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The Bleak Realism of Our Neglected Colossus

JOHN ADAMS By David McCullough; Simon & Schuster: 736 pp., $35

June 03, 2001|JOHN RHODEHAMEL | John Rhodehamel is Norris Foundation curator of American history at the Huntington Library and the editor of "The American Revolution: Writings From the War of Independence" (Library of America)

Adams left public life forever when he rode out of Washington on March 4, 1801, a few hours before Jefferson's inauguration. (The two old revolutionaries eventually became friends again.) Adams lived in quiet retirement a quarter of a century longer, dying, remarkably enough, on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. More remarkable still, Jefferson died the same day. Their timing was exquisite. A Yale math professor calculated the odds at 125 million to 1. Americans everywhere saw it as a sign of God's favor on the exceptional nation ordained to lead the world to liberty. And yet, although both men were mourned in death, Adams' reputation continued to decline, Jefferson's to soar. Jefferson's eloquence had made him an all-purpose champion of democracy; Adams was falsely typecast as a grudging reactionary.

If anyone could bring off an Adams revival, it would be McCullough. His last presidential biography, "Truman," was a huge bestseller that won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize and boosted the reputation of the man from Missouri. Part of the vast popular appeal of McCullough's books springs from the unmistakable, contagious affection he feels for his subjects. He probably could not write a satisfactory book about a person he didn't personally like. He has clearly fallen hard for Adams and his wife, Abigail. This is not surprising. John Adams remains, by a wide margin, the most human, most approachable and most lovable of the founders. And his beloved partner in a marriage that flourished for 54 years is an equally remarkable figure. We know this from the Adamses' own writings--tens of thousands of pages of correspondence and diaries, most of which McCullough seems to have made his way through. (Unrolled end-to-end, the microfilm edition of the Adams papers would stretch for about five miles, some 508 reels of film with about 1,000 pages on each reel.) In an age in which all public men were obliged to be accomplished prose stylists, Adams' writing stands out for its vigor, honesty and sardonic wit. The most unusual, and most appealing, aspect of Adams' writing was his habit of dissecting his own character and revealing his most personal emotions. (One can read hundreds of pieces written by Washington or Jefferson without encountering the confessional candor of a single Adams letter.) McCullough knows a good thing when he sees it. Throughout the book, he lets his subjects speak for themselves. The words of John and Abigail Adams, with frequent assists from Jefferson, constitute a substantial fraction of the text. If the book sometimes reads like the collected sayings of John Adams, the result is so captivating that few are likely to complain. (Specialists, though, will be disappointed by the many quotations taken from unreliable 19th-century editions of writings of John and Abigail Adams.)

McCullough is clearly determined not to get bogged down in textbook history. He focuses instead on personalities, bringing his characters vividly to life while unfolding a story that fairly sweeps his readers along--sweeping them, indeed, right past many of the great events that made Adams a great man. It may be his very skills as a storyteller that have made McCullough shy away from the enduring complexities of the American Revolution: What kind of government did the core principle of equality demand? Could that equality ever be achieved? How could freedom and slavery exist side by side? Would a vigorous federal government threaten liberty? How could a republican state hope to rule a territory so large and diverse? Was America's future agrarian or commercial, rural or urban, slaveholding or free labor? McCullough usually elects to sidestep big issues like these, concentrating his considerable talents on keeping the story moving.

At a time when biographies of ballplayers and crooners warrant massive volumes, a life of John Adams in less than 650 pages (excluding notes) seems almost modest. McCullough achieves this welcome economy by beginning in 1776, consigning the first 40 of Adams' 90 years to a 50-page summary and occasional flashbacks. Starting the narrative so well into the life has made for a stronger book.

But one can argue with the choice of opening date. The story might well have begun a year earlier, with the meeting of the Continental Congress in 1775, the year the war started. For all the drama of 1776, the Congress of 1775 was the turning point when the colonies decided to fight together as a 'Continental' league. After that, independence was all but inevitable. Never was Adams' political genius more conspicuously displayed than when he brokered in the spring of 1775 the alliance between Massachusetts and Virginia that assured a united military response.

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