Sunday, October 07, 2007
John Adams, by David McCullough--Part I
This is still on my TBR (To Be Read) pile, as I am working my way through it. S-l-o-w-l-y. Because it is non-fiction of the drier sort. Unlike The Glass Castle, reviewed below, John Adams does not aspire to novelistic elegance. This is history, and the goal is to put in ALL the information.
Well, maybe not ALL of everything McCullough knows, since he's also published a book just about 1776 (called, creatively enough, 1776). But the goal here is to trace what all Adams did in his life, and the writing comes secondarily.
I picked this book up after having seen the play 1776 (no relation to the McCullough tome). In it, Adams and Thomas Jefferson on amiable colleagues, both seeking the same goal of independence. Yet my memory of their presidential histories is that they were quite vivid antagonists, and the brief period of Adams' presidency was Jefferson's vice presidency, and they fell apart decisively.
A not small reason for picking this up was also my father, who has indicated that he felt TJ was overrated, and Adams was unfairly uncelebrated. This intrigued me--my (admittedly somewhat limited) studies in history had made me admire TJ quite a bit, and of course I love Monticello--a man who did all the TJ did, at a relatively young age as well--how was he overrated?
Well, I'm about halfway through McCullough's book now, and I see where my dad is coming from. The timeline is post Declaration, but pre-Washington presidency. John Adams is stuck in Europe trying to get loans and recognition from European countries for this new nation. No one is really buying into the idea that America will stay independent. So, here's poor JA, away from his wife--AGAIN--being patronized by the French. And TJ is back home in Virginia, with his wife and family.
Then JA gets sent to Holland, to try to get some major bank loans to fund the new country--and nobody will even acknowledge him. And TJ is back home in Virginia, with his wife and family (and at some point fleeing the British, which is read contemporaneously as contemptuous). Here is JA, setting up the first American embassy in the world, while TJ is STILL home in Virginia.
Eventually, TJ comes to Paris to work with JA, and they are great friends. However, TJ just CANNOT stop shopping! He buys a big house, he buys fine clothes, he buys crates and crates of books, and gloves, and horses, and. . . and. . .and. . . Meanwhile, Abigail and her family come to France as well, and are barely making ends meet on their stipend from Congress. TJ is also short of funds, but doesn't seem to be able to make the connection that Lack of Funds + Compulsive Shopping = Debts. He laments his debts, he keeps careful track of each and everything he buys---but he never actually adds up the costs nor compares it to his income.
Then, JA is sent to the Court of St. James as the (first ever!) American ambassador to England. And boy, is he snubbed. The British firmly believe that the colonies will return to English rule--after all, why wouldn't they? So why take this silly little obnoxious man seriously? No one speaks to him, no one acknowledges him, no one is willing to discuss any trade or fishing rights or anything the new country needs to have to live. And TJ? Still off shopping in France.
TJ is even confronted (as he should be) about the hypocracy of insisting on independence for white men while continuing to hold slaves. His answer? Is only that if he freed his slaves, he could never pay back all his debts. . .
So, perhaps the romantic images of TJ as a giant among men is overstated. And John Adams worked tirelessly and without much salve for his ego to assure the success of the American Experiment, and his efforts really are not broadly understood. The precariousness of the new country is hard to understand from our point in history, and the fact that it succeeded at all probably has more to do with Adams' ceaseless efforts than with Jefferson's elegant Declaration.
So, we'll see how things progress. I have some hard feelings against JA for the Alien and Sedition Act he instigated, and how it was used. TJ, at least, didn't resort to silencing his critics--but again, it's hard to understand those times. That portion of history still lies ahead, and it will be interesting to see how McCullough handles that and Adams' appointment of the "Midnight Judges," which for all it's potential for abuse gave us the Supreme Court's balancing powers as we know them.