Book Review: David McCullough's time machine
August 13, 2003
Josiah Quincy, grandson of John Adams, wrote of a portrait of his grandfather by the hand of Gilbert Stuart shortly before the death of the second President of the United States. He said that Stuart had captured "a glimpse of the living spirit shining through the feeble and decrepit body. He saw the old man at one of those happy moments when the intelligence lights up the wasted envelope."
David McCullough is an artist. With his biography of Adams, John Adams, this Pulitzer Prize winning author makes history come alive using the written word to paint a portrait of the man. In its pages we see back into history and the years of Adams' life lights up from the clouded darkness of history.
From the very beginning, McCullough draws the reader into the life of John Adams. You find yourself reading familiar stories as though you have never heard them before. The reader knows the ending of the book, but the anticipation and suspense generated rivals that of a novel.
Upon completing all 651 pages I was left with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. It was not merely out of admiration for the man portrayed in these pages, but for the greater story told through the history of this man -- it was the story of the birth of our nation.
The book is so much more than the biography of a man. It is an opportunity for us to sit with Adams in Philadelphia. We feel the heat of the summer sun and the heat of the discussions within the hall as the not-yet-nation struggled with itself on the matter of independence. There in the midst of it all was Adams, but even though it is his biography, it is also the biography of America. America was his life.
We have an opportunity to see the document that started it all. We experience the beginning of the relationship between Jefferson and Adams as the Declaration of Independence takes shape. Much of the book deals with this friendship/rivalry/warfare between the "pen" and the "voice" of the Revolution. The account of the passing of these two human -- but gifted -- men within hours of one another on the fiftieth anniversary of the Fourth of July is one of the most moving portions of McCullough's storytelling.
Foreign intrigue, the pains of a nation's birth and stretching of a man make up the second portion of the story. From the vantage point of Europe, Adams has opportunity to look back at the fledgling country. His commentary and correspondence concerning the differences in culture and government are educational even today. We also have the chance to catch a glimpse of another early American luminary, Benjamin Franklin.
Adams was also there in the first administration. As the nation's first Vice President he was directly involved in the initial sessions of the first Senate. He captures the predicament of all those who would follow him, "Gentleman," he said to Congress, "I feel a great difficulty how to act. I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything."
Indeed, Adams became "everything" when elected to take the place of George Washington. While President, he experienced the birth of partisan party politics. He was a President with a Vice President of the opposing party and the only President that had to run against his Vice President (Thomas
Jefferson) and lost.
Yet, for all the history contained in the book. It is most moving to the patriot to read the thoughts of a man who played so large a role in the founding of our country. If only our current leaders would immerse themselves in the thoughts and characters of the leaders of the past. Not that they were perfect! Indeed as much can be learned by their mistakes as their successes!
Adams believed that man was not perfectible. He believed that law was necessary for the Union. He believed that law bound government and that the individual decides the character of government and not the state the character of the individual. Commenting on Rousseau's axiom, "There is no doubt that people are in the long run what the government make out of them . . ." Adams wrote, "The government ought to be what the people make it."
Actually, Adams' views of government and human nature could lead to a quite a few columns on The Common Voice. Upon finishing this book I feel like a pitcher running over! Not only Adam's views come to mind, but also those expressed in the book by his contemporaries -- not to mention those of Abigail Adams. She could have been a Margaret Thatcher of her day had she been allowed. Time does not allow touching on the immeasurable part she played in the life of this patriot.
Reading this book for the first time was like picking up an old worn favorite. You know the conclusion of the story, but you revel in the experience. You know the plot and yet you find yourself caught up in the suspense and sympathizing with the characters -- characters with such names as Jefferson, Paine, Franklin, and of course, Adams.
In a letter written later in Adams' life, long time friend Benjamin Rush wrote, "Some men's minds wear well, but yours doesn't appear to wear at all! 'Oh! King, live forever,' said the eastern nations to their monarchs! Live--live, my venerable friend." Thanks to David McCullough's splendid work, he still does.