Americans are eager to read about the original "greatest generation," Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and John Adams, as well as some of the lesser lights in the constellation who won the Revolution, drafted the Constitution and inaugurated a government that has endured for more than 200 years. Popular interest in the founding era is certainly greater today than at the time of the noisy observances of the 1776 bicentennial nearly three decades ago.
The revival seems to have started in the 1990s, some time after the collapse of the Soviet Union raised the United States to undisputed global preeminence. Subsequent events have only strengthened the impression that, for better or worse, this nation stands alone, a singular power in the world. It is tempting to look for a link between recent history and the current preoccupation with national origins. Are we looking for guidance from the 18th century? For evidence that imperial reach was part of the plan from the start? Do readers simply want to glory in a glorious past, or is there an uneasy suspicion that, in getting to the top, we have somehow lost our way?
The most commercially successful books have been character-driven biographies, more celebratory than interpretative in approach, that tend to skirt the ideological complexities of the American Revolution in favor of vivid storytelling. The latest example is from James Grant, a financial analyst and the author of four books on financial history. One might have expected him to pick Hamilton, the first U.S. Treasury secretary, but instead he's produced the lively and reasonably compact biography "John Adams." One has to admire the pluck of any writer, even one as skillful as Grant, who offers a new Adams biography. Any Adams book is in danger of being overshadowed by David McCullough's mammoth "John Adams," which has sold something like 2 million copies in hardcover and was awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for biography. But this new look at the second president succeeds on its own terms. Grant is a fine prose stylist who has borrowed heavily from another talented writer -- Adams. The result is a highly readable treatment of the Massachusetts patriot that examines his early life as well as his public career.