John Adams

John Adams

by David McCullough
I picked up this biography to try and get out of my head a little bit by reading something unrelated to theology. What I found was a deeply moving story of a great man who was swept into the American Revolution, and whose leadership influences our society even to this day. Let’s not kid ourselves, McCollough is a truly gifted writer – albeit long-winded. It is a mother of a book – nearly 700 pages. I took quite a few notes, below are just a few highlights and reactions.
– Thomas Jefferson was not what we’ve been taught in school. He was a terrible hypocrite and one of the more selfish men I’ve read about. He was obviously brilliant. However, like many men of brilliance, he allowed himself to say, do, buy, sleep with, injure, slander, and possess anything he wanted without moral restraint. His writings and recorded opinions are so drastically out of step with the way he lived his life that I can hardly take them seriously. His casual relationship with the truth was an essential component of his ability to get anything he wanted. His fetish with the French Revolution blinded him to atrocities committed by the revolutionaries, as well as the dangers of Napoleon. His coy lust for power prompted him to turn on any friend if it would allow him to posses what he desired. I’ve lost all respect for Jefferson, the declaration of independence notwithstanding.
– Death was everywhere in this book. No grown adult seemed to be able to escape it. Any of the framers you could name who had a family had endured either the death of a sibling, or the death of at least one or two of their own children to accident or disease. Yellow fever and any disease easily spread by mosquito bites would empty out the cities in the summer. At one point Adam’s daughter undergoes a mastectomy without any anesthesia. The net effect was a truly thoughtful people with deep spiritual sensibilities and a drive to make their lives count for something.
– Adams once wrote, “I think instead of opposing systematically any administration, running down their characters and opposing all their measures, right or wrong, we ought to support every administration as far as we can in justice.”
– Adams said, “Mankind will in time discover that unbridled majorities are as tyrannical and cruel as unlimited despots.” He was proven to be right, especially by the outcomes of the French Revolution, which ended in a tyranny worse than the monarchy. Adams insisted on a representative republic, not a democracy. He did not trust a pure democracy because he thought a true democracy would incite the tyranny of the masses, and would be more dangerous than a king. Plus it would be impossible to get anything done. He quoted Daniel DeFoe who said, “Remember all men would be tyrants if they could.”
– Adams was president when the two party system began to develop in earnest. Candidates did not campaign yet – others did the campaigning for them. The two parties were federalists and republicans. Federalists were in favor of a strong central government and were the war hawks. Republicans were all about state’s rights, largely supporting slavery and eventually led their people to secede from the union. Jefferson (a republican), was Adam’s vice president. He never supported Adams and thwarted his policies at every turn. It was learned later that Jefferson had newspaper editors on his payroll, for the sole purpose of attacking Adams unmercifully. Republicans accused him of pushing the country toward war with France, and of having a secret plan to restore the British Monarchy. Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, accused him of being weak, vain, and crazy. They wanted him to go to war with France. Hamilton was no less of a weasel than Jefferson – his vanity, lies, schemes and bravado eventually got him killed in a duel with A. Burr. Hamilton and Jefferson saw to it that Adams was not reelected. In the end, Adams was vindicated and a peace treaty with Bonaparte kept America out of what would have been a disastrous war. Ironically, if Adams would have not tread so carefully with France, America would probably never have been able to make the Louisiana Purchase.

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  • What got me interested in reading McCullough's John Adams was a review, which said McCullough began with the idea of contrasting Adams and Jefferson. But McCullough found Adams so fascinating (and forgotten) and Jefferson so mythical, that the work became all about Adams with Jefferson left to play the foil.

    You're a cruel reviewer Tim. If you wish to gain respect again for the Declaration of Independence, go back again and read Garry Wills' Gettysburg Address. I think it is safe to separate Jefferson from his secretarial duties as Declaration drafter.

  • That's funny – I've got it in my bag right now per your recommendation, although I've not started it yet.

    Yeah, you are right I'm a cruel reviewer. But geeze – how do review a 700 page book & not be cruel?

    Honestly, it was just so startling to read what Jefferson was capable of doing. His duplicity, his underhanded tactics, the blatant lies he told to Adams, who he professed to really love. The declaration of Independence is a super-text to be sure. It's amazing and Jefferson is made a legend for that. What McCullough did was make it so I could not longer separate Jefferson the man, from the works he produced.

    McCullough records that Jefferson – when asked about the terrible violence of the French Revolution where in one day 2000 people were beheaded – said if we had to kill every man woman and child on every continent and start again with one Adam and Eve in order to protect "liberty" he would do it… that's cruelty!!!