October 28, 2009

John Adams
David McCullough

I remember seeing David McCullough on Charlie Rose soon after the book was published, and he was asked why he chose to write about John Adams. He said that he had been looking through some of Adams’ journals, and he found an entry that said, “I strive to rise every morning with the sun, read the Scriptures, study Latin and Greek, philosphy, and science, and walk 5-10 miles each day.” The next day’s entry said, “It is raining. I have dreamed away the day.” And that, McCullough said, is a man I can relate to. Among the tall, statuesque founding fathers, John Adams is short and chubby and talked to much and tended to get on people’s nerves. There are no monuments to him in Washington, and he’s not on any money. But he led the fight, in the 1776 continental congress, for independence, and personally persuaded a huge number of the delegates to vote with him.

Then he helped write the Declaration, went to France and Holland to secure wartime loans and political support, and ended up in England as the first citizen of the American nation to stand in front of the King of England. He also shared a bed with Benjamin Franklin on a few diplomatic missions and visited Shakespeare’s home with Thomas Jefferson. He got around.

Abigail Adams, as everybody says, is totally great. When the relationship between Jefferson and Adams turned sour (which broke my heart), Abigail still wrote to Jefferson to sympathize with him at the death of his daughter. When he replied and basically said, “I’m really sorry your husband and I aren’t friends anymore, but these things are out of our control,” she wrote back and said, “These things were completley in your control. You’re just a jerk. And now you’re lying about it.” One supposes that not many women in the 19th century would write to an ex-president in such a manner.

Everyone says Andrew Jackson was the first grassroots president, but I’d have to say John Adams should be in the running for that. Sure he went to Harvard, but everybody did back then, and for the most part he was a middle-class, self-motivated, self-made man. America!

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