Adams the Great (or so he thought)
John Adams was kind of an a-hole. I’ll say it. Because he was. And I don’t like to lie. I’ll get there. But before I do, let’s take a second to reflect on the book, John Adams by David McCullough.
It was good. It was quite good. It won a Pulitzer. There’s no reason it took me a solid 7 days to read it aside from the fact that I dreaded picking it up because every time I did I wanted to flee to Canada and live in a country that wasn’t founded by a huge jerk. That, and I was out of town for four days and it’s more difficult to be social while reading than one might imagine. Regardless, McCullough did his research. It was laden with bits and pieces of letters (Adams was huge on correspondences with people he liked and many he didn’t), journals of all sorts of people (much of Adams’ family, as well as others who were in his circle), and even articles that appeared in popular papers of the time. Unfortunately, most of them led me to the conclusion that Adams was kind of a huge scumbag. Naturally I compared the writing to the writing of the Washington book I read, as it’s hard not to compare two things so similar that were read back to back. Something that I would have liked a bit more back ground with was Adam’s family history. Maybe 10 pages were devoted to his youth (and merely a couple of paragraphs looked into his time before the age of 15 and his entrance into Harvard), and very little was said about his immediate family. I’d like to have had a better foundation. Maybe because I’m young, I imagine that the first 15 years of his life would be pretty important in providing insight into the man he became. Something else that I wasn’t so keen on was that McCullough really focused on the time that Adams spent in France brokering peace treaties (which wasn’t too much of a task, as we were fairly peaceful with them already). He did spend 10 years there, and I can see why it was important to spend some time working through his oversees adventures, but I was bogged down and spent a good lot of the time asking, “There’s only 200 pages left, shouldn’t he about be President yet? Washington still isn’t in office!” Otherwise, the book was well written with awesome story telling, unbias fact, and most importantly, he knew where to stop. Upon reading other reviews of this book, I’ve found that others got a different picture of Adams than I did. Most took from McCullough what a strong politician (though flawed in a few areas), loving husband (despite countless escapades with other women while away from his wife), and home-loving (though apparently not so loving as he spent decades at a time away from home and family) man Adams was. I don’t know if I was against him from the start (I guess it’s fairly clear I was) or what the case was, but I took away the more negative aspects that McCullough mentioned. While I admit that Adams did have a few virtues, I didn’t find that to be the primary focus, unlike other readers. I guess you have to read for yourself to find your stance. If you are going to read about Adams, though, I would encourage you to read this one, as it was well done (or you could just watch the mini-series on HBO based from the book).
He was a snob (and not just because he went to Harvard at 15). He was ashamed and embarrassed of his mother who was illiterate, and he carried an air of being better than those who weren’t as educated his entire life. For example, on Washington he said, “Washington is too unlearned and has seen too little of the world for someone in his station.”
He didn’t get along with any of his peers.
- Washington: It was clear from the start he wouldn’t get along with Washington, and he specifically noted that “the role of vice president was beneath” him, and was befuddled as to why Washington was chosen over him.
- Benjamin Franklin: “Lazy, neglectful of details, and not easy to work with.” Also assumed that they didn’t get along because Franklin was jealous of him; “His base jealousy of me, and his sordid envy of my commission for making a treaty of commerce with Great Britain have stimulated him to attempt an assassination upon my character at Philadelphia.” (276-277). He also said, “Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprung General Washing.. That Franklin electrified him with his rod and thence forward these two conducted all the policy, negotiation, legislation and war.” (420). Sounds like jealousy to me.
- Alexander Hamilton: “Has impulses attributed to a super-abundance of secretions which he could not find whores enough to draw off!” (593)
- Had an on-again-off-again relationship with Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson even said of Adams, “lively, pungent, and naturally amiable…Impossible not to warm to him. He was so widely read, he could talk on any subject” (48). Then, they got into an argument, said some hurtful things, and didn’t talk for 11 years. But then they got back in touch after their presidencies were over.
- Even had some bad things to say about himself. “I have no books, no time, no friends. I must therefore be contented to live and die an ignorant, obscure fellow.” (41). Then he got books, got some friends (beyond me how!), and died a well-known and arrogant fellow.
Of course, he had big dreams. His to-do list in his journal consisted of things like, “An alliance to be formed with France and Spain”; “Government to be assumed by every colony”; “Powder mills to be in every colony and fresh efforts to make saltpetre”; and “a Declaration of Independency.” (89) That was some pretty highfalutin’ stuff to assume you’ll get to. Made my to-do list of “buy black shoes, walk the dog, work at 4” pale by comparison.
In his favor, he did have a difficult presidency. He desperately wanted the office, felt “wholly overlooked” (421) when he was awarded VP. 8 years later, he tied for 1st place (which would determine President. 2nd place was VP) with Thomas Jefferson, and was only chosen by Congress (by 3 votes) because he was a “man of God.” He wasn’t well liked by the middle of his term, and in fact wasn’t reelected into a second term, which was tied for first with Jefferson and Burr (obviously Jefferson was chosen by Congress this time). It was a difficult enough presidency that when his son was elected years later, he noted, “No man who ever held the office of President would congratulate a friend on obtaining it.” (639). He did do some pretty good stuff, like being a successful ambassador to France, becoming the “voice of the declaration” which is debatable, navigating us through the “Quasi-War” which I had never heard of, establishing the first American embassy (Netherlands), and building up the US Navy. However, as a person, I would consider him despicable. He cheated on his wife (though vowed that he always missed her dearly while he was away, French lady-parts all over the place), borrowed $10 Million to start the American credit system (first man to get us in extreme debt), and was incredibly self-deprecating, claimed that he had to insist that Jefferson pen the declaration and that everyone really wanted him (Adams) to do it, but he wanted to give young Jefferson a chance to shine. No one else remembers it happening that way. Sounds like he had some security issues.
Interesting fact: He died on the 4th of July (at the ancient age of 91) and his last words were “Thomas Jefferson survives!” Little did he know Jefferson had died about 5 hours before.
Hopefully his son isn’t quite so egotistical, or else Number 6 will be a toughie. I’ve got to take about a day to clear my head before I get to Jefferson or I might go mad.
Also, mildly unrelated, but I thought it was humorous that when I typed the book into my favorite book-nerd site, it insisted that it didn’t exist.