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Beneath the Powdered Wig: John Adams

Big Think’s Jason Gots reviews David McCullough’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography John Adams. 

Nota Bene: I am almost as indifferent a student of American History as those hapless Florida State students that people like Jay Leno are always interviewing — the ones who can’t find Florida on a map. I blame this partly on the fact that my high school American History teacher was the football coach. But it also comes down to the old “too many names, dates, and wars” defense. The human narrative is so often buried in a haystack of details and reflections on the significance of events that I find it impossible to follow or care about.

Great biographies get around this issue by focusing on a single protagonist (the subject) and getting the reader deeply invested in what happens to her/him. I’ve just read David McCullough’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography John Adams, and am now thinking constantly about those poor, impressive schmos back in 1776 who decided to start a revolution and found a democracy from scratch, never having done anything remotely like either of those things before.

Life in America was hard back then. It’s hard now, too, but it’s not 4,000-people-in-Philadelphia-dying-every-August-of-yellow-fever hard. It’s not narrowly-escaping-death-three-times-by-drowning-or-pirates-every-time-you-go-to-France hard. Getting up in the morning, for most of us, does not entail a massive feat of imagination whereby you’re somehow going to manage to defeat an empire without an army or any ships, then forge a nation out of people who can’t even agree whether or not it’s OK to own other human beings. The story of successful humans in any time and place is a story of perseverance against incredible odds, but the story of the founding of America is something else altogether. It’s Braveheart–grade awe-inspiring. 

A nod here to any post-colonial critics who may be reading this and going, “Yeah, yeah, it was so amazing except for the slavery and the slaughtering of Native Americans and the systemic oppression of women.” I get that. And so (not incidentally) did more than a few of the founders. Alexander Hamilton was a vocal abolitionist, a consistently outspoken opponent of the horrors of slavery. Adams was anti-slavery, too, and owned no slaves, but in order to cement the North/South Union long enough to beat Britain, Northern Congressional abolitionists punted the issue — a dealbreaker for agricultural, slaveholding Virginia and North Carolina. Those were different times, too — it boggles the mind to read accounts of Thomas Jefferson’s strident anti-slavery rhetoric, written while he was in possession of hundreds of slaves and fathering new ones regularly by Sally Hemings. More than one founder pointed out the obvious hypocrisy of fighting for freedom while owning other people. There’s no question that America’s heroic origins have some big, ugly blemishes upon them. Amputations, even. 

But the inspiring story McCullough tells in John Adams is a true one, too. It’s a story of revolutionary fervor tempered by the passionate desire to build a government that benefits the people above itself. It’s the story of a moment when a new, more rational direction for humanity seemed possible, based on Enlightenment principles. And it’s the story of John Adams, an impressive and typically flawed human being who was at the center of it all. At this cynical moment 240 years on, when Donald Trump is a viable presidential candidate, it’s refreshing to be reminded of America’s idealistic origins. 

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Adams, in McCullough’s telling, is his integrity. Moral probity was a big deal to Adams and his Braintree, Massachusetts, family going back a few generations, and even his harshest critics seemed to agree that he was an honest man. Toward the end of George Washington’s presidency, when America was splitting into two parties (the pro-states-rights Republicans and the strong-central-government Federalists), Adams decried the evils of partisanship. When he ran for president, he refused to run attack ads (which you did in those days by writing or paying someone to write nasty things about your opponent). He was a stubbornly committed man of principles, which sometimes made him a terrible diplomat, but also a stable, reliable force in the chaotic days of the revolution and the early republic. A little like Bernie Sanders, maybe. 

Integrity, honesty, and patriotism are a tough sell for modern readers. These virtues are decidedly unsexy from a marketing standpoint. But McCullough’s wonderful excerpts from the thousands of letters Adams and his equally (if not more) impressive wife Abigail wrote each other bring Adams to life as a surprisingly modern sounding ironist. He’s witty, self-aware, down-to-earth, sometimes a bit self-pitying, but always likable. He’s brave. He’s a man of action and of his word. He keeps at it relentlessly for the good of the Union, even when his political enemies are making his life hell, calling him “His Rotundity the Duke of Braintree” and such. 

It’s the job of a good biographer, like that of a good actor, to empathize with his subject, but John Adams isn’t hagiography. McCullough gives us insight into Adams’ character flaws — he could be irascible and bitter, depressive even, at times — and (as V.P.) he got strangely obsessed with minutiae like how exactly people should address the president (“His Excellency George Washington”? “His Supreme Excellency”? “His Most August and Noteworthy”? Etc.) But in McCullough’s telling, these eccentricities serve mainly to make Adams more likably human. 

And, like that other brilliant bit of recent revolutionary storytelling, Hamilton the musical, John Adams drops modern readers in the middle of the action and gives us convincing access to what it must have been like to live and work in those extraordinary times. Serious historians may snort at the need, but for me a book like John Adams is the difference between visiting a portrait gallery and spending an afternoon at the tavern with the founding fathers. 

Powdered wigs and platitudes about liberty are all well and good, but thanks to McCullough, and to John and Abigail’s amazing correspondence, these people are much more real to me now. 

@jgots is me on Twitter

You might also like our podcast, Think Again, where we surprise smart people with unexpected ideas. Salman Rushdie, Maira Kalman, George Takei, Maria Konnikova, Henry Rollins, Bill Nye, Sam Harris and more have been on. 


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