By DINITIA SMITH
Published in The New York Times: June 28, 2001Admittedly, David McCullough is a booster of John Adams.
Without him, he said, there might have been no Declaration of Independence. ”With the force of his argument on the floor of Congress, he made it happen,” Mr. McCullough explained.
As a creator of the Massachusetts State Constitution, one of the oldest written ones still in use, Adams drafted a model for the United States Constitution. During the Revolution, he secured a loan from the Dutch that enabled the fight to continue. And as president, he steered the country away from a potentially disastrous war with France. ”It was one of his bravest acts,” Mr. McCullough said, ”because the French were humiliating us at sea.”
In fact, Mr. McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, is campaigning for a memorial to Adams. Until one is built, he has contributed a monument of his own, a biography, ”John Adams” (Simon & Schuster), which has been No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list for three weeks.
There are already several major biographies of Adams, the second president, including those by John Ferling and Gilbert Chinard. The scholarship also includes Joseph J. Ellis’s books ”Passionate Sage,” a biography, and ”Founding Brothers,” a group portrait of the founding fathers, which has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 26 weeks. As some historians have pointed out, we seem to be rebelling against the rebellion against the history of Great White Men.
So why another Adams biography?
Mr. McCullough believes that Adams, also the father of a president, John Quincy Adams, deserves a better shake. ”His importance is far greater than commonly understood,” he said recently at the Yale Club of New York (he is a member of the class of 1955), where he stays when he is away from his home on Martha’s Vineyard.
”The common, superficial understanding of him is as vain, irritable, obstinate, difficult and opinionated, that little fat fellow between two Virginians, Washington and Jefferson,” Mr. McCullough asserted. ”The fact is, he was full of life, high-spirited, affectionate, loyal to friends, a kind and a dedicated father and husband, who traveled further in the service of his country than anyone before him, and at greater risk.”
The only reference he could find to Adams’s being obnoxious, he said, was Adams’s own descriptions. In reality, he said, he was ”a dear and endearing man.”
Mr. McCullough, 67, a formidable figure with expressive eyebrows, gleaming white hair, gray-green eyes and a sonorous voice, was for years the authoritative narrator of PBS’s ”American Experience” and ”Smithsonian World.” Through books like ”The Johnstown Flood”; ”The Great Bridge,” about the Brooklyn Bridge; ”The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914”; and his biographies ”Mornings on Horseback,” about Theodore Roosevelt; and ”Truman,” which won a Pulitzer Prize, Mr. McCullough is perhaps this era’s most influential purveyor of American history.
Originally, he intended to write a dual biography of Jefferson and Adams. They represented opposing strains in the nascent democracy: Jefferson, the Republican, believed in government by the common man; Adams, a Federalist, was skeptical of the rule of the masses. After Jefferson defeated Adams for the presidency in 1800, they didn’t speak for 10 years. But in retirement they began an extraordinary correspondence that lasted almost until their deaths on the same day, July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration.
But Mr. McCullough found Jefferson remote and sometimes devious, and was increasingly drawn to the outspoken, passionate Adams. There were over a thousand letters between Adams and his wife, Abigail, who ran their farm in Braintree, Mass., while he was away. Early on, his wife saw the evils of slavery and was a sounding board for his political philosophy.
Their letters, half of them unpublished, are in the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. The family papers there, which include Adams’s diaries, take up 608 reels of microfilm — enough, unrolled, to extend for some five miles.
Thought of as a patrician New Englander, Adams was actually the son of a yeoman farmer and a probably illiterate mother. He has been wrongly called a monarchist, Mr. McCullough said, even if he did say that George Washington should be addressed as ”His Majesty the President.” True, he distrusted the rabble and feared the French Revolution, but he ”believed we should be a nation of laws, not men,” Mr. McCullough observed.
In 1798, during his presidency, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, authorizing fines and imprisonment for critics of the government. Adams signed them, and they were ”rightly judged by history as the most reprehensible acts of his presidency,” Mr. McCullough writes. Still, he adds, they ”must be seen in the context of the time,” the threat of war with France.
Adams had great moral courage, Mr. McCullough observed, when, as a lawyer, he defended British soldiers who fired into a hostile crowd in 1770 in what came to be known as ”the Boston Massacre.” And when fire broke out in the print shop of a Philadelphia newspaper that had campaigned against him, Adams joined the bucket brigade.
For over six years, Mr. McCullough lived Adams’s life. He read the books that he read: by Samuel Johnson, Richardson, Cicero, Pope. In Europe, he and his wife, Rosalee, ”went to see every place he lived,” he said, ”walked through the room where treaties were signed.” They took the same route as Adams and Jefferson did while touring English gardens in 1788.
”The most moving moment,” he said, ”was when I went with one of my own sons” to stand in February on the freezing seashore near Adams’s home, where Adams and his son waited in 1778 for a ship to take them to Europe. Adams was going to assist Benjamin Franklin in obtaining aid from France.
Mr. McCullough’s portrayal of Adams has drawn some sharp criticism. Some historians have called it idealized. And Sean Wilentz has taken Mr. McCullough to task in The New Republic for writing a character-driven biography. ”If sterling character were the main guide to greatness, all America would formally commemorate the birthday of Robert E. Lee instead of the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr,” he wrote.
Mr. Wilentz also described Mr. McCullough as a practitioner of ”the American Heritage technique,” which he said reached its apotheosis in Ken Burns’s documentary ”The Civil War.” He called the Burns work, which Mr. McCullough narrated, ”brilliant in its detail, evocative in its storytelling, but crushingly sentimental and vacuous in its historical judgments.”
Mr. McCullough did spend his early career at American Heritage and calls it ”my graduate school.” Explaining his methods of writing about historical figures, he said: ”I believe in narrative, because you’re doing it in their point of view. It’s hubris to look back and judge them by our standards.”
”If you take away their humanity,” he added, ”you take away the wonder of what they achieved.”
Mr. McCullough was born and reared in Pittsburgh. As a student at Yale, he met Thornton Wilder, who greatly influenced his writing. He also fell ”head over heels” for his future wife, then Rosalee Barnes, a Vassar student. They have five children and many grandchildren.
After college Mr. McCullough worked for Time Inc. Then, ‘’swept up by the excitement of the Kennedy era,” he said, he became an editor and writer at the United States Information Agency in Washington and moonlighted for American Heritage. In 1964 he became an editor and writer there and began his first book, ”The Johnstown Flood,” about the flood of 1889 in the region where he grew up.
Its success inspired Mr. McCullough to quit his job and write full-time. ”I used to see the old fellows in their 40’s, talking about the book they were going to write someday,” he recalled. ”I was determined I was not going to be like that.”
”I have had a wonderful time writing every book I’ve ever written,” he added. ”It’s like traveling in a country I’ve never been in.”
Today Mr. McCullough and his wife live in West Tisbury, Mass., in a shingled house partly built in the 18th century. He writes in his studio behind the house every day. It has no phone, and no one is allowed to disturb him except grandchildren, the younger, the better.
”I would pay to do what I do,” he said. ”People say, ‘Take a vacation.’ How could I have a better time than doing what I am doing?”
Photo: David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, at the New York Public Library last month. His book, ”John Adams,” is an admiring biography of the second president, and has become a best seller. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)