“Thanks to God that he gave me stubbornness when I know I am right.”
At the end of each year, I, like most bloggers, post my favorite books of the year. I am an avid reader and perusing the year of books is a real favorite of mine. Most years deciding on the winner is a real challenge. This year, however, will unlikely be that way. One of the nation’s leading historians and writers, David McCullough, has written one of the best biographies I’ve read. Simply titled “John Adams” McCullough has turned Adams, known as a stubborn and at times cranky founder who carried the burden following Washington in the White House, into my favorite founder.
McCullough’s biography is a detailed look at Adam’s public career – from his move to Boston as a lawyer to his death – written with engaging prose. The author presents a heroic, though flawed and sympathetic portrait of a founder that, for reasons unknown, has been largely forgotten.
The motive behind cracking this biography came from my wife and I finally starting the HBO miniseries on this book. Two episodes in, I knew I needed more than what the series was offering (a common pattern in my life). As much as I enjoyed the HBO exploration of this American hero, McCullough’s telling is far superior.
First, no one has been at the center of some of the most significant historical events in American history than Adam. Eisenhower might be second, but Adams is first. I was unaware of his involvement in the Boston Massacre. It was Adams, hired by the British soldiers when no one else would take their case, who defended their rights and innocence. He won in the end.
Adams then appears at the Continental Congress and was arguably the most influential character. Although persons like Franklin and Washington loomed large, it was Adams who spoke the loudest. Moving forward, he played the pivotal roll in selecting George Washington to lead the American army, lead the charge for Independence, asked Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence, negotiated peace following the war, established both England and France as partners (which was volatile to say the least), served as America’s first vice president, second President, and lived long enough to be the first former President to witness the inauguration of his son to the presidency – a feet that would not be repeated until the inauguration of George W. Bush.
Outside of his absence to the organization of the US Constitution, Adams was a leader among our Founders. Yet for reasons beyond my comprehension, Adams is largely backdrop to figures like Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, and others. That is not to say that Adams is not well-respected or recognized as one of the most significant Founders, yet his stature is less than the others. McCullough changed this perspective for me. Without Adams, American history and America itself would look significantly different.
Secondly, McCullough presents Adams as he was, not as we imagine him to be. To some, Adams is a heroic figure that should be venerated. To others, he, like the other Founders, were flawed white men who hypocritically tolerated slavery and other bigotries. McCullough avoids these simplistic, political narratives.
Adams was heroic. There can be no doubt about that. Though close to his wife and children, they often suffered because of his service to his country. His defense of the British soldiers in Boston launches Adams down a path of courage and fortitude. He stood up to Jefferson who wrongly defended the French Revolution. He fought for the cause of Independence at the risk of his own life and the well-being of his family. He stood on neutrality when France and England were at war with each other. He was, indeed, heroic in the truest sense.
He was also deeply flawed. McCullough shows a man great in ambition and yet sensitive to criticism. He was well known and greatly loathed. Beloved by many and hated by others. He stood on principle even in the world of politics. It is good, indeed, that the Lord made him stubborn (a common criticism of Mr. Adams) especially when he was right!
We live in an age that either demeans or worships significant heroic figures. McCullough present a hero who, behind the public mask was a husband, a father, a citizen, a lawyer, a saint, and a sinner.
Finally, I greatly enjoyed the antidotes that McCullough provides. Adams famously said that “facts are stubborn things” during the Boston Massacre trial. This is likely the most memorable line from Adams’ entire illustrative career. Yet given the modern love-affair with feelings over facts, it is one worth putting into practice.
My favorite comes near the end. Adams was not secretive regarding his disregard of the Vice-Presidency, which he discovered the hard way. After Adam’s came a long line of former Vice-Presidents who loathed the position. When he finally surrendered the Presidency to Thomas Jefferson, Adams was both disappointed (in an ugly way) and yet relived.
While in retirement, Adams reflected back on his life and suggested that, if he had to do it all over again, he would have chosen the life of a shoemaker. McCullough then tells us:
Long before, on his rounds of Boston as a young lawyer, Adams had often heard a man with a fine voice singing behind the door of an obscure house. One day, curious to now who “this cheerful mortal” might be, he had knocked at the door, to find a poor shoemaker with a large family living in a single room. Did he find it hard getting by, Adams had asked. “sometimes,” the man said. Adams ordered a pair of shoes. “I had scarcely got out the door before he began to sing again like a nightingale,” Adams remembered. “Which was the greater philosopher? Epictetus or this shoemaker?” he would ask when telling the story.
Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher, had said, among other things, “it is difficulties that show what men are.” (570-571)
Indeed. And Adams lived in trying times – the times that would test the soul of man. And he left it on July 4, 1826 – the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and on the same day as Thomas Jefferson. Its poetic.