Books: The Great Lackluster

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JOHN ADAMS AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION (699 pp.) — Catherine Drinker Bowen—Little, Brown ($5).

Little Johnny Adams turned to page 16 of the New England Primer. There it was, the picture of 16th Century John Rogers, the Dissenting martyr, burning gruesomely at the stake while his nine children looked on, their tears making a puddle at their feet. Eagerly Johnny took up his pen and in a moment a fine crop of cabbages sprouted on the well-irrigated spot.

That, from grammar school to the day he died, was John Adams, the steady, sturdy New England farm boy whose forte, in private and public life, was planting cabbages of common sense. His countrymen rewarded him with the highest office they could bestow, yet they never quite forgave plain, plodding John for the aloofness that seemed to go with the common sense. He has been called the dullest of the Founding Fathers—not without reason, but certainly without enough of it.

Catherine Drinker Bowen's John Adams and the American Revolution, a thorough, vivaciously readable fictional biography of "Old Sink or Swim," polishes up lackluster John to his proper historical brightness. The result is a handsome illumination of the first 40 years of John's life, which were both the most exciting and the least known.

The Accusative, Please. John was born in Braintree, Mass., ten miles south of Boston, and if he had had his way would have stayed there all his life. Father Adams, however, insisted he go to Harvard. John did well at college but showed more doggedness than brilliance. "I never have any bright, refulgent ideas," he once complained. "Everything appears in my mind dim and obscure, like objects seen through a dirty glass or roiled water."

After graduation, Adams went to teach school at Worcester, a "place of torment" where nobody had any ideas and everybody voiced them vigorously. At Worcester, John gave up his father's notion that he should be a minister and began reading law. Two years later he was sworn to the bar and took up practice in Braintree.

Adams was 23 by now, a stolid, pleasant fellow with, as one friend observed, "a little capillary vein of—shall we call it satire? It breaks out when least expected." He was either very dull or very sharp with the ladies, they were never sure which. When gay Hannah Quincy coyly told him she knew some Latin and offered "Puella amat puer," John quickly countered: "Puella what? . . . The object of the verb takes the accusative, in Latin. If you are trying to say the boy loves the girl .. . Or do you mean, possibly, the girl loves the boy?"

John was 29 and well set up in the law before he ventured to take unto himself a wife, Abigail Smith, the daughter of a Weymouth preacher. She was a lively girl of great charm and moral force who bore John's testy temper and four children (including a future President, John Quincy) with all wifely aplomb.*

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