Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #39: Passionate Sage, The Character and Legacy of John Adams
I've always been a John Adams guy. Before the HBO series, before even the 2001 McCullough book the series was based on. It most certainly goes back to the musical 1776 (you know, Hamilton before Hamilton was Hamilton) and William Daniels' brilliant portrayal of Adams. Stone and Edwards do a masterful job of weaving together the characters of the Second Continental Congress, utilizing the protagonists' own written diary entries as grist for dialogue and lyrics with only a minimal manipulation of history. The Adams character is central to the narrative, for the first time in popular imagination matching and even exceeding our traditional lionization of Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin. Adams is certainly their equal in the story of America's founding, and should be recognized as such. That he has no memorial in DC is a travesty.
Page Smith's 1962 two-volume Adams biography has a special place in my heart too, but Ellis' slimmer work comes closer to capturing why I feel such kinship with our second chief executive. In the musical 1776, one of the running gags is that Adams is obnoxious and disliked, but in reality he was a respected leader, while certainly pugnacious and capable of Yankee assholery. (As my UNH roommate Joel Mellin, a Mass native, once observed during a viewing, "What do you expect? He's from the 'Chu.") Adams was the driving force behind the Declaration, the prime mover in our legislative push for independence. If Washington was the sword and Jefferson the pen, Adams was the unrelenting conscience.
He was a complex soul - brilliant, insecure, waspish, pretentious, sensitive, mercurial, vain. He wasn't the charismatic self-promoter that his frenemy Jefferson was, or the mythic demigod Washington was, and is often forgotten. He shouldn't be.