By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: David McCullough
Narration by: Nelson Runger
As editorialized in the “Boston Globe” after the Marathon bombing, Boston Strong means “…a proud mix of resiliency and defiance…rooted in local culture.” David McCullough epitomizes Boston Strong in his historical and cultural biography of “John Adams”. McCullough captures the history and culture of an American patriot. Unlike Stacy Schiff’s and Ron Chernow’s stiff biographies of Cleopatra and George Washington, McCullough’s biography vivifies John Adams’ Bostonian resilience and defiance. (The dearth of first-hand historical information undoubtedly limits Schiff’s insight to Cleopatra’s inner feelings. But, McCullough notes there are reams of correspondence from Washington to friends and associates. One would think first-hand correspondence would reveal more about Washington’s inner life and emotions than Chernow’s biography of “Washington: A Life”.)
After McCullough’s book, a listener meets John Adams, in youth, maturity, and old age. John Adams is a youth with ambition, willingness to work hard, and live frugally. Adams has the innate ability to delay gratification with diligent academic study, and a mind to do what is morally and ethically right, regardless of consequence.
In maturity, Adams leaves the rural life of Braintree, Massachusetts to become a lawyer, a state representative, the first Ambassador to England, first Vice President of America, and second President of the United States.
Nearly toothless in old age, Adams returns to Braintree as an elder statesman with deep love for his country and eternal affection for his wife and family.
Adams makes mistakes, often takes others criticism poorly, and pouts when his worth and patriotic contribution is either questioned, or discounted. It is these qualities that give listeners a sense of Adams’ inner-self; his resilience and defiance in the face of human weakness. Though Adams’ great patriotic contribution to America mythologizes his stature, McCullough makes Adams “one of us” by showing Adams’ mistakes, insecurities, and frailties.
As McCullough’s biography progresses, it gives listeners insight to other renowned American patriots like George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton.
The demeanor of Washington, with his towering physical height, is admired by the diminutive Adams. Washington is a monument to self-control and bravery in the face of many defeats and one great victory at Yorktown. Washington is shown to be America’s Cincinnatus, called to defend his country; become its first President, and return to his farm when his country is secure. Ben Franklin is admired for his inventive genius but Franklin’s high living and duplicitous relationships in France are disturbing to Adams. At the same time, McCullough notes that Franklin judges Adams’ personality correctly as a good and intelligent man who, at times, can run off the rails of good judgment.
Jefferson and Adams equitably use each other’s strengths in creating and accomplishing the 13 colonies’ adoption of the Declaration of Independence.Though Jefferson and Adams are great friends in Adams middle years, they fall-out as a result of their character differences; differences that are never resolved but ameliorated with age. Jefferson is handsome; Adams much less so. Jefferson is profligate with his money and affection; Adams is frugal and reserved. Jefferson believes periodic revolution is a good thing; Adams is appalled at the idea. Jefferson abhors the idea of dominant executive power in government; Adams insists on strong executive power. In old age, Jefferson and Adams rekindle their friendship but with an appreciation rather than resolution of their differences.
McCullough shows Alexander Hamilton is the opposite of John Adams. Hamilton is a behind the scenes schemer, a brilliant tactician but a political Machiavelli who believes ends justify means; or in a more current venue, like a President Underwood in the acclaimed series “House of Cards. Hamilton is a critical component in America’s success as an independent nation because of his acts as the first Secretary of the Treasury, but he makes mortal enemies of political insiders like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and ultimately his killer, Aaron Burr.
Adams is no schemer. He is at all times an honest and intelligent bull; sometimes inappropriately breaking porcelain plates in a China shop, but always transparent to keen observers of the time. The ends do not justify the means in Adams’ world; i.e. the means count against Adams’ conscience in every decision he makes. McCullough notes the abhorrent Alien and Sedition Act when America feared war with France. Adams reluctantly allows the Act which becomes a precursor of President Roosevelt’s action after Pearl Harbor that imprisons Japanese Americans in fenced camps. McCullough advises that Adams regretted allowing the act as a matter of conscience.
McCullough recounts the beginnings of partisan politics with the rise of political parties fomented by political differences between Jefferson and Adams. Though both great men search for solutions to insure American independence and freedom, Jefferson’s vision is more aligned with the human chaos of winners and loser rather than regulation of human nature suggested by Adams’ policies as President. Interestingly, McCullough suggests both men believe humans are born equal but each suggests there is an inherent difference in racial capability. There is an odor of discrimination in both men’s views.
Abigail Adams is defined by McCullough as the most influential and critically important person in John Adams’ life. Though separated for many years at different times, Abigail is the rock upon which John Adams’ rests his life. McCullough infers, without Abigail Adams, John Adams would be an unheralded lawyer in a small east coast town in Massachusetts. Mrs. Adams is John Adams’ political consultant and best friend; his most trusted confident, his wife, and the mother of his children; one of which becomes the sixth President of the United States.
Nelson Runger has a great narrative voice but with too many unnecessary pauses. McCullough has written an entertaining and informative biography that encompasses the birth of the United States.