Hooked: How John Adams became my favorite founder

by Mr. Sheehy

I have a problem with picking up too many books. In theory I am convinced it is not a problem. At a given time I might have four books that I am reading, usually of a variety of genres. One book is my main pursuit and focus, which is the position any work of literature takes; in addition to that one I am usually working through a book about faith or the life of a believer (last year’s favorite was Shepherding a Child’s Heart); lastly I am typically reading a book about teaching (usually perused just at work). When I began listening to audio books while exercising it increased my threshold to four, and while the genre for this title is open, I avoid repeating those of the other books.

This theory is obviously very particular, but inevitably I pick up books and add them to the piles, thinking I can increase my threshold. I can’t. A case in point occurred over Christmas break. I opened Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, thoroughly enjoying the exposition. I love Dickens–Great Expectations stands strong in my top five list of great books–and the extended time over break seemed like the perfect opportunity to crack into what many consider his best work. The problem is that at the same time, while exercising, I was listening to David McCullough’s 1776. As I’ve mentioned, I loved 1776, and my admiration of McCullough was a topic of a few conversations with my brother-in-law. Inevitably, I suppose, he gave me a beautiful copy of John Adams for Christmas–a hard cover with the deckle edging. Even the paper was beautiful, and I sat on the sofa on Christmas leafing through the pages enjoying the sensuous pleasure of an elegant book.

The trouble is that, given a little extra time, time which I had on Christmas day, the sensuous quality of a book invites one into the intellectual quality of the book’s opening. Depending on the degree, the intellectual quality of the opening then draws one into the quality of the middle, which pulls one through to the end.

That’s my story with John Adams. I opened up to the first pages and found myself hopelessly drawn in by McCullough’s power.

In the cold, nearly colorless light of a New England winter, two men on horseback traveled the coast road below Boston, heading north. . . . Dressed as they were in heavy cloaks, their hats pulled low against the wind, they were barely distinguishable even from each other, except that the older, stouter of the two did most of the talking.

He was John Adams of Braintree and he loved to talk.

Dickens would have to take a rest. I hated to do such a thing to Dickens, to put him on “get to you later” status alongside The Gulag Archipelago and The God That Did Not Fail, and, I admit it, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek–books I enjoyed but abandoned and now sheepishly intend to finish someday. I hated to do it, but I had to take this step into revolutionary America, because I had to know more about this John Adams fellow from Braintree, the one who talked so much. Plus, in a more immediate sense, I had to find out who the other rider was, and McCullough had not yet told me.

Looking back, I am a bit surprised at what this book did to me. From the moment I began reading I slept little, shared much, and cut out everything possible to leave myself more time to enter John Adams’s world. I enjoy history, but I have always unapologeticly favored  literature. Yet McCullough and Adams paired to hook and hold me like few other books have.

The most obvious reason for my vulnerability to this book was my total cluelessness about the material involved. I knew a little about the revolutionary period–I could probably have passed an elementary school exam on the subject–but my lack of mature understanding made every event in the book a surprise. Take the Declaration of Independence as an example. Though familiar with the document’s contents, my understanding of its creation was light–like a piece of paper with a light pencil sketch of Independence Hall. Onto that sketch McCullough has defined the lines of tension as a colony considered its freedom, and colored for me living scenes of Adams’s boisterous leadership during floor debate.

Similarly, my ignorance about the politics of early America left me astounded at the duplicity of it all. Thomas Jefferson was amazingly sneaky in opposing Adams and Hamilton–prompting others to write materials but never saying anything himself. Madison was similarly engaged in all the partisan political activity that retiring politicians today lament as if it were a modern invention. Of course, those two pale in comparison with Alexander Hamilton, whose name was previously familiar to me because he did something with the treasury and had a duel with Aaron Burr. Now I realize the extent of his ambitions were more than anything I’d imagined–Abigail Adams called him a “another Bonaparte,” and McCullough praises Adams for outwitting Hamilton and ultimately making him irrelevant. Amazing.

All of this information alerts me to how thirsty I am for more. In between chapters I ran to my encyclopedia to find more about Hamilton and Madison, and during down times after work I admit to searching through biographies of Thomas Jefferson. I love the way one piece of information ignites a need for more. I read about Adams’s journey across the Atlantic with his son John Quincy with a dictionary by my side to help me through some of the shipping terminology. Far from frustrating me, however, the descriptions of the sails and the ship and the events thereon left me wondering what books have been written entirely about sailing in the 18th Century or earlier. Whatever they are, I now want to read them.

Of course it would help greatly if those books had also been written by McCullough. The man is a writer, not just an historian. He plays upon my lack of knowledge and practically taunts me with it, letting me know what I don’t know long before he plans to tell me. Take this comment about Hamilton as a sample:

Plainly, Adams feared a military coup by the second “Bonaparte,” which goes far to explain what was soon to take place. (522)

He told me nothing about what was soon to take place, just that this bit of information about his fear would go towards explaining it. That habit prevented me from losing interest as Adams’s life moved from one stage to the next–there always existed an unanswered question about what would happen.

Beyond the tease, however, McCullough exploits the natural strengths of the story. He squeezes an astounding level of play from the character foil between Adams and Jefferson, and the further he squeezes it, the more you realize he’s justified in doing it. One section I read aloud multiple times characterizes the two men’s contrasting notes from a tour of English gardens they took together. Jefferson, McCullough had previously noted, wrote little of a personal nature in his journal, filling it with data on temperatures and purchases, while Adams recorded in his own journal great quantities of personal thinking and feeling. At Stratford-on-Avon, McCullough comically explains how Adams

was distressed by how little evidence remained of Shakespeare, either of the man or the miracle of his mind. “There is nothing preserved of this great genius . . . which might inform us what education, what company, what accident turned his mind to letters and drama,” Adams lamented. Jefferson noted only that he paid a shilling to see the house and Shakepeare’s grave.

Continually McCullough also discusses the polar approaches to money the two men took–Jefferson spending without restraint, Adams living frugally and desiring even more modesty than his functions as a dignitary allowed him to maintain.

Perhaps it is through these contrasts that I discover why Adams himself is so attractive to me. When thinking of the founding fathers, I used to consider myself a “Jefferson man,” if only because my passion for the beautifully written word found a man worthy of accolade in Jefferson. Yet now I have met Adams, a simple, hard working New Englander with a passion for a simple life, lively conversation, correspondence, and books. Here was a man whose faith was foundational to his being and his wife a supporter and instigator of his passion. In short, here was the founder for me.

Anything that would keep me out of Dickens for a month has to be good, but I could not have foreseen how much I would enjoy this book. It is one of the few books I do not recommend, but commend. In fact, I do more than commend, I insist.

What you’ll need to do, however, is let me know what you think after you have read it. It’s what Adams would have done.

Thanks for reading.