March Books 10) John Adams

10) John Adams, by David McCullough

Spotted this for €10 in our local English-language bookshop yesterday, and jumped at it, having heard so much about what a fantastic book it is. I have to say I was not completely satisfied.

Adams is of course one of the key characters of early U.S. history. First vice-president, second president, first president to live in the White House, first sitting president to lose re-election (only president to be defeated by his own vice-president), he lived to see his son in turn elected president, and eventually died on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Yet in fact his political career had basically peaked years before, roughly in 1785. He screwed up in his first weeks in office as vice-president by picking and losing a completely unnecessary battle over the protocol of the correct mode of address for the president, and never lived it down. Over the next eight years he became the first, if not the last, holder of the office to realise how impotent it was – though in fact he used the vice-president’s only real power, to break tied votes in the Senate, on more occasions than any of his successors. Similarly as president (the first real executive office he had ever held), his biggest mistake came right at the very beginning, when he kept on all of Washington’s incumbent cabinet, leaving it three years before he sacked any of them; and by then it was far too late. By the time he moved in to what we now call the White House in November 1800 he knew he was going to lose the coming election. (As McCullough points out, the result was closer than is generally remembered; but he still lost.)

Adams had been at his best in the years of the revolution, as a political activist and elected representative in the run-up to the Declaration of Independence, and as a diplomat, in particular his coup in the Hague in 1782, when he got both diplomatic recognition and, perhaps more important, money for the newly independent United States. He also had a glorious moment in 1785 – perhaps the real climax of his career – when he became the first American Ambassador to present his credentials in London, to the very same George III who he had excoriated only a few years before. McCullough paints those episodes very well, as he does the less successful years that followed.

But I felt that in general this book left too much unexplained and had too little reflection on what, if anything, we might have learnt from Adams’ life. I would have liked more discussion of, for instance, what Massachusetts was actually like in the 18th century; of why the Revolution happened when it did; of what the difference was between Republicans and Federalists (McCullough gives the impression that it was almost entirely a dispute between the respective fan clubs of Jefferson and Hamilton). The only assessment of Adams’ achievements comes at the end of his four years as president, and McCullough’s evaluation is I think much too positive, on the evidence he himself presents. Sure, Adams managed to steer the country away from a premature war with France, but a better leader would have sacked his Secretary of State for failing to follow his policy, and would have made more serious efforts to get public opinion on his side on the most crucial issue of the day. But there’s a telling quote from Adams in 1787 which explains some of this:

Popularity was never my mistress, nor was I ever, nor shall I ever be a popular man. But one thing I know, a man must be sensible of the errors of the people, and upon his guard against them, and must run the risk of their displeasure sometimes, or he will never do them any good in the long run.

One of the book’s strengths also points to one of its biggest weaknesses. The portrayal of the two key relationships of Adams’ personal and political life, with his wife Abigail and with his friend, vice-president, rival and successor Thomas Jefferson, is beautifully done, thanks to the survival of their diaries and most of their correspondence. (Including, oddly enough, a brief exchange between Jefferson and Abigail Adams in 1804, of which John Adams was unaware at the time.) The agonies of separation between the Adamses as his career takes him away from his wife and young family are all too believable. There’s a lovely moment in 1785 when Adams and Jefferson, their diplomatic efforts in England getting nowhere, take a week off work to go on a tour of English gardens. There’s a very sad moment in 1796 when Jefferson writes Adams a very gracious letter admitting defeat in that year’s presidential election, but is persuaded by James Madison (who in turn succeeded Jefferson as president twelve years later) not to send it.

But it would have been nice to have had a bit more of a feel of how outsiders saw these three people and their relationships. Right at the very end we hear that Adams’ supporters wished his wife had been with him in the last months of his presidency, so as to give him more backbone. It’s the first mention of the fact that she had a public image at all. And as I said earlier, the politics of the rift between Jefferson and Adams are simply not explained. We learn disappointingly little about Hamilton’s motives, or indeed about Hamilton at all. (I was a bit more satisfied with the treatment of Franklin and Washington.)

Primary sources, such as the voluminous correspondence of the Adams family (preserved from 1639 to 1889, taking up five miles of microfilm) are fantastic material. But I wish McCullough had pulled back from it a bit more often, to use secondary sources (or even better, other primary sources) for an idea of what other people thought was going on, and of the general context. For example, I already own a much more compelling description of the crucial elections of 1789, 1792, 1796 and 1800 in my battered copy of A History of Presidential Elections by Eugene H. Rosenboom. At least I can be reasonably well assured that McCullough’s account is more accurate than the other portrayal of Adams that I read recently, in Orson Scott Card’s Heartfire.

So in summary, a good book, but not as good as I had been led to expect.

One thought on “March Books 10) John Adams

  1. All ballots identified as spoiled are shown to all candidates (so they can object to the identification: for instance, if someone has written “Labour” or “Joe Bloggs” on the paper, or – more often – if there is a clear cross in one box and a vague squiggle in another). So quite a few people write a message on a ballot. I did it in the 2003 election: I wrote “Can’t Vote for War Criminals”, or words to that effect, across the boxes. It was in Cambridge, where the Labour candidate was Anne Campbell, which seems unfair, but them’s the breaks. It seemed especially unfair when Anne in person canvassed me, as I was gardening in front of my house, about two hours later.

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