McCullough's John Adams on HBO

Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney as John and Abigail Adams

When I was a kid it was a rare thing to own a book and a hardcover book was real treasure, so my family, now, will often gift me with hardcover books that I put into the “to read” pile, and sometimes I don’t get around to reading the book until it comes out in soft cover.

David McCullogh’s comprehensive and incredibly readable John Adams was a book that had been in the pile so long I nearly missed it. I picked it up last week and couldn’t put it down. This is no dry history tome – from page one McCullough grabs the reader and throws him right into the saddle with John Adams and a companion, heading to Philadelphia in the snow, and it is gloriously immediate and real. He brings these truly amazing people to life right before your eyes. I finished the book in less than a week and have been spending idle moments thinking back to the story of John, his astonishingly wise and capable wife Abigail, their son John Quincy and all of the heroes of that age, Washington, Jefferson, Lafayette, Franklin and the rest. I’ve thought how glad I am to have made their acquaintance and how sad I am that this age has none their equal, none so selfless or willing to inconvenience themselves so unstintingly for America. And I’ve come to a better-informed, mature appreciation of the singularity of their accomplishments.

Mostly I came away loving John Adams, who has seemed rather forgotten behind the heroism of Washington or the glamor of Jefferson, but who perhaps more than any other founding patriot literally pulled the original 13 colonies together into a glorious whole, and – rather like Churchill – never flagged in his effort. Like Churchill (and President Bush) he was thoroughly hated for his single-minded and unwavering commitment-unto-obsession. He was mocked (sometimes rightly, he knew) for his vanity. (In that he reminded me a little of Churchill also, who once noted his delight in a good review of his work, “I had never been praised before!”) The press was as astonishingly cruel to him as it was laudatory toward Jefferson (the press, it seems, never was the bastion of facts and fairness I’d once believed) but – for all that – Adams was respected as an honest man whose interests were always to the nation’s before his own. He was, for a small-statured man – a giant of his era, and none can touch him.

Yes…I now love John (and Abigail) Adams. And what an undertaking of research (Adams and Abigail were both beyond prolific correspondants and diary keepers) and sublime prose on McCullough’s part; what a well-earned Pulitzer! Although I couldn’t help but think at one point; does every president have to wait over 200 years before someone will study him thoroughly enough to do him justice against the perceptions of his own time? I also wondered if Adams, Jefferson and the rest could ever have accomplished their undertaking with a hectoring 24hour media at their backs, but I’ve wondered that before. In this book I see much from that era that is familiar in our own, although we seem to be in much shorter supply of both scholars and heroes.

Today at the post office, I saw a huge poster advertising a 7 part dramatization based on McCullough’s book, and I got all excited. Then I saw it was an HBO presentation and got a little sad, because I don’t get HBO. (But my neighbor does, and she’s getting Monk Coffee from me for her birthday so…maybe I can bother her for seven nights!)

The film trailer looks terrific. It stars two of my favorite actors, Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, as John and Abigail and the always-great David Morse as Washington. This looks like one worth owning, but I can’t urge you enough to buy the book. I actually kept a notebook beside me as I was reading it, both for quotes and for my own musings – it’s that inspiring. One of my notes to myself was about Adams’ profound dislike of slavery, and his initial attempts to address it within the Declaration of Independece. I wrote:

Adams had no use for slavery but knew he could not allow the Declaration to sink or swim on the issue. He chose to first get the independence, get the nation together, and then come back and deal with slavery later…rather reminds me of Reagan’s remarks that you take your 75% and come back to fight another day for the rest, an idea that neither the right nor left extremists in instant-gratification America seem willing to entertain, which is perhaps why so little gets done, anymore.

A few excerpts – maybe they can inspire us through our ugly political season. Certainly some of it feels and sounds awfully contemporary:

“I wander alone, and ponder. I muse, I mope, I ruminate,” he wrote in the seclusion of his diary. “We have not men fit for the times. We are deficient in genius, education, in travel, fortune – in everything. I feel unutterable anxiety.”

Hmmmph. Nowadays, we seem to have politicians who feel the times are unfit for them and their “gifts.”

…The mood of the city had become extremely contentious. “The malignant air of calumny has taken possession of almost all ranks and societies of people in this place, ” wrote Christopher Marshall, an apothecary and committed patriot (though a Quaker) who had become one of Adams’ circle of Philadelphia friends.

The Rich, the poor, the high professor and the prophane, seem all to be infected with this grievous disorder, so that love of our neighbor seems to be quite banished, the love of self and opinions so far prevails…The [Tory] enemies of our present struggle…are grown even scurrilous to individuals, and treat all characters who differ from them with the most opprobrious language.

On first meeting, Adams and [Benjamin] Rush had misjudged each other. Adams thought Rush “a sprightly, pretty fellow,” but “too much a talker to be a deep thinker,” while Rush found Adams “cold and reserved.” But they had quickly changed their minds, discovering much in common besides the love of talk. Like Adams, Rush was without affectation and unafraid to speak his mind, sometimes to the point of tactlessness. (“Prudence,” he was fond of saying, “is a rascally virtue.”)

Newspapers were filled with eyewitness accounts of the suffering and defeat. For days in Philadelphia the talk was of little else. then, to compound the atmosphere of uncertainty, the captured General Sullivan appeared in the city. He had been paroled by the British to report to Congress that Admiral Lord Howe wished to confer privately about and accomodation.

…with the outlook as dark as it had ever been…Jefferson decided to delay his departure no more…Having settled his accounts, he mounted his horse, and with his young servant following behind, started for Virginia.

Adams, too, had reached a decision, as he explained to Abigail in a letter…Events having taken such a turn at Long Island, he would remain in Philadelphia. When Joseph Bass arrived the next day with the horses to take him home, it made no difference. “The panic may seize whom it will,” Adams wrote, “it will not seize me.”

I could cite dozens of other bits, but just buy the book and enjoy it. I thought it might lose steam after the revolution, but it never did. McCullough doesn’t offer a dull or dry minute through all of Adams’ long and event-full life. I can’t wait to see the movie.

Related: John Quincy Adams

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Obis_Sister

    I am currently reading this as well. I picked it up to read on the long flights to my conference and back. Having read 1776 last spring, I knew it would be good. And boy, is it! Right now, he’s getting ready for his second trip to France and this time taking two sons, instead of one.

    Like you, I’ve been struck with their sense of purpose and sacrifice. Even though they were journeying into a world that up to that point had NEVER embraced the freedoms and liberties they believed were granted to each and every human being at birth, the Adams’ never wavered. What a great sadness“…that this age has none their equal, none so selfless or willing to inconvenience themselves so unstintingly for America.”

  • Mommynator

    I have that book and will make more of an effort to read it. I did, however, read a book based on Abigail Adams’ letters that inspired me the same way. What a woman! She makes today’s feminists look like toddler girls, all down on the floor kicking and screaming in a massive tantrum. What she sacrificed and suffered! She’s the role model that ought to be held up to girls today and tomorrow.

  • driver

    Ha! Too funny. I too became intrigued by the John Adams posters in the Post Office, which jogged vague memories of having received McCullough’s book (in hardback!) some five Christmases ago.

    Like your copy, it languished, unread, on my library shelf. When I went looking for it last month, I noticed that my single volume on poor John Adams was filed between the much more numerous books I own about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson—it was Adams’ fate to be thus bracketed, both biographically and bibliographically, between two much “sexier” historical figures.

    Fortunately for Adams, and the rest of us, David McCullough possesses—along with John McPhee—the singular ability to make anything which interests him equally fascinating for his readers. I’ve just begun reading it, and although I’m up to my eyeballs with reading other things (for my new role as graduate student), I look forward to the HBO series, the book, and further commentary here.

    BTW, McCullough is equally persuasive as a public speaker and advocate for the academic discipline of history. See see one such speech here:

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  • Eris

    I started this book and never finished it, but one of these days I’ll get back to it. Adams is a fascinating character. I first got interested when I saw the movie “1776″ waaaaay back in the 70s, loved the film. Took a poly-sci course years later in college, and the prof asked had anyone seen the movie? I think mine was the only hand that went up . He said that the movie was actually pretty close to the reality of the declarataion – and yes, Adams, in the movie, doesn’t want to remove the passage about slavery, but is forced to lest the southern states walk out of Congress and the Declaration/Independence never get off the ground. I remember that being a particularly hard-hitting part of the movie and was surprised when I first watched it to learn Jefferson had slaves! Anyway, a terrific movie, and I look forward to this new movie. I *have* to find the time to finish the book!!

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  • Sissy Willis

    A wonderful review. I love the image you chose. It captures the the essence of communication across the Mars-Venus divide.

    We ordered HBO for the first time this week just so we could watch!

  • AngloCathJoi

    Argh, Anchoress, yet again reading your blog lengthens my reading list! :)

    I have been REALLY wanting to see the miniseries, as I thouroughly enjoy watching Mr. Giamatti on screen. I’ve been interested in John Adams since watching 1776 (I don’t like musicals much, but I liked the non-singing parts). Hopefully Netflix will have the episodes of the miniseries up for instant viewing after they air!

  • brsebastian

    I listened to the book over a year ago and was very impressed with Adams’ character. He knew both his history and his place in history, which I think gave him the perspective he needed for his perseverance and sacrifice. I was touched by the sacrifice he made of staying apart from his Abigail, whom he clearly loved. I think he knew that his life was not permanent and that he had both the opportunity and the duty to provide something special for his children and his community. There are many such men today; unfortunately, our “organs” favor addiction and immaturity and, as such, we are not often exposed to them.

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