John Adams is hot these days. First came the eerie parallels to the Bushes: a competent but uninspiring Vice President succeeds a charismatic President, serves only one term, is defeated by a liberal Southerner but lives to see his near namesake son restore the dynasty despite losing the popular vote to a populist from Tennessee. Now comes something even more exciting for his reputation: America's most beloved biographer, David McCullough, has plucked Adams from the historical haze, as he did Harry Truman, and produced another masterwork of storytelling that blends colorful narrative with sweeping insights.
Though Adams had the same prickliness as Give-'Em-Hell Harry, he's just not quite as colorful. From a family of Puritan farmers, Adams was honest and solid, but he could be argumentative, vain and despairing. In John Adams (Simon & Schuster; 751 pages), McCullough does not try to exalt him. Instead he shows how Adams' ability to be sensible and independent made him an important element in the firmament of talents that created a new nation.
Among those who gathered in Philadelphia in 1776, Adams was one of the first to advocate independence. The following year, he was sent as an envoy to Paris, where he worked with Benjamin Franklin and later Thomas Jefferson. They were both more polished and popular than Adams-and certainly less Puritan in their approach to the pleasures of Paris. After the war Adams became America's first ambassador to England, where he again proved stiffly reliable but devoid of the courtiers' charms that counted for so much in the world of European diplomacy.
As Vice President, his first initiative was to tie up the Senate for a month debating what title should be used to address President George Washington. His efforts tarred Adams as a closet monarchist and made him a target for those too timid to take on Washington directly. Adams' great goal was to keep American politics nonpartisan. In that he failed. When Washington retired, the election of 1796 became the first between two parties, with Jefferson leading what was then known as the Republicans and Adams the unenthusiastic choice of the Federalists. Indeed, it was only because of the advent of party politics, and the Federalists' ability to scrape together enough electors one last time, that Adams was able to win his single term.
Nevertheless, Adams governed in a responsibly nonpartisan way. One great issue was France, which was interfering with American shipping. The Republicans, admirers of the French Revolution, advocated peace; the Federalists, spurred by Alexander Hamilton and Washington, spoiled for war. Adams defied his party, conducted a delicate diplomacy with Paris and ended up averting both war and the rise of the ambitious Hamilton as a military leader.
McCullough's triumph is that he uses the story of Adams to show how human the U.S. Founders were, with their friendships and rivalries, grand philosophies and petty jealousies. Though Adams does not loom as large as his compatriots, his complex relationships with each of them make the men on marble pedestals seem more real. Adams regarded the ""old conjurer"" Franklin with awe, then disgust, then anger and finally grudging admiration. Jefferson won his affection and then betrayed him, but they ended their lives with a remarkable series of philosophically intense letters; both died on July 4, 1826, each determined to make it to the 50th anniversary, with Adams mistakenly gasping on his final day, ""Thomas Jefferson survives.""
The book's most memorable character is Adams' outspoken, sharp-penned wife Abigail. Her passion for her husband, her support for abolition and women's rights, and her deft letters skewering Franklin and Jefferson and Hamilton make her worthy of a McCullough biography of her own. Likewise, Adams at times pales when compared with his son John Quincy Adams. Lest the comparison with the Bush family go too far (Bush père is said to refer to his son as ""Q""), McCullough tells how the younger Adams, when he was just a teenager, traveled through Europe on his own, translated all the classics and understood Newton's new method of the calculus.
With such a cast, McCullough ends up with an interesting literary device: a grand and flavorful drama told through a quirky co-star. What makes the tale so revealing is that through the perspective of Adams, the heroes of America's founding become more human and their historic triumphs more nuanced. The result is a rollicking ensemble drama featuring a collection of giants put in perspective by their relationship with an honorable, intelligent and somewhat stiff man who loved his family, his farm and the nation he helped create.