John Adams, by David McCullough
[Simon & Schuster (paper), 2003, $18.95]
Reviewed by Allan A. Kerin
No doubt, a number of you have read this Pulitzer Prize-winning book. I hope that this brief review will be an introduction to it for those of you who have not yet read it and also have some value to those who have. John Adams was a central figure in the American Revolution and the establishment of the American government. Yet, we often remember him as a relatively minor president sandwiched between two giants, Washington and Jefferson. In doing so, we do not fully appreciate his immense accomplishments as a revolutionary leader and diplomat prior to his presidency or the significant accomplishments, as well as shortcomings, of his presidential administration. No one did more than Adams to build the coalition that won independence. It was Adams who nominated Washington to lead the Continental Army and who selected Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence. It was Adams who, during his single term as president, avoided war by steering a middle course between France and Britain and by building the American navy. Of course Adams, much to his discredit, supported, signed, and enforced the undemocratic alien and sedition acts.
Adams, unlike Jefferson, Franklin, and Washington, consistently opposed slavery and never owned slaves. Adams denounced the Terror that followed the French Revolution, while Jefferson praised it. Adams exemplified the greatest virtues of colonial Massachusetts: hard work, scholarship, piety, and a belief in democracy. He also rose above its greatest moral failing, religious intolerance. His last public act, as a member of the second Massachusetts state constitutional convention in the early 1820's, was to unsuccessfully advocate sweeping declaration of religious freedom.
David McCullough is a great writer. He is a strong advocate for John Adams. But, I think that Mr. McCullough could have done more with the 651 pages that he wrote. Much more information could have been conveyed. For example, almost nothing is said about the domestic programs of the Adams administration. McCullough makes it clear that Adams, as a moderate Federalist, followed a middle course between the pro-British position of Hamilton and the "High Federalists" and the pro-French position of Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. But little is said about how Adams viewed the opposing economic programs of Jefferson and Hamilton. Additional discussion about the reasons for Adams's difficulty in building popular support for his presidential policies, in contrast to his great success as a political leader in pre-revolutionary Boston and in the Continental Congress, would also be valuable.
John Adams was a man of great personal ambition who, when necessary, subordinated that ambition to the common good. He was a farmer, teacher, lawyer, politician, scholar, and diplomat. He risked his life in signing the Declaration of Independence and in sailing through the British blockade to represent the revolutionary American government in France and the Netherlands. Earlier, in 1770, he had risked censure and violence from his own friends and neighbors for successfully defending, in court, the British soldiers who had fired on the mob that had assaulted them with stones during the "Boston Massacre."
David McCullough has also vividly illustrated John Adams's family life through extensive quotes from his correspondence with his wife, Abigail, and with other family members. A lifetime of friendship, respect, and love can be seen in these letters.
I presumptuously believe that Mr. McCullough should have done more. But, as it is, this is an excellent book and a good reintroduction to an extremely important figure in American and world history. And, it is true that understanding history provides perspective. Reading about the excesses of party politics in 1800 should reassure us that democracy has never been neat and tidy and that we certainly haven't fallen from a golden age.