[16 March 2008]
Among the pantheon of American Founding Fathers, John Adams may not exactly fit the model that modern audiences expect from their revolutionaries. It’s not easy to pinpoint his strengths at first glance; his unassuming nature doesn’t effortlessly communicate a heroic trait like Washington’s inspiring charisma, Franklin’s pithy brilliance, or Jefferson’s lettered grace. In the midst of such giants who seem to possess extraordinary powers and who performed patriotic miracles, Adams seems like a normal human being.
Historian David McCullough saw, however, that this humanity was Adams’s strength. He delved deeply into the life and history of the man, and discovered that although he never commanded an army nor engaged in the kind of brash and daring exploits that would fill the seats at a blockbuster movie, Adams’s integrity and determination were the hidden gears upon which the American Revolution turned, and that his humanity was a key that would guide modern readers into this world of giants and let them experience it on a comprehensible scale.
The result of McCullough’s efforts was John Adams, which stormed best-seller lists upon its release in 2002 (the hardcover and paperback versions spent a total of 149 weeks on the New York Times non-fiction list) and ultimately claimed the Pulitzer Prize. It seized the interest of the public and proved that Adams’s life was just as epic and crucial to the birth of the United States as his contemporaries, even if they have their faces on currency and he doesn’t.
Adams was a strong figure who carried with him from his farm in Braintree a Puritan work ethic and a self-conscious pursuit of simplicity and humility. He wasn’t always perfect, sometimes falling victim to flattery and vanity, but he made a sincere effort in everything he undertook and provides an early example of the upwardly mobile American.
Now, Simon & Schuster has prepared another paperback edition of John Adams to support the broadcast of a seven-part HBO Films miniseries based on the biography, with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney inhabiting the roles of John and Abigail Adams, airing now. This is another opportunity for readers (and viewers) to immerse themselves in one of the most compelling non-fiction narratives of the 21st century, and in the life of one of the most fascinating men of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Though the American Revolution and beginning stages of the young republic provide the backdrop for much of John Adams, this book isn’t merely tangled up in war and politics. At its heart, John Adams is a book about relationships, specifically the two relationships which had the greatest impact upon Adams’s life: his magnificently happy marriage with Abigail, and his tempestuous friendship and rivalry with Thomas Jefferson.
In Abigail, John had found a worthwhile counterpart, a woman whose intelligence and confidence were unimpeachable and provided him much solace throughout his life as a public servant. She gave him the strength he needed to trust his own judgment and believe in the surety of his endeavors.
Apart from all the talk of politics and strategy, however, Abigail and John were truly and utterly in love. Their correspondence is a chronicle of their feelings for one another and in them they render their emotions clearly and affectingly. “My anxiety for your welfare will never leave me but with my parting breath,” writes Abigail, “‘tis of more importance to me than all this world contains besides.” The spark of passion burns brightly throughout their 54 year marriage, and still lights up the pages two centuries later. She was his “Miss Adorable”, he her “Dearest Friend”.
His relationship with Thomas Jefferson, however, was far more complicated. Their friendship was forged along with the Declaration of Independence, common cause excusing their many differences. Adams was a picture of temperance and simplicity; by contrast, Jefferson was an epicure and could hardly resist indulging his urges. He spent money freely, almost compulsively running up debts in order to acquire the finest clothes, well-crafted scientific equipment, or other luxurious items he felt he could not do without.
After the war, however, party politics drove a wedge between the men and gave rise to feelings of enmity that would linger for years afterward. Both Abigail and Jefferson helped to make Adams the man he was: the former through her unwavering support and love, the latter by challenging his patience and self-confidence.
John Adams isn’t a story about untouchable heroic acts; it’s a story about common heroic acts. It’s a demonstration of the impact one person can have when they throw their whole selves into a cause they believe in. John Adams started out as a Massachusetts farmer with little aspiration beyond securing a place as a respected lawyer in his community, and found himself defying kings and leading a new and ambitious nation in its most uncertain era. It’s an American story.