John Adams finally gets due respect

May 20, 2001|By Joseph R. L. Sterne | By Joseph R. L. Sterne,Special to the Sun

"John Adams," by David McCullough. Simon & Schuster. 749 pages. $35.

Bracketed by those Mount Rushmore colossi, Washington and Jefferson, President John Adams finally gets the laudatory and accessible biography he deserves. For two centuries, he has been criticized, disparaged and often ignored by generations of historians and scribblers -- this despite his prodigious labors in the creation of this republic,

No other of our foundation fathers, not a one, can match the breadth of his record as the driving force behind the Declaration of Independence, as chairman of the Board of War in organizing the great rebellion, as a top negotiator in securing Britain's recognition of American freedom and as a president who avoided what could have been a disastrous all-out conflict with France.

That Adams would get a bad press through the ages was guaranteed after Congress passed and he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the most egregious assault ever on the First Amendment. That he would have few champions was assured after he incurred the enmity of Jeffersonians on the left and Hamiltonians on the right.

Fortunately, such a champion now has arisen in the person of David McCullough, the acclaimed biographer of Harry Truman. The attraction is obvious. Both Adams and Truman were plain men, without side or subtlety, who were scorned by their contemporaries even as they set the nation on a secure course. If George Washington was a tough act to follow, so was Franklin Roosevelt. If Thomas Jefferson was a tough act to precede, so was Dwight Eisenhower, especially since both did their best to trash the presidents they succeeded.

"Popularity was never my mistress," said Adams, "Nor was I ever or shall I ever be a popular man." True enough. He was blunt, abrasive, argumentative, unyielding in his pursuit of principle. As the most widely experienced diplomat of the Revolutionary era, he was prickly patriotic in dealing with both the British and French.

Because he was adamant in demanding a strong executive, he was unfairly labeled a monarchist. Because he foresaw the chaos and terror that the French Revolution would bring, he was considered anti-democratic by those (like Jefferson) bedazzled by the Jacobin frenzy. The irony of it all, as McCullough makes clear, is that John Adams was a man of modest means in contrast to a land-owning, slave-owning Jefferson mythicized as a man of the people

It is heartwarming, however, that Adams and Jefferson rekindled their early friendship late in life and even managed to die on the same Fourth of July in 1826 -- the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was its chief author, Adams its foremost advocate.

Those who know McCullough's earlier works will not be surprised that he tells a very human story about John Adams and his wife, Abigail. The nation's second first lady emerges as a strong personality in her own right, often more secure and confident than her fretting husband. Together they endured long separations, frequent upheavals, family tragedy, political uncertainty and newspaper attacks of unrivaled vitriol.

President Adams was almost re-elected in 1800, losing a four-candidate race that could have gone his way if he had 250 more votes in New York. Sound familiar? No doubt he would have been intrigued by an election result that came exactly two centuries later in Florida.

Joseph R. L. Sterne, was, for many years, editorial page editor of The Sun. He was the London correspondent from 1957 to 1960 and a reporter in The Sun's Washington bureau from 1960 to 1969. He is now senior fellow at Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.

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