At the height of the XYZ Affair in 1798, when American public outrage against France verged on war hysteria, President John Adams briefly enjoyed the sort of popular acclaim that he had long thought he deserved. In Paris, the French foreign minister Talleyrand had tried to bribe three American envoys sent by Adams to negotiate an end to continuing maritime hostilities between the two erstwhile allies. Adams, who had never served in battle, took to wearing military regalia in public and spent hours writing grateful, bellicose replies to his backers’ addresses of support, vowing never to countenance “national Dishonour” and bidding his admirers to assume a “warlike Character.” It all got a little heady. “No man...,” the Federalist Theodore Sedgwick declared at the height of the enthusiasm, “will go down to posterity with greater lustre than John Adams--I will not even except George Washington.”
A mere two years later Adams, forsaken by the right wing of his own party and about to lose the presidency to his Democratic-Republican rival Thomas Jefferson, saw his popularity plummet. And yet, as David McCullough observes in his new biography of Adams, the old revolutionary still had his admirers, who saw him as the political legatee of the now deceased Washington. “John Adams, it was said, was `a good husband, a good father, a good citizen, and a good man,’” McCullough writes. His footnotes are silent about who said this about Adams; but it might as well have been McCullough himself.
McCullough believes that, despite a strong irascible streak, Adams was a good man, a better man than history has recorded, a much better man than his vanquisher and sometime friend Jefferson. The essential goodness of John Adams--his plainspokenness, his political courage, his statesmanly virtue, his connubial ardor--is the central theme of this long book. McCullough, it seems, can have no higher praise for any American president than that he was good; and Adams earns the accolade, in page after page of detailed anecdote.
The result is not an all-out defense of Adams, like the one that was mounted by Page Smith in his even longer life of Adams more than a generation ago. McCullough is a sounder historian than Smith. Yet McCullough’s book, precisely for that reason, seems all the more strange. It is a prudent but deeply admiring study of an enormously talented and remarkable patriot who was also one of the most suspicious, pugnacious, and at times pig-headed conservatives of the early American republic. In conveying so much about Adams’s goodness, in vivid and smooth prose, McCullough slights Adams’s intellectual ambitions, his brilliance and his ponderousness, his pettiness and his sometimes disabling pessimism. McCullough scants, in other words, everything that went into rendering Adams the paradox that he was: a great American who would prove virtually irrelevant to his nation’s subsequent political development. And in its very smoothness and vividness, McCullough’s life of Adams is useful also in another way. It gives a measure of the current condition of popular history in America, in its strengths but also--rather grievously--in its weaknesses.
In 1948, the young historian Richard Hofstadter noted that the American state of mind had become “increasingly passive and spectatorial.” Hofstadter identified “a ravenous appetite for Americana,” and he observed that this popular historical mentality had led, over the previous fifteen years, to the writing of countless works--historical novels, fictionalized biographies, collections of pictures and cartoons, books on American regions and rivers--conceived, he said, “in a spirit of sentimental appreciation rather than of critical analysis.”
Hofstadter had a special animus toward a particular form of New Deal-era nostalgic kitsch, one part Carl Sandburg, one part WPA, one part folksy-wolksy Popular Front. But he took umbrage at all historical writing that looked backward to a vision of American history as simply a rewarding spectacle, “a succession of well-fulfilled promises.” The main function of such writing, he contended, was to fend off the intense insecurities of the day. As forms of reassurance, Hofstadter contended, these histories “induce[d] a desire to observe and enjoy, not to analyze and act.”
We are living now in a new golden age of historical popularization; and much of today’s popular presentation of history may be understood as a reaction against the new departure, the new stringency, that Hofstadter and his generation undertook. From the 1950s through the 1980s, American historians devoted themselves to a remorseless re-examination of the nation’s past. Not surprisingly, given the rise of the civil rights movement, a large part of the re-evaluation concerned the half-hidden history of slavery and race relations, and it quickly embraced also the history of labor, women, politics, and ideas. Also not surprisingly, this historiography of national self-reckoning stirred up intense--at times even ugly--debates among proponents of the clashing methods and interpretations, left, right, and center.
No single label can be imposed on the ideas and the techniques of, among many others, C. Vann Woodward, David Potter, Gerda Lerner, Bernard Bailyn, Eugene Genovese, Forrest McDonald, and Herbert Gutman, let alone the numerous clashing versions of so-called “New Left” history written by younger historians. This was not exactly a school. Just looking at the list brings to mind intellectual disputations that from time to time defeated the ideal of scholarly comity. Still, all these historians had in common a dedication to treating history not as a panoramic backward gaze, but as a battleground of contesting views about American life and development. Woodward once called the new historical dispensation “the age of interpretation.” Critical analysis was in the saddle. American history was meant to rattle its readers, not to confirm them in their received myths and platitudes about America.
For many reasons, the age of interpretation faded away over the past decade or so. What were once upstart revisionist currents calcified into self-regarding academic sub-specialties, sponsoring plenty of analysis but little fundamental debate. The flatness of post-Watergate American politics sapped some of the excitement out of critical history, and what was left got channeled into a culture war that turned history into fodder for political polemics. With a few notable exceptions, such as the Civil War scholar James M. McPherson, academic historians lost contact with the large American reading public that earlier professional historians, from Charles and Mary Beard to Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Richard Hofstadter, and C. Vann Woodward, had enjoyed. Complaints arose about the dullness, the narrowness, and the atrocious writing that afflicted the analytical history that was practiced in the universities; and the complaints duly became cliches. And into the breach, to the academics’ chagrin, stepped a new breed of popular historians, led by David McCullough and an assortment of journalists, novelists, and PBS film-makers, plus the odd crossover professor.
Or so it appeared. In fact, popular American history writing has been around all along. And the struggle over who should tell the nation’s history, the professors or the popularizers, is an old one, dating back at least to the 1930s and 1940s--precisely the period that Hofstadter found so glutted with vapid Americana. It was then that, paradoxically, the Columbia University historian Allan Nevins led the first significant formal efforts to de-academicize American historical writing. It was then, too, that popularization first met with sharp resistance--some of the sharpest of which came not from the academics but from an excellent, truculent, idiosyncratic, and now nearly forgotten popular historian of the American West named Bernard DeVoto.
Long before he became a professor, Allan Nevins was a highly successful journalist, mainly as an editorial writer for the New York Evening Post, The Nation, and the New York World. Only in 1928, when he was thirty-eight, was Nevins persuaded to join the history faculty at Columbia. There he became a dedicated teacher, overseeing for twenty years the department’s master’s degree program. (Hofstadter, quite tellingly, chose to pursue his Columbia M.A. under Harry Carman, a more politically charged liberal historian.) Nevins won Pulitzer Prizes for biographies (now rarely read) of Grover Cleveland and Hamilton Fish. In 1947, he published the first volume of his monumental history of the Civil War era--an epic that would win Nevins permanent respect as an academic scholar and as a popular writer, even though its interpretive perspective shifted over the years in which it was written.
Nevins prospered in the academy, but he never felt completely at home in his monograph-driven profession. “He was concerned,” as one of his students recalled, “not only to guide the young historian toward an understanding of historical method but also to make him aware of the opportunities which history, as a form of literature, offered to the writer, the editor, the critic.” Frustrated by what he regarded as the academy’s squelching of literary ambition, Nevins became the driving force behind the formation, in 1939, of the Society of American Historians, an elected group of freelance historians and biographers, as well as some belletristic academics, in order “to promote literary distinction in historical writing.” Nevins also called for the publication of a lively and well-written magazine of American history, purged of scholarly awkwardness and aimed at a popular audience--a project that finally got off the ground in 1954, when a group of former Life magazine editors started American Heritage.
Nevins’s extra-academic activities helped to make him the most conspicuous American historian of his day. But they did not impress every non-academic historian, least of all the caustic Bernard DeVoto. Like Nevins, who grew up in Illinois, DeVoto was raised in the hinterland, in Ogden, Utah. Like Nevins, he had little patience for academic snobbery and pretension. But unlike the journalist Nevins, DeVoto, who came east to get his B.A. at Harvard, began his writing career as a novelist, a book reviewer, and a literary critic. (His first major work, Mark Twain’s America, appeared in 1932, and was a devastating, even cruel pro-Western rebuttal to Van Wyck Brooks’s genteel debunking study The Ordeal of Mark Twain, which had been published a dozen years earlier.) And unlike Nevins, DeVoto’s academic career ended abruptly in 1936, when Harvard (where he had been teaching as a part-time lecturer in English) declined to give him a permanent position. After this embittering episode DeVoto entered journalism full-time, as editor of the Saturday Review from 1936 to 1938, and as the monthly “Easy Chair” columnist for Harper’s, a job that he held from 1935 until 1956. And while churning out his journalism, DeVoto abandoned novels in favor of history, above all his masterful trilogy on the American West, The Year of Decision: 1846, Across the Wide Missouri, and The Course of Empire.
As emphatically as Nevins, DeVoto criticized university historians, most of whom, he believed, were timid, pinched souls who wrote poorly. DeVoto detested scholarly orthodoxies even more than Nevins did, not least the dogmas of the pro-Southern and so-called “revisionist” school, which held that the Civil War was a needless struggle brought on by maniacal abolitionists and blundering politicians. The revisionists dominated academic and popular historical writing in America from the 1930s through the early 1950s, strongly influencing the opening volumes of Allan Nevins’s magnum opus. DeVoto, an unforgiving anti-slavery Yankee, would have none of it. “Against this, my boy, the watchman waketh in vain,” DeVoto wrote with fury to an editor friend who had gone soft on the revisionists.
But Devoto the journalist also believed that Nevins the professor had gone too far in his anti-academicism. Although few professional historians were gifted writers, he observed, their books had other virtues, chiefly their love of historical facts. Literary types, he believed, too rarely shared that love, leading them to simplify, to sensationalize, and to gossip about the past. The real trouble with history, DeVoto asserted, was that the professionals had abandoned both historical synthesis and the advancing of strong, even heretical personal judgments. Instead they clouded their narrow findings in pusillanimous jargon while kowtowing to one or another general line of interpretation. An injection of liveliness by journalist semi-pro historians, in magazine venues such as the one that Nevins proposed, would not solve this problem, or even address it; and it might make matters worse. If only professional historians were more courageous, DeVoto wrote acidly, then there would be “no move to supplement the American Historical Review with a periodical modeled on the National Geographic Magazine.”
DeVoto the erstwhile novelist held equally strong views about the uses of literary style in history. “My books employ the methods and techniques of literature,” he boasted to a librarian friend in Ogden, “and especially they have structure as literature. They have form. What’s more to the point, and what distinguishes them sharply from a book by Allan Nevins or [the prominent revisionist historian] J.G. Randall, say, is that the form is used to reveal meaning. The meaning is the end in view.” In particular, DeVoto’s history writing, beginning with The Year of Destiny, artfully deployed synecdoche, the use of a single figure or episode to stand for a larger whole, as well as what he called “simultaneousness,” the braiding together of several narrative strands in order to convey the fact that they were all happening at once.
DeVoto could find meaning where others could not, in a certain cracked Romantic vein that he thought essential to American history, none stronger than the combination of insecurity, utopianism, and cold logic that became the willful idea of Manifest Destiny. “Ours is a story mad with the impossible,” he wrote to his old friend and sometime literary advisee the eminent popular historian Catherine Drinker Bowen, “it is by chaos out of dream, it began as dream and it has continued as dream down to the last headline you read in a newspaper, and of our dreams there are two things above all others to be said, that only madmen could have dreamed them or would have dared to--and that we have shown a considerable faculty for making them come true.” Limning this lunacy and its fruits--without sensationalizing it--in the saga of the Mormons, or of the doomed Donner Party, or of the Oregon land fever, became DeVoto’s peculiar achievement.
Although dismissed by most academic historians, DeVoto’s opinionated, self-consciously literary style of history hardly went unappreciated. Across the Wide Missouri won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1948; and there were in those days, as there have been ever since, a few American non-academic historians and biographers who upheld DeVoto’s analytical and literary standards, including Catherine Drinker Bowen, Fawn Brodie, and Shelby Foote. But DeVoto’s style of seriousness has been eclipsed by the more journalistic and sentimentally descriptive style of American Heritage, whose influence is everywhere.
In the magazine’s founding issue, its editor, Bruce Catton, declared that “our beat is anything that ever happened in America.” And so it remains, producing every month a quirky grab bag of fascinating but undemanding features on everything from (as in one recent issue) the history of the voting machine, Americans’ centuries-old love affair with Venice, and the rise and fall of the Oldsmobile. The American Heritage style came to dominate the writing of non-academic American history books, not least in Catton’s enormously popular multi-volume military history of the Civil War.
David McCullough is the most accomplished current practitioner of this style, and one of the major forces behind its resurgence. After graduating Yale in 1955, McCullough found work as a writer and editor at Time, then spent three years at the United States Information Agency, and wound up at the American Heritage Publishing Company during the second half of the 1960s. (A freelance writer since 1970, he has remained connected to American Heritage as senior contributing editor.) His first book, The Johnstown Flood, which appeared in 1968, was fully in the magazine’s high-Americana mode, a closely researched story of disaster and human courage in a nineteenth-century town in McCullough’s native Pennsylvania. From there he advanced to bigger and better stories of daring engineering feats (and disaster and human courage): the building of the Brooklyn Bridge (in The Great Bridge) and of the Panama Canal (in The Path Between the Seas).
Those remain McCullough’s best books so far. They displayed a thorough mastery of technological detail, as well as of the complex social and political background, that rose well above the standard level of descriptive journalistic history. That they neither offered nor challenged any big ideas about American history was of little consequence: in these instances McCullough’s talents as a researcher and a narrator more than matched the unquestionable importance and interest of his topics. Yet his study of the Panama Canal did not lead him straight ahead, say, to a study of the Hoover Dam or the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Manhattan Project or the Apollo Project, big subjects all. It led him sideways, to write a lucid and admiring study of the early life of our canal-building president Theodore Roosevelt. Since then he has produced even grander and more admiring presidential biographies, first Truman and now John Adams.
In attaining literary celebrity, McCullough has himself become an admirable public figure. His hard work a few years ago on behalf of a group that he co-chaired, Protect Historic America, helped mightily in defeating the Disney Corporation’s outrageous plans to build a theme park alongside the Manassas Battlefield in Virginia. During his stint as president of Nevins’s old association, the Society of American Historians (of which, I fully disclose, I am a member and a nominal officer), McCullough did an excellent job of raising the group’s profile and encouraging closer contact between academic and non-academic historians.
Above all, McCullough is familiar to millions as the avuncular host of the Public Broadcasting Service’s “American Experience” series, and as the chief narrator of Ken Burns’s documentary The Civil War. Thanks to public television, McCullough has become the handsome, authoritative face of American history--and, with his pleasantly weathered baritone, also the voice of American history, a position previously held by such scholarly luminaries as Raymond Massey and Hal Holbrook. The trouble with all this is not that it has turned McCullough into a television star, but that it has accompanied--no, it has required--his move into historical realms that are unsuited to his strengths as a writer. And in making this move, McCullough has contributed significantly to the latest revival, under the banner of “narrative,” of popular history as passive nostalgic spectacle.
He is not, to be sure, the only culprit, nor is he the worst. Ken Burns and PBS offered, in The Civil War, a televised version of the American Heritage technique, brilliant in its detail, evocative in its storytelling, but crushingly sentimental and vacuous in its historical judgments of the war’s origins and meaning. (The monotonous weepy fiddle-playing, now a standard feature of Burns productions, did not help matters.) PBS also shares in the responsibility for the even more egregious advent of the “presidential historian,” a hitherto unknown scholarly species whose chief function is to offer television viewers anodyne tidbits of historical trivia that seem pertinent to current political events, and to look and sound remarkable when doing so (though none of them can possibly look and sound as remarkable as David McCullough).
Outside of television, a renewed rage for historical fiction has produced what amounts to a fresh round of costume-drama Americana--books long on knowingness and minutiae and postmodern sampling, but only rarely containing (as in the late Michael Shaara’s fine novel about Gettysburg, The Killer Angels) any historical ideas of note. The demand for blockbuster non-fiction historical epics has defeated the best efforts of serious, iconoclastic journalists-turned-historians such as David Halberstam (The Fifties) and the late J. Anthony Lukas (Big Trouble). Nor has the American academic elite been immune: consider Simon Schama’s erudite and jolly and empty traversals through everything from a nineteenth-century murder mystery in Boston to the history of Britain since 3500 B.C., which turn all historical subjects into historical romps. It is hard to think of a sadder scholarly defection to the universe of entertainment.
McCullough’s specific contribution has been to treat large-scale historical biography as yet another genre of spectatorial appreciation, an exercise in character recognition, a reliable source of edification and pleasant uplift. In his life of Truman, McCullough dutifully describes the peppery personality and the political travails of the Man from Missouri--but what really captivates McCullough is Truman’s character, the thoughtfulness and the kindness that lurked behind the toughness and the complexity of what came across as Truman’s common sense. McCullough writes eulogistically that “he was America,” whatever that means. (It is exactly the sort of synecdoche that would have caused Bernard DeVoto to arch an eyebrow.) And McCullough concludes his thousand-page tome with a tribute to President Truman from yet another American original, the late journalist Eric Sevareid: “Remembering him reminds people what a man in that office ought to be like. It’s character, just character. He stands like a rock in memory now.”
Truman, which was aptly castigated by Ronald Steel in these pages as a “valentine,” can be defended on the grounds that it contained a good deal of fresh material when it appeared. And it is plausible--indeed, it is likely--that Harry Truman’s character really was his greatest asset. Still, that notion ought to be a hypothesis in search of proof, not a prior excuse for the veneration of great men, or an allpurpose basis for biographical and historical judgment. Plenty of great Americans, after all, have had deeply flawed characters; and if sterling character were the main guide to greatness, all America would formally commemorate the birthday of Robert E. Lee instead of the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.
The paucity of McCullough’s picturesque characterological approach to the past is underscored by his life of John Adams. For Adams is a well-studied historical figure about whom McCullough has virtually nothing new to reveal. He is a figure whose sharp edges and mixed political record defy grateful appreciation. And he is a figure whose importance stems from his intellect and his politics, not from his character.
No American revolutionary leader--not Madison, not Hamilton, and certainly not Jefferson--surpassed John Adams as a prolific author of systematic political theory. He was, to be sure, also an important lawyer and diplomat and congressional delegate; and he was, of course, the second president of the United States. But of all of Adams’s claims to greatness, none was more deserving than his role in crafting what he himself regarded as America’s greatest gift to the world: its conceptions and institutions of constitutional government.
In his “Novanglus” essays, published in the Massachusetts Gazette in 1774, Adams laid out, in a painfully labored but learned prose, a Yankee version of the rising patriot claim that a conspiratorial, venal British ministry was trying to reduce Americans to abject oppression. Two years later, in his urgent pamphlet Thoughts on Government, Adams affirmed his republicanism but argued forcefully against the democratic radicalism proclaimed by Thomas Paine in his immensely popular Common Sense--an “ignorant” and “despicable” work, Adams charged, that “will do more Mischief ... than all the Tory writings together.” Early in 1787--before the framing of the Constitution, let alone the writing of The Federalist--Adams published the first volume of his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, an extended argument in favor of a three-tiered, carefully balanced government. Add to these efforts Adams’s early anti-British Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, and his authorship of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, and his attack on the radicalism of the French Revolution in Discourses on Davila, as well as his autobiography, his Boston Patriot essays-in-retirement defending his presidency, and scores of occasional political pieces, and it amounts to an impressive if often tedious body of work, seemingly unavoidable to any Adams scholar.
Apart from Thoughts on Government and the Defence, however, McCullough barely mentions Adams’s political writings; and what he has to say about the two major works consists of brief quotations surrounded by utterly conventional plot summary and commentary. Adams had difficulties writing lucidly for the public (in marked contrast to his private correspondence and his extraordinary diary). Lawyerly self-consciousness choked his pen. Yet he diligently persevered, sometimes laboring under the strain of fast-moving events. To slight this side of the man, as McCulough does, is to overlook an important aspect of Adams’s struggle for fame. Worse, it is to rob him of his ideas.
Nor is McCullough’s judgment much better regarding those parts of Adams’s public life that he does treat. In his two chapters on Adams’s unfortunate presidency, McCullough barely moves beyond colorful but cursory (and generally pro-Adams) sketches of the major political events--which include some of the most significant events in the nation’s early history. He notes that the Alien and Sedition Acts, which Adams endorsed, have been “rightly judged by history as the most reprehensible acts of his presidency,” but he says hardly anything about what made them so reprehensible: the jailings and the peremptory trials of Adams’s critics for finding the least fault in the president; the despairing departure of shiploads of French nationals (including Adams’s ex-friend Moreau de St.-Mery) scared stiff by the anti-foreigner repression; the sheer hysteria that accompanied what Jefferson called a “reign of witches.”
Instead McCullough tries to mitigate matters by repeating Adams’s claims that these were necessary measures, in view of the continuing, undeclared quasi-war with France. Later, uncritically serving up the pro-Adams conventional wisdom, McCullough praises Adams for achieving “a rare level of statesmanship” in finally choosing not to wage formal full-scale war in 1799. Yet McCullough seems unaware that, far from a patriotic act of self-sacrifice, Adams’s decision fit squarely with what had become his best political interests as the 1800 presidential election approached, given the mounting evidence of anti-war and pro-Jefferson sentiment in crucial states. Nor does McCullough stop to wonder why, after refraining from war, Adams did not lift a finger to halt the “war measures” that he had helped to unleash against his domestic political foes. But McCullough does devote some evocative pages to describing what was then called the President’s House:
The immense house was still unfinished. It reeked of wet plaster and wet paint. Fires had to be kept blazing in every fireplace on the main floor to speed up the drying process. Only a twisted back stair had been built between floors. Closet doors were missing. And though the furniture had arrived from Philadelphia, it looked lost in such enormous rooms.
This is vintage McCullough, the teller of tales. But when he gets to Adams’s enormous intellect, McCullough looks lost.
Absent a thorough or even a reliable evaluation of Adams’s ideas and politics, it is impossible to comprehend what made the man tick. But McCullough, drawing on immense reserves of as yet unpublished Adams letters as well as on Adams’s famous diary, does show that he and his wife, Abigail, lustily adored each other; that Adams was all too gloomily aware of his strong streak of vanity; and that Adams was a blunt, candid man who, though unloved by the masses, could be charming and witty and immensely approachable in private. Narrative, narrative, narrative.
None of this will surprise anyone even casually acquainted with the large scholarly and popular literature on Adams and his family. Moreover, quoting unpublished letters does not necessarily enrich our understanding of a major historical figure; as in Adams’s case, it may chiefly re-affirm what is already known, which could be one reason why nobody has bothered to publish those letters. Nor do McCullough’s fresh and expanded descriptions of certain episodes that Adams long remembered--for example, his death-defying ocean voyage to France in 1778--add much of weight to the historical record.
There is one thing that McCullough’s obsession with Adams’s character does add to our understanding of his subject, but it has less to do with John Adams than with Thomas Jefferson. Over the past twenty years, Jefferson’s reputation has come in for a severe and wrongheaded downgrading by historians. McCullough contributes to this downgrading by repeatedly pointing out the manifest inferiority of Jefferson’s character compared with Adams’s. Jefferson was a Virginia aristocrat and slaveholder; Adams was the son of a plain Massachusetts farmer. Jefferson was gracious but devious and somewhat remote, a man who avoided conflict; Adams was forthright and loved to argue. Jefferson was an appetitive spendthrift; Adams was frugal. Jefferson was prone to make extravagant claims and to tell what Adams’s son, John Quincy, called his “large stories”; Adams was preternaturally down-to-earth and proportionate. Jefferson believed in the improvement of mankind, but he had little interest in people in particular; Adams was skeptical about improving mankind, but he was fascinated by the intricacies of human nature. And what about Sally Hemings....
Between the fugacious Jefferson and the doughty Adams, McCullough is much more at ease with, and appreciative of, the latter. Indeed, in his portrait of Adams one can detect, ever so slightly, the lineaments of his modern hero, “Give ‘Em Hell” Harry. But Jefferson, although never less than a great American in McCullough’s world of great Americans, comes across as narcissistic, artificial, and unsteady. Those are traits that, in McCullough’s mind, run against the good old American grain.
Yet much of the value of this contrast depends on the beholder. Jefferson’s elusiveness and deviousness could just as easily be praised as his protean genius, an indispensable quality for one who would lead a new nation of sovereign squabbling individuals. By allowing different constituencies to see in him what they wanted to see, Jefferson mastered the democratic art of leading while appearing to be a follower, and of following while appearing to be a leader; and by practicing those arts he was able to defeat the Federalists, to complete the Louisiana Purchase, and to reform the federal government. Honest, argumentative, dogged John Adams, by contrast, was entirely unsuited for the President’s House; and so he wound up being the first of only eight presidents in all of American history (one of the others being his son) to be denied re-election after four years in office.
And even if one allows for different tastes in character, McCullough’s approach still falls flat as a historical method. For finally men such as Jefferson and Adams need to be judged not for who they were but for what they thought and what they did. Jefferson’s failures, his compromises, and his hypocrisies will always, and quite fairly, provide grist for his critics. But his lasting importance lies in his singular effort to take some of the most unsettling ideas of the Enlightenment and put them to the test in the highest reaches of American politics. By doing so, he helped to infuse our political life with egalitarian and democratic impulses that exploded in the nineteenth century and are still very much alive.
John Adams and his legacy were very different. While Adams was a revolutionary on the subject of American independence, his more conservative appropriation of the Enlightenment--the product of his intense devotion to the study of politics--eventually cut him off from the dynamic forces in American public life. No Revolutionary leader, to be sure, saw so clearly the limits and the snares of egalitarianism as Adams did: in his guileless, skeptical way, he provided a necessary philosophical and political ballast to the democratic enthusiasms ignited by Paine, let alone by Jefferson’s sometimes dreamy speculations about human improvement. Although it would be Jefferson’s friend (and, in time, Adams’s foe) James Madison who would translate this skeptical frame of mind into a design for American nationhood, Adams deserves credit for sustaining a realistic conception of balance, order, and the political dangers of an unchecked popular will.
Yet Adams also remained stuck in various dogmas that quickly became outmoded in the years during and after the Revolution. Above all, he never shook off the classical understanding of politics as the incorporation of distinct social interests--the many, the few, and the one; or democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy. When Adams spoke of mixed or balanced government, he had those ancient distinctions in mind, as if the chief aim of government ought to be the counterbalancing of permanent social classes. He never really understood (as Madison did) that the Revolution had overthrown this way of thinking, replacing it with an ideal of popular sovereignty that permitted no permanent social classes in politics. America, the Revolution had decreed, would have a classless state; and this dispensation would be forever incomprehensible to John Adams.
This is a poignant story. It is the tale of a courageous and good man who fell out of touch with the country that he loved and that he served so diligently and often so well. But it is a story that simply eludes the pieties of McCullough. By giving us the admirable Adams--by celebrating what he calls Adams’s “bedrock integrity, his spirit of independence, his devotion to country, his marriage, his humor, and a great underlying love of life”--McCullough has written merely another valentine. But it is one thing to be swept away by a major figure of one’s own lifetime, and quite another to cast as an exemplary political figure a man who died one hundred and seventy-five years ago in another political age--especially one whose connection to our own rambunctious democracy is as tenuous as Adams’s.
The result is a biography that fails to ask many difficult questions about its subject, and thereby makes him less interesting than he actually was. Benjamin Franklin, who grew to loathe Adams (the feeling was mutual), remarked in 1783 that Adams “means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.” McCullough regards this as a calumny, which is too bad. A finer taste for ambiguity might have helped him to grasp the accuracy of Franklin’s judgment. So would a surer sense for what the idiosyncratic Bernard DeVoto recognized as the slightly mad strain in all of American history--an indispensable sense of American strangeness that seems to have disappeared among our leading popular historians, for whom madness is just a kind of charm and strangeness just a kind of color.
After departing the President’s House in defeat in 1801, Adams wrote to his political ally Benjamin Stoddert to complain that his ouster proved that “we have no Americans in America.” In fact, it was Adams, and not his countrymen, who by sticking to his principles effectively left America. Only deep into his retirement did Adams seem to reach a sad reckoning with what had happened. “From the year 1761, now more than Fifty years,” the aging patriot told his friend Benjamin Rush in 1812, “I have constantly lived in an enemies Country.” That was said in bitterness, obviously; and yet in the end there was a kernel of truth to his feeling of estrangement from his country. John Adams was certainly a great American, but it is impossible any longer to believe that he was an exemplary American. He is certainly not the hero we need now, if a hero is what we need.