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Blowing the dust off another Founding Father

John Adams Party of One James Grant Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 530 pp., $30

March 13, 2005|John Rhodehamel | John Rhodehamel is the Norris Foundation curator at the Huntington Library and editor of "George Washington: Writings" and "The American Revolution: Writings From the War of Independence," both from the Library of America.

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.

From his remarkable writings -- his diaries, letters and unfinished autobiography -- John Adams speaks with a sparkling, almost modern sensibility. The only other member of the club that can talk to us so directly is Franklin, the current biographers' favorite. Adams' humanity stands out in the founding era's gallery of stiff, bewigged patriarchs. He feels like a Founding Father you can cuddle up to -- a wise, self-deprecating and endearingly cranky American original. He's also an appealing biographical subject because it's easy to judge him as underrated. (Adams himself certainly thought so. "Mausoleums, statues, monuments will never be erected to me," he predicted with some accuracy.) Yet perhaps only Washington did more than Adams to secure American independence.

Adams first emerged as a leader of the patriotic resistance to British imperial policies in his native Massachusetts, the most defiant of the 13 restive colonies. Massachusetts sent him to the Continental Congress. His combative energy harnessed to a deep intelligence soon made him the most influential delegate, extolled by Jefferson as "our Colossus on the floor." He was a thoroughgoing radical and the early, uncompromising advocate of a complete break with Britain. "The Atlas of American Independence" was how another delegate described him. Eventually the congress sent Adams to Europe as a member of the commission appointed to negotiate a peace with war-weary Britain. After the 1783 treaty confirmed American independence, Adams became the first U.S. emissary to the mother country. He returned home, served two terms as Washington's vice president, then was elected president. Adams was the first one-term president, defeated by his own vice president, Jefferson, in the tumultuous election of 1800.

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