This is my review of “John Adams” by David McCullough.
It is not widely known in the UK that John Adams was the second President of the new republic – as his eldest son was the sixth- but this biography goes some way to compensate for our ignorance of the book-loving New England farmer turned lawyer. After a somewhat confused and dull start, it gets into its stride with the scene where Adams earnestly argues with pacifist Quaker grandee John Dickinson the case for American independence at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Then we see Adams leaving his long-suffering wife Abigail, and risking the life of his eldest son, to take the perilous voyage to France (including a broken mast and battle with an enemy vessel), where he is charged with the task of persuading the French to supply the support needed to succeed against the British. He goes on to play a part in supplying and organising the army and navy, framing the new American constitution, obtaining vital loans from the Dutch and negotiating the eventual peace treaty.
Although he may have been conceited, prickly, resentful of those with greater influence (such as Benjamin Franklin) and argumentative, his energetic ability and good intentions are not in doubt and he seems to have been savagely maligned by a scurrilous press, partly supported by his sometime friend Jefferson. The account of the complex and changing relationship between the two is fascinating. The more famous, and superficially more attractive, handsome and polished Jefferson, does not come too well out of this – a man who could condemn slavery in principle, while his own slaves worked outside the window. He could not afford to release people whose production helped to pay the debts arising from his extravagance. By contrast, Adams seems to have been a more prudent,straightforward and genuinely egalitarian “man of the people”, although his biographer may have painted too flattering a picture.
However, you cannot deny the evidence of Adams’ prodigious writing – although long-winded, he was a profound and sophisticated thinker, too often misunderstood. While the southerner Jefferson, a founder of Republicanism, accused Adams of having been corrupted by his time in Europe into becoming a monarchist sympathiser, Adams was convincing as a genuine democrat, who wanted the legislature and executive to be both elected and subject to checks and balances. Also, Adams was quick to see correctly the danger of the violence of the French Revolution, which Jefferson naively admired, overlooking the excesses of the guillotine.
This gripping biography provides many insights into the causes, progress and effects of the American Revolution together with a fascinating social history of the time, portrait of a marriage between two equals, and descriptions of the American landscape. It repays reading for an initial overview, and then rereading….