“Who shall write the history of the American Revolution?” Adams asked. “Who can write it? Who will be able to write it?”
“Nobody,” Jefferson answered, “except perhaps its external facts.”
I’ve just finished reading John Adams, the brilliant work of biographical history by David McCollough, which expanded my knowledge of the titular founding father beyond the HBO ministry and the musical 1776, in which I learned that Mr. Feeny was “obnoxious and disliked.” And while I must applaud Paul Giamatti’s portrayal of America’s second president, one can only really know the man by his words. Thanks be to Mr. Adams, he sure did leave a lot of words.
McCollough digs deep into Adams’ writings, from his first scratched letters to the spidery scribbles of a dying hand. In them we find a man who settles deep into self-perusal, leaving few of his many flaws unseen by the daylight. Vanity, temper, ambition—Adams bemoans them all in diary entries and letters to his dear friend and wife, Abigail. Yet we also see a man with a critical wit, a streak of self-deprecating humor, and an all-abiding passion for his fellow human beings. As much as he claims in his letters that he would have been happy being “Adams the farmer” or “Adams the shoemaker,” it’s clear that both his flaws and positive traits could never have kept John Adams from the tide of history.
McCollough’s book is much more of an exploration of a man—it is the baby scrapbook of the United States, complete with the first coos and heart-rending cries of a newborn nation. Through Adams’ pen, we watch the aftermath of the Boston Massacre as Adams defends the beleaguered British troops in court. We see the orderly streets of Philadelphia as the fertile grounds of liberty, far from the “Killadelphia” that many know today. We watch as the “true blue patriots” wrangle with those seeking a peaceful settlement with the British on the floor of the State House, launching the Revolutionary War. The desperate battles of General Washington, the feeble grasping for European allies and money. Then, eventually, triumph. All of this is seen through Adams’ correspondence with his wife, his friends, and his mercurial exchanges with Thomas Jefferson.
Through these writings, McCollough draws the battle lines in America’s first partisan wars for control of the government. Perhaps most striking are the libelous claims slapped down in decidedly unfair and unbalanced newspapers, which should remind the reader our most recent administrations. Everything old always comes back shiny and new.
It’s a book that, like, Adams himself, defies description. Call that laziness on my part if you want, but clocking in at 768 pages, the book would be highly disrespected if I were to try to boil it down to its simple parts. Suffice it to say that I disagree with President Jefferson in the epigraph above. He, John Adams, and everyone else who put pen to paper during the first turbulent decades of America’s past wrote the history of the American Revolution. It’s now up to us to read it and learn from it.