The forgotten Founder

Culture | The new John Adams biography outsells John Grisham

Issue: "Rolling the dice," Aug. 4, 2001

Summertime reading has traditionally consisted of romance novels, thrillers, and other time-killers suitable for the beach. This summer, for the first time in memory, the top nonfiction books are often outselling the top fiction titles. Leading the trend-knocking off The Prayer of Jabez on several bestseller lists-is a scholarly tome by David McCullough, with the unsnappy title of John Adams.

Why a biography of our least known Founding Father is beating out John Grisham's latest novel is something of a mystery to many observers. It seems to be part of a new interest on the part of the public in America's founding. Joseph Ellis's The Founding Brothers, about the Founders as a group, is also a bestseller. In the new book Rise to Rebellion, historical novelist Jeff Shaara promises to do for the revolution what he and his father did for the Civil War-present the unfolding events in vivid, immaculately researched detail through the points of view of the key players. Helping the cause of John Adams is that Mr. McCullough is such a good writer, combining scholarship with a novelist's ability to tell a story and to make characters come alive.

Adams may be the most personally engaging of the great men who founded our country. He was very human in his self-doubts and moodiness, but he could be funny, generous, and brilliantly insightful. His integrity, sense of honor, and refusal to compromise his principles were legendary-"Thanks to God that he gave me stubbornness when I know I am right"-which may be especially refreshing for today's Americans to see in a politician. So is his strong, loving marriage to Abigail, a woman whose own insights and support contributed greatly to his accomplishments.

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Adams was a key instigator of the revolution and a major force in the Continental Congress. During the war, he served as a diplomat in Europe, winning essential support from the French and negotiating the Treaty of Paris, in which England agreed to American independence.

Later, in the brainstorming for the new Constitution, it was Adams who pushed the idea-born out of biblical teaching about human sin-that the various branches of government need to check and balance each other, so that none of them can become a means of tyranny. He was also apparently the first to propose a Bill of Rights. He was also, of course, the second president of the United States.

So why, in a capital littered with monuments, does Washington, D.C., have no commemoration of John Adams? Why, in a nation full of cities and other geographical sites named after Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, is Adams pretty much off the map?

Since George Washington was sacrosanct, it was up to Vice President Adams to collect the inevitable political flack in the newly invented administration. Adams feared the tyranny of the mob as much as he did the tyranny of a king, so he opposed the burgeoning move toward populist democracy, a position that turned Thomas Jefferson into a political enemy. This made him unpopular with the masses, as Jeffersonian democracy won out over the carefully balanced constitutional republic. As a Federalist, Adams wanted a stronger central government, which history would bring, although in forms that he arguably would have opposed. This too made him unpopular.

As president, he had to endure politics at its most vicious. He found himself attacked from all sides, not only from the Jeffersonian democrats but from the political machinations of federalists, such as Hamilton. The former wanted war with England; the latter wanted war with France. Adams wanted peace, making both sides mad at him.

Even today, the prospect of building a monument to Adams, fueled by the influence of Mr. McCullough's book, is being opposed on the grounds that Adams was responsible for the Alien and Sedition Act. This measure, passed in the precarious time in which the new republic was threatened by both English and French intrigues, outlawed certain kinds of political dissent and was indeed unconstitutional. But by this standard, the Lincoln Memorial-to a president who suspended the writ of habeas corpus to keep dissenters in prison without trial-should be razed. As should the new memorial to Franklin Roosevelt, who imprisoned Japanese-Americans, not because of their dissent, but, far worse, because of their descent.

Desperate times bring out desperate measures. Also, as Adams, living off the Puritan heritage of his forefathers, was painfully aware, he was a sinful being, who made mistakes despite his best efforts. But sinful lapses do not totally negate genuine accomplishments. These deserve to be remembered and memorialized.


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