Sunday, September 3, 2017

John Adams by David McCullough

Photo: Hardcover book, from its own Goodreads page

Unbelievably thorough and weighty biography that sounds, and probably is, the definitive book of John Adams. It is very concise and dense, and though good, it took me a couple of months to read, which is highly unusual for me. (I can read 750 pages in less than a week, if so moved.) Its density was a hindrance to my own fiction writing, so I had to stop frequently and for long lengths, as I couldn't digest the authoritative tone of the nonfiction and be creative with my own fiction at the same time. I don't pretend to understand it, but it's so.

Adams seems to be the odd man out in the history of the American Independence. We remember Washington, Jefferson and Franklin--who was never president--but we forget John Adams, two-time Vice-President to Washington's President, savior of potential wars between the U.S. and France twice, and Britain once. Maybe he's remembered for defending British soldiers when they fired on a riled-up Boston mob (and he got them acquitted, too), and maybe we remember that he and Jefferson died within hours of each other on July 4th, and the 50th Anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but we don't remember much else, and maybe we should.

The book is very fair, as it points out his misdeeds and vanities as they occurred, and when he writes or says something ridiculous, McCullough says so. The author also does a tremendous job fleshing out other very important "characters" in these 750 pages, namely Abigail Adams, who was as on top of things politically (if not more so) than were the politicians of the time; Thomas Jefferson, a spendthrift and a clotheshorse who owned slaves but was mostly against slavery, who died very much in debt and who took more pride in his creation of the Declaration and of The University of Virginia than he did his presidency; Benjamin Franklin, who was apparently a pain in the neck for Jefferson and Adams to work with in France, and many others. They are all worthwhile to read about as well.

The writing is straightforward and respectable. McCullough knows the time and its characters and he covers it all. Probably the most compelling is the Jekyll-and-Hyde Thomas Jefferson, so a few random tidbits:

--The vote in Congress took place on July 2, 1776, and the signatures came mostly in the beginning of August. Adams and Jefferson wrote a great deal on July 2nd, and both wrote next to nothing on the 4th. Adams said that July 2nd would live forever in the history of the nation, that is was deserving of fireworks, parades, parties, etc. Really went on a great deal about it. Nothing about the 4th. But in old age, both men swore the vote happened on the 4th, but it didn't. But that's what people remembered, hence the holiday. And of course both died within hours of each other on July 4th.

--Despite writing that all men had the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Thomas Jefferson owned about 200 slaves. All of the Heminges were granted freedom in his will--except for Sally, who he fostered children with. She had to be freed by someone else after he died. His other 200 or so slaves were sold off to other slaveholders after he died.

--Without ever explaining why, Jefferson had all correspondence--hundreds of letters--between he and his wife burned. Shocking loss to history.

--Monticello means "small mountain." Jefferson built this mansion of mansions, and a small community, with slave labor, and he wanted to live there, very antisocially.

--Jefferson came from money and married into more money, but spent so much of it on his paradise on the hill, and on other things, like the best wine and the best furniture and food, that he went hopelessly into debt.

--The Virginia State Lottery was created initially to pay off his debts, but it didn't do very well and when he died, everything had to be sold off, and his debts still piled up.

Anyway, an erudite and engrossing read that may take you some time if you're not used to long biographies, like I'm not. But it may be a quicker read for you if you don't have to put it aside for awhile like I did. A friend of mine read it all in about a week or so. Either way, a remarkable and worthy read, and a very good primer of what good politics and presidents can do. John Adams himself was remarkable for the sage and simple wisdom he espouses--stuff that should be heeded today by those who most need the wisdom. It behooves us to understand it, too. 

The primary one I took away: The President of the United States agrees, in the Oath of Office, to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States, not necessarily the United States itself. There is a subtle, and maybe striking, difference. Think about it and see if you agree, but I ask you this: With what has come down the pike in these past few months, what is supposedly being protected, the U.S., or the Constitution? They are not one in the same, and that which supposedly benefits one does not benefit the other.

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