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John Adams: A portrait of our second president

David McCullough's latest biography uses detailed letters to show us the personal side of a John Adams and his extraordinary wife.


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 1, 2001

David McCullough's latest biography uses detailed letters to show us the personal side of a John Adams and his extraordinary wife.

Most historians ignore domestic dramas in favor of larger, more ponderous events of history. Not David McCullough. He revels in people's personal lives.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Truman, McCullough was not only interested in Harry Truman, the statesman who stepped into FDR's oversized shoes, dropped the atomic bomb and launched the Marshall Plan. He was also interested in Harry Truman, the man hopelessly in love with Bess, a woman he relentlessly pursued and adored all his life.

John Adams, McCullough's latest biographical triumph, is no different. Here again is an "American love story" where the personal bleeds into the political. Relying heavily on the correspondence between Adams and his wife Abigail -- a treasure trove of more than 1,000 letters -- the Yale-educated historian offers both a long-overdue tribute to the man who helped win our independence and an extraordinarily vivid picture of his wife, who was not simply a woman behind a famous man but a powerful intellectual force in her own right.

"When people suggest that I write a biography of Abigail Adams, I tell them, 'I already have,' " McCullough said at a recent lunch in his honor at Chicago's Grace restaurant. "Even if her husband and son (John Quincy Adams) had never been president, Abigail's brilliantly written letters would have made her a famous historical figure."

Luckily for posterity, the Adamses were often apart. One stretch lasted nearly four years (John was in Europe, procuring loans from the Dutch to finance the fledgling Revolutionary army). As John went about the business of creating the United States of America, he and his wife continually exchanged mail, keeping each other abreast of events in their lives.

Filled with the details of everyday life, the letters transport us to a time when travel was teeth-rattling, poor sanitation posed a real threat to life and limb, and medical treatment killed patients as often as it cured them. They also reflect from an enormously interesting personal perspective the events of our fight for independence.

Abigail wrote to John about their children and provided detailed updates about their Massachusetts farm. But she also freely offered her husband advice of state, including the oft quoted, "remember the ladies" when Adams and the other Founding Fathers were writing up the Constitution. She also repeatedly spoke out against slavery: "It always seemed a most iniquitous scheme to me -- (to) fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have."

When George Washington announced his retirement, John was still in Philadelphia; Abigail was hundreds of miles away on their farm in Braintree. By mail, the couple discussed the possibility that John would succeed Washington. Abigail urged him to follow his conscience (although she preferred that he retire), but told him under no circumstance should he accept the vice presidency.

But even when the subject turned to politics, the personal was never completely absent in their correspondence. When Abigail once reminded John that he was 60 years old, he replied playfully, "If I were near I would soon convince you that I am not above forty."

The language of the letters is surprisingly modern; the Adamses did not write in the flowery, stilted language we usually associate with 18th century texts. "They wrote in the plain language of New England farmers, which, of course, they were," McCullough says.

Thanks to those plain-spoken letters and McCullough's superb gift for storytelling, John Adams pulls us into the Adamses' intimate family circle. Not only do we learn about the adventures of their eldest son, John Quincy Adams, who became the nation's sixth president, but also about his less illustrious siblings. There was the charming but hapless Charles, who ended up bankrupt, faithless and an alcoholic. "He was no one's enemy but his own," wrote Abigail at his death. "He was beloved in spite of his errors." There was another son, Thomas, whom a nephew called "one of the most unpleasant characters in this world," and there was a daughter, Nabby, who married a ne'er-do-well and lived near poverty in upstate New York.

As we learn about his family, we gain greater insight into Adams himself. When Nabby discovered she had breast cancer in the fall of 1811, she returned to her parents' home in Quincy to undergo a mastectomy -- an unimaginable operation since it was performed before anesthetics were available. McCullough admitted that he didn't include everything he uncovered about the event, so gruesome were the details. Nabby was 46 years old.

"The horrors of Nabby's ordeal brought a marked change in Adams," wrote McCullough. "The old shows of temper were not to be seen again. He became more mellow, more accepting of life, and forgiving."

Proof of his newfound forgiving nature came the following New Year's Day. Adams took up his pen to write to his once-friend Thomas Jefferson, launching "one of the most extraordinary correspondences in American history -- indeed, in the English language," wrote McCullough. Jefferson and Adams had had a falling out when Adams found out that Jefferson had conspired against him in his bid for a second term, an election that put Jefferson in the White House. The last time Adams had written to Jefferson had been 11 years before, just after he lost both his son Charles and the presidency.

The renewed correspondence between the two by-then-retired politicians would continue until their deaths in 1826. In their last letters to each other, both men talked of those ponderous events of state, but also about their personal lives. Jefferson told Adams that his grandchild, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, was on his way to New England. If the young man did not see Adams, he wrote, it would be as though he had "seen nothing." Adams answered on April 17, after Randolph's visit, remarking on how tall the young man was. He also spoke of the difficulty his son, John Quincy, was having in Congress. Less than two months later, on the 4th of July no less, the two old friends died within hours of each other.

Don't be surprised if McCullough's accounts of these deaths (as well as that of Abigail in 1817) bring tears to your eyes. McCullough has, after all, made the lives of these 18th century figures so tangible to us that we feel like we have lost someone we know. "I had a hard time not breaking down myself, particularly when I wrote about the death of Abigail," McCullough said. He was particularly haunted by the image of Adams at Abigail's bedside as she lay dying. "Adams was trembling so much that he could not stand and had to take a chair," he wrote, "but then seeing that (Abigail's niece) Louisa Smith was in worse distress, he got up and went to her side to tell her they must be strong."

The John Adams that emerges from the pages of McCullough's work is far more human than the cardboard caricature of an ill-tempered chatterbox that is usually offered (remember the refrain from the musical 1776, "Sit down John Adams, sit down"?). Ironically, that caricature was perpetuated by Adams himself, who wrote so honestly about his own flaws, McCullough pointed out. Now, happily, that writing -- and that of his wife -- is serving to present a more complete picture of the man who played such a pivotal role in our fight for independence.

With the success of McCullough's biography, currently atop the New York Times bestseller list, there have been calls to erect a statue of John Adams in the nation's capital -- or at least in Boston (Adams, after all, wrote that state's constitution, the oldest written constitution still in use in the English-speaking world). Some have suggested that Abigail and John Quincy be included in any statuary or even historian Henry Adams, a great grandson. But perhaps the most fitting tribute to the Adamses would be a complete book of the magnificent Adams letters, nearly half of which, incredibly, have never been published. That way we too could take a firsthand peek into the lives of those who 225 years ago changed our own forever.

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