John Adams: A new biography
6/24/2001 12:00:00 AM - George Will
WASHINGTON--From an early age John Adams longed to ``shine'' on the public stage, but ``popularity was never my mistress, nor was I ever, or shall I ever be a popular man.'' Adams did not reckon on David McCullough.
McCullough does not write ``pathographies.'' That neologism, coined by novelist Joyce Carol Oates, denotes a kind of biography that, of late, has been too much with us. Such biographies portray their subjects not just warts and all, but as mostly warts--the sum of their pathologies. It speaks well of McCullough that he abandoned writing a biography of Picasso because he could not stand to be so long in the company of such an unpleasant man.
McCullough's biographies are of Americans he thoroughly admires--sometimes, perhaps, a tad too thoroughly, as in his (deservedly) Pulitzer Prize-winning 1992 treatment of Harry Truman. It is said that the ideal biographer is a conscientious enemy of his subject, eager to depict defects and otherwise demystify the once-mighty, but scrupulous. However, McCullough is drawn to people he thinks insufficiently honored. His latest, on John Adams, today tops the New York Times best-seller list.
The Founding Fathers are having a banner year in bookstores. Joseph Ellis' Pulitzer Prize-winning ``Founding Brothers'' is in its 26th week on the New York Times list. Ellis' slender ``The Passionate Sage'' (1993) began the revival of Adams' reputation. But McCullough's 651 pages of ``John Adams'' really redress neglect of the man who ``made the Declaration happen when it did.''
As a British spy said, Adams thought about ``large subjects largely.'' (Entries in Adams' diary: ``At home with my family. Thinking.'' ``At home. Thinking.'') He read broadly and deeply in political philosophy, and like Machiavelli he took man as he is, ``a dangerous creature.''
Adams proved that the category ``constitutional revolutionary'' is not an oxymoron: He was for independence early, even though it meant ``to brave the storm in a skiff made of paper. '' Then he worked at taming the political furies with paper--the Constitution.
McCullough wonderfully tells the life of this brave, sometimes vain and ill-tempered man as, first and always, a love story, his marriage to Abigail being one of America's greatest collaborations. McCullough's gift for detail--the stormy seas, and fleas and bedbugs of 18th-century travel; the social graces of the period--makes his narrative sprightly. At a Paris dinner a lady said to Adams, ``I never could understand how the first couple found out the art of lying together.'' McCullough writes:
``Assisted by an interpreter, Adams replied that his family resembled the first couple both in name and in their frailties and that no doubt 'instinct' was the answer to her question. 'For there was a physical quality in us resembling the power of electricity or of the magnet, by which when a pair approached within striking distance they flew together ... like two objects in an electrical experiment.'''
The lady replied that, in any case, ``it is a very happy shock.''
McCullough's enthusiasms are infectious and his book has added fuel to the latest outbreak here of monumentitis, an attempt to place near the Tidal Basin a monument to Adams ``and his family.'' Well before McCullough wrote, this monument was a project of Rep. Tim Roemer, an Indiana Democrat and history buff whose heart is in the right place, but whose Adams monument would not be.
Although Adams' Braintree, Mass., home is splendidly preserved, there is, inexcusably, no Boston monument to the author, in 1779, of the Massachusetts Constitution, the oldest operative written constitution in the English-speaking world. That is the proper place for a monument to him, not in Washington. Adams lived here only briefly as the first occupant of the White House, during his single term as Washington's successor. The term began when the capital was in Philadelphia, and proved to be, as Abigail had warned, ``thorns without roses.''
But if a monument in Washington is to honor Adams and ``his family,'' it should include not just Abigail and son John Quincy, but also the gifted great-grandson, Henry Adams. He was one of America's greatest historians; ``The Education of Henry Adams'' is America's greatest autobiography and among the greatest in world literature; his ``Mont Saint Michel and Chartres'' expressed his stained-glass mind's recoil from modernity as manifested in the Gilded Age.
Yes, let us have, staring balefully toward Capitol Hill, a statue of Henry Adams, author of the novel ``Democracy,'' creator of Sen. Silas Ratcliffe: ``The beauty of his work consisted in the skill with which he evaded questions of principle.'' No one ever said that about Henry Adams' great-grandfather.