Monday, June 22, 2015

The Mad Historian's Athenaeum, Vol. 1, No. 7

McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. 751 ppg.

            David McCullough, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Truman struck historical gold with this biography of John Adams in 2001. The life of our second president was examined in great detail by McCullough as he pored through primary source materials which are unique to Adams. Alone of the Founders, Adams left behind more personal documentation through his enormous collection of letters written to and from the members of the Adams family. Few figures in history left behind since an intimate record of themselves. Many like Thomas Jefferson left behind letters and official correspondence, but few approach the quantity of John Adams and his family. 

            McCullough’s research into this correspondence enabled him to develop an interpretation of John Adams and his life as never before published. In fact, McCullough’s work redefined John Adams for a new generation of Americans and also revived interest in Adams among American historians. His effort resulted in the winning of another Pulitzer Prize for John Adams and served as the basis of the HBO miniseries of the same name starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney as John and Abigail Adams. Both works served to present an interpretation of a passionate, intellectual, and articulate man who worked tirelessly to create the United States of America while enduring long stretches of time away from his home and family.

            This version of John Adams is far from the bumbling fool interpretation given to Americans for decades. This John Adams is the man who championed Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and through his oratory helped secure its acceptance in 1776. This interpretation went to France on behalf of the new nation he had helped create in order to use his abilities in an arena far from the battlefields of North America, but just as integral to the ultimate victory. Americans have tended to forget that it was John Adams who was the main figure behind the Treaty of Paris (1783) that formally ended Britain’s claim on the thirteen colonies as his fellow commissioners were absent for various reasons.

            They also forget that it was John Adams who worked to obtain desperately needed loans from the Dutch bankers both during and after the war, and who labored to develop commercial treaties with European nations. It was John Adams who represented the new country in the Court of St. James and endured the tribulations delivered by the British who were understandingly upset with the arrival of an official American ambassador to their country when that man had been declared a rebel and outlaw by the King. Adams’ presence in Britain after the war served to remind them of their loss and humiliation at the hands of a colonial army. Americans also forget that it was John Adams who authored the oldest working written Constitution in the world, that of Massachusetts. 

            McCullough explored John Adams in great detail thanks to that voluminous correspondence which is used as source material for bringing not only John, but his entire family and many of the Founders, especially Thomas Jefferson to us as fully fleshed out people, not names from history. These people are portrayed not as their own biographies have depicted them over the centuries, but with the added details as seen by John Adams and written down in his own hand. Thus, we see a Thomas Jefferson far removed from the altar he is usually placed upon by most Americans. We get to see a naked Thomas Jefferson as he appeared to John Adams through his deeds and own words. 

            It is the portrayal of the Founders like this that really makes this book stand out. Gone are the trappings of reverence for them. Instead, they exist as real people confronted by the problems that they had to deal with in their own time using their knowledge and resources to resolve those issues according to their own interests. They are not perfect people making decisions for an America two centuries removed from their own time, but for themselves and the Americans of the period in which they lived and died. This is a John Adams and America that is raw with an unknown future trying to make the best decisions they can while balancing their choices against the needs of the people they live among. In that regard, this book is one which brushes aside the detritus of the past and brings it to live. When we ask ourselves why those people made the choices they did, their own words as quoted by McCullough and passed to us in these pages explains their actions.

            The best historians do not really explain history. They tell a story and let the people of the past explain themselves in their own words. McCullough does just that in John Adams by letting the people of the past talk for themselves as he presents extracts from their writings. He places those sources in context with the events of the past in order to provide reference for the reader. When John Adams speaks to us through his letters written during the American War of Independence, we find an Adams who acted as a man who understood the consequences of his choices. For had Adams and the upstart Americans failed, he would have been hung as a traitor to the Crown as his name was not on the official list of people to be pardoned if America were to change its mind. We find an Adams whom the saying, “Victory or death” had real meaning, and with him the rest of the Founders who really did gamble their lives, fortunes, and honor on the outcome of the American Revolution.

            The end result is a book that is a must read for any student of the American Revolution or Early Republic era. Although endnotes are used for sources at the end of the work, McCullough’s sources are outstanding and well documented. The Adams Family Papers served as the main source of inspiration along with thousands of other documents. While McCullough is not a historian with a Ph.D, he delivers the work any historian would be proud of and one that most aspire to write. John Adams is a first rate addition to our American history and a volume that restores our second president to his rightful place as a pivotal figure in the creation of the United States of America, its government, its Navy, and its place in world history.

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