A study of John Adams

Print edition : August 03, 2002

John Adams by David McCullough; Simon and Schuster, New York; $35.

JOHN ADAMS (1735-1826) was the second President of the United States of America. He had been Vice-President when George Washington was President and lived long enough to see his son John Quincy Adams sworn in the sixth President of the country. The forebears of John Adams were yeoman farmers of Somerset county in England. They left the mother country to settle in Braintree, Massachusetts, in the 17th century.

David McCullough's book has been on The New York Times' best-seller list for over a year. The book has 751 pages. I was reluctant to tackle it. While admiring many American authors, I am at times put off by the sheer bulk of their output. Bulk is not to be scoffed at. Tolstoy and Dickens are gurus of bulk literature of the highest order.

Biography is still not wholly considered a superior literary art form. It is not creative but recreative. For me the debate is somewhat sterile. I would rather buy an autobiography or a biography than a work of fiction. This is a matter of personal preference. David McCullough is an eminent American historian, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his biography titled Truman, which I have not read, on Harry S. Truman. The author has not only given a lively and vibrant study of John Adams, but his great contemporaries, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, emerge as men of grit, vision and faith. They led the successful revolt against England, under adverse conditions, but English stupidity also helped.

Adams, Jefferson and Franklin emerge as outstanding, towering figures, with excusable human failings. The New Englanders had had enough by 1776 and the climax came in July when the Continental Congress declared the United colonies free and independent states.

Who drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776? McCullough, whose research is awesome, reproduces an exchange between Adams and Jefferson about who of the two should draft the Declaration.

"According to Adams, Jefferson proposed that he, Adams, do the writing, but that he declined, telling Jefferson he must do it. Why? Jefferson asked, as Adams would recount. 'Reason enough', Adams said. 'What can be your reasons?' 'Reason first: You are a Virginian and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second: I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third: You can write ten times better than I can'."

Adams was being over modest. He had a brilliant and uncluttered mind. They both contributed, but the principal author was Jefferson. In Philadelphia on July 4, the Declaration was adopted. The words can move the coldest heart and impress a mind which has more in common with an iceberg than with soaring eloquence.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among those are, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the government."

The Declaration of course did not apply to the black slaves. It was Lincoln, Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. who put an end to slavery and lynching and challenged racial discrimination in the following two centuries.

Adams, unlike Jefferson, kept no slaves. He married a most remarkable woman, Abigail Smith. She and her husband loved each other deeply and their personal correspondence runs into 5,000 letters. She was faithful to him and suffered their prolonged separations with stoicism if not resignation. She crossed the Atlantic thrice and the voyages were hazardous, the ships stinking, taking three months to cross. She was rock-like in adversity and always wise and caring.

John Adams spent many years in France as a representative of the 13 colonies, where his reception was cold, even hostile. He then went to Holland and obtained the first loan for the U.S. Life in Paris had been no holiday. The French Foreign Minister, Comte de Vergennes, was consistently hostile. The presence of Franklin and Jefferson as fellow representatives to France added to make life troublesome for Adams. Administrative chaos is not confined to any particular people or country.

When Adams was transferred to London in early 1785, his final conversation with Comte de Vergennes was quite animated. Vergennes rubbed it in that Adams was going to an inferior country.

Life at the French court is described with flair and studied brio. London had its own appeal but living was even more expensive. The Brits were patronising. Adams studied dozens of books on the forms of government - both ancient and modern - Athens to London via Rome, Plato and Aristotle. This he put to use when drawing up the Constitution of his country. He did not subscribe to the principle of equality. McCullough writes:

"As to the ideal of a nation of equals, such was impossible and quotes Adams, 'was there, or will there ever be a nation whose individuals were all equal, in natural and acquired qualities, in virtues, talents, and riches? The answer in all mankind must be in the negative'."

John Adams, as Vice-President, had very little to do but on becoming President on March 4, 1791, he began to assert himself. He almost single-handedly prevented war with France and England. This made him unpopular and he was not re-elected in 1801. But there was consolation. His son Quincy became Secretary of State and later President. In old age, Adams and his rival Jefferson again became friends and often wrote to each other. By a remarkable coincidence both died on July 4, 1826. John Adams is not in the Bradman class of U.S. Presidents, but is among the great ones as this great biography informs us.

A letter from the Editor


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