Thursday, September 25, 2008

BOOKS: John Adams

I just buried John Adams yesterday after having spent the last couple of weeks immersed in the epic David McCullough biography of that amazing American patriot. What an amazing man! I learned so much that I had never known about him: his defense of the redcoats of the Boston Massacre, his extensive ambassadorial service in Europe, his push to create the U.S. Navy. I realized that my prior knowledge of the Adams presidency was limited to the Alien and Sedition Acts, and that my impression of his contributions to American independence were largely shaped by the pushy and mildly obnoxious charicature of him in the musical 1776. While Jefferson and Franklin have well-established reputations as multi-talented, learned Renaissance men, I hadn't appreciated Adams' broad and deep love of learning. As I was listening to the book on my iPod last weekend at the same time as I was wandering the national mall in Washington DC, from the Washington Monument to the Jefferson Memorial, I wondered why Adams didn't have a memorial, or even so much as picture on a coin or a bill. Perhaps McCullough's book (along with the TV miniseries made from it, which scooped up a bunch of Emmys the other night -- I'll have to watch it sometime) will create a movement to correct that. And while Jefferson will always be an amazing man too, this biography shows a duplicitous side to him I hadn't known before.

As with 1776, McCullough does a stupendous job of fleshing out the history, giving a full-bodied description of the characters and the times, always well-documented, frequently quoting the treasure trove of Adams' own letters and diaries, as well as those of contemporaries. His vivid descriptions brought to life the realities of travel by ship and coach, the state of the medical arts, European court life, and the difficulties of a time in which long-distance communication was slow and unreliable. But best of all, McCullough really brought the man himself to life, such that I feel I knew him. I really admire the man's persistent cheer, his gratitude, and his cultivation of the virtue of friendship. While it would be wrong to describe him as an optimist -- he was often very aware of future costs to be reckoned -- his positive demeanor even in the face of adversity is inspiring. And the relationship between John Adams and his wife (an amazing woman much to be admired in her own right) is a touching model of a marriage.

I also have to add that some of the accounts of the bitter, polarized elections of his time give me some heart for our own times. It's easy for one to wonder at our point in history whether our country has become so deeply divided politically as to hopelessly rupture beyond repair. It gives me some comfort to be reminded that such partisan divisions and the worries about them are as old as the republic.

1 comment:

Chris Newton said...

Thanks, Tom, for the review. I've been intrigued by this book since it came out, but have not yet picked up a copy. Your comments have prompted me to add it to my reading list!