Saturday, March 19, 2022

13. John Adams by David McCullough

I had the good fortune to go on a real vacation recently and wanted something long and absorbing and somewhat serious that I could sink my teeth into.  One of my friends (whose 50th birthday was the impetus for the trip) had mentioned this book and he had it on his shelf, so I borrowed it.  There was a very funny moment on the trip when I came out on the patio with this one and another friend was sitting there with his equally large biography of Ulysses S. Grant.  We definitely were living up to our image of middle-aged white males.

At first, I was disappointed.  Though extremely well-researched and constructed, it begins with way too much fawning.  There was an unquestioning acceptance of the American experiment, the greatness of the principles of the founding fathers and non-stop admiration for Adams' frugal, hard-working Puritan New England values.  I believe this is what they call a hagiography.  I was appreciating the facility of learning history through the framework of a biography, as it does make it easy to absorb as you follow a person's life.  However, too much of the early history felt very simplified and often unquestioned.  I only have a bachelor's in history, but it is enough to recognize when conclusions are presented that lack nuance. It also just made the early days of Adams' life kind of boring to read.  I am quite ignorant of the details of the American revolution, though, and this book helped fill in a lot of the early days.  I was not aware of the moral furor, contempt and animosity the British felt for the Americans and I better understand now why the great Kenneth Hite always refers to them as "the hated British".

Fortunately, the second half, when Adams returns to America and starts his time first as vice-president and then president, the politics and history, though still surface, are treated with much more ambivalence.  The book became much more engaging and McCullough's mission of making Adams out to be a hero much more successful.  What I learned here, aside from the politics of federalism vs. republicanism in the first few presidencies of America, was that the country truly was divided from the beginning.  It is both somewhat reassuring but also deeply unsettling to know that the same broad divides that exist in the U.S today were there from the beginning and that the shitty media worked as hard as possible back then like today to make them seem worse.

In the end, I put down this book quite convinced.  I had been skeptical at the beginning, even somewhat sneering of it as a biography for the masses and that it may be, but by the end, it made me respect Adams and his wife Abigail even more.  She in particular seemed incredibly strong and smart.  A big throughline of the book is both the Adams' relationship with Jefferson and she is the one who really tears into him at the end, never forgiving him and telling him directly what a dick he had been when her husband was president, while John himself lets it slide.  Impressive.

I haven't seen Hamilton so it may be more nuanced, but if that musical makes him out to be a hero, this book certainly portrays him as a manipulative, selfish asshole who tried on several ocassions to undermine the new nation. Jefferson comes off even worse and this was before his reputation was recently re-trashed with confirmation that he had several children with his slaves.  All this filled in a lot of gaps in my own grade school and Schoolhouse Rock knowledge of American history.

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