WHAT MCCULLOUGH has accomplished is a staggering reversal. Adams, the conservative, who was suspicious of democracy and who put his trust in the wisdom of property owners and aristocracy, becomes the politically correct exemplar for our times. Jefferson, the deep political thinker, the advocate of liberty, decentralized government, and the elevation of the average person, becomes the remote elitist, the hypocrite, the spendthrift who left his heirs in debt.
It’s not hard to see how McCullough pulled this off. As David Greenberg observed in Slate, Adams’s no-nonsense, plain-talking persona — reminiscent of Harry Truman, an earlier McCullough subject — resonates with the current hunger for authenticity. Adams was also an equal partner in a progressive marriage, and — better still — both he and Abigail loathed slavery. Jefferson, by contrast, was a dissembler who rarely summoned the courage to tell people off to their faces, who often shirked public duties, and who, of course, not only owned slaves but used them for his sexual gratification.
Yet as appealing a character as Adams clearly is, it is Jefferson’s ideas that have endured. And there’s no doubt that McCullough gives short shrift to the power of ideas — a failing even his most sympathetic reviewers acknowledge. " The books that formed Adams as a politician — Cicero and Thucydides, Locke’s ‘Two Treatises on Government,’ John Milton’s ‘Aeropagitica’ — are dutifully itemized, as if McCullough were cruising the stacks admiring the gold-stamped morocco, rather than diving deep into their content for clues to Adams’s convictions, " wrote Columbia University historian Simon Schama in his New Yorker review.
Although McCullough is forceful writer, a compelling storyteller, and a gifted stylist, when it comes to explaining the importance of Adams’s writing (and reading) or placing him in the ideological context of his times, he does indeed fade into the lite. There are riveting, vivid stories in John Adams; the two that stand out most in my mind are his harrowing wintertime journey to France with a young John Quincy, and a mastectomy performed on his then-46-year-old daughter, Nabby, without benefit of anesthesia (she lived several more years, a miracle given that there was no such thing as chemotherapy or radiation in those days). As for Adams’s contributions to independence and the early years of the Republic, though, I can’t tell you what McCullough thinks, except that his subject was always ready to serve his country despite crushing personal hardships, that he was brutally honest, and that he stood up to anyone who got in his way, whether it was Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, the French foreign minister, or the entire Dutch government.
The Wilentz essay and, now, Richard Rosenfeld’s Harper’s piece correct — perhaps overcorrect — McCullough’s flaws. Wilentz’s long review, in the July 2 issue of TNR (still available online at www.thenewrepublic.com/070201/wilentz070201.html), is actually a discursive meditation on modern historiography: he sees McCullough as the personification of a backlash against an overly dry, academic, revisionist form of history-writing that rose to prominence in the 1950s, which was in itself a backlash against " New Deal–era nostalgic kitsch. " Rosenfeld, best known as the author of American Aurora, the story of an anti-Federalist (and, thus, anti-Adams) newspaper, focuses much more narrowly on both John Adams and John Adams (the essay is online at www.thomas-paine.com/tpnha/adams_tyranny.html).
Both Wilentz and Rosenfeld attempt to knock down some of McCullough’s most important critical judgments about Adams. McCullough says accusations that Adams was a closet monarchist were unfair and unfounded; Wilentz and Rosenfeld say Adams did indeed find much to admire about monarchy, and that though he sincerely wanted independence for the colonies, he wasn’t particularly enamored of democracy or individual liberty. Wilentz and Rosenfeld also dismiss McCullough’s contentions that Adams’s controversial wartime diplomacy in France and the Netherlands was a success; that, while president, he saved the United States from a ruinous war with France (both accuse him of warmongering); and, most important, that the Alien and Sedition Acts, though unfortunate, were an aberration in an otherwise stellar career.
Those acts were far worse than that, say Wilentz and Rosenfeld; indeed, Rosenfeld argues that they led to a " reign of terror " against Adams’s political enemies and concludes, " When Adams left the presidency he did so in disgrace. He was the founding father who had opposed popular democracy, subverted the Bill of Rights, and brought his nation to the brink of civil war. " Wilentz is more measured, calling Adams a " paradox " because of his anti-democratic views, " a great American who would prove virtually irrelevant to his nation’s subsequent political development. " And in McCullough’s Adams-versus-Jefferson debate (indeed, McCullough had originally conceived his book as a treatise on both men), Wilentz comes down firmly on Jefferson’s side, writing that " Jefferson and Adams need to be judged not for who they were but for what they thought and what they did. "