crazy (Jefferson certainly was; he had a journalist on the payroll busy scribbling out libelous articles about Adams in 1800) but they did their best to look like they weren't. Was Adams? Who knows. McCullough quotes a letter or two from Adams in which he pretends to not care, but there's nothing about who was actually out there promoting him. It's all rather lop-sided. We know who opposed Adams, but are never given any sense of just who his advocates were.

So how was the book overall? Quite readable, actually, and packed with lots of interesting details. If you like history, you'd probably enjoy this book. It doesn't just focus on Adams the politician, it also gets into Adams the family man -- the trials and tribulations of trying to be a good parent while at the same time having to go for many months or years without seeing your children, worries about aging parents, the hassles of long distance travel in the days when a trip from Boston to Philadelphia took many weeks on horseback. It's obviously not a fast read -- not when it's over 600 pages of dense text -- but it's not tedious. It never put me to sleep. So would I recommend it to other readers? Yes, if as noted above you like reading history. No, if you're looking for something fast and easy.

Anyone have any recommendations for a book about James Madison? I've done Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. I might as well see what historians have to say about another of the Founding Fathers the next time I reach for some nonfiction. 

1 comment:

  1. I was at our thrift shop one day and they had the pristine it for $ it and donated it to the library...good book...but looooooong


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