John Adams is hot these days. First came the eerie parallels to the Bushes: a competent but uninspiring Vice President succeeds a charismatic President, serves only one term, is defeated by a liberal Southerner but lives to see his near namesake son restore the dynasty despite losing the popular vote to a populist from Tennessee. Now comes something even more exciting for his reputation: America's most beloved biographer, David McCullough, has plucked Adams from the historical haze, as he did Harry Truman, and produced another masterwork of storytelling that blends colorful narrative with sweeping insights.
Though Adams had the same prickliness as Give-'Em-Hell Harry, he's just not quite as colorful. From a family of Puritan farmers, Adams was honest and solid, but he could be argumentative, vain and despairing. In John Adams (Simon & Schuster; 751 pages; $35), McCullough does not try to exalt him. Instead he shows how Adams' ability to be sensible and independent made him an important element in the firmament of talents that created a new nation.
Among those who gathered in Philadelphia in 1776, Adams was one of the first to advocate independence. The following year, he was sent as an envoy to Paris, where he worked with Benjamin Franklin and later Thomas Jefferson. They were both more polished and popular than Adams--and certainly less Puritan in their approach to the pleasures of Paris. After the war Adams became America's first ambassador to England, where he again proved stiffly reliable but devoid of the courtiers' charms that counted for so much in the world of European diplomacy.
As Vice President, his first initiative was to tie up the Senate for a month debating what title should be used to address President George Washington. His efforts tarred Adams as a closet monarchist and made him a target for those too timid to take on Washington directly. Adams' great goal was to keep American politics nonpartisan. In that he failed. When Washington retired, the election of 1796 became the first between two parties, with Jefferson leading what was then known as the Republicans and Adams the unenthusiastic choice of the Federalists. Indeed, it was only because of the advent of party politics, and the Federalists' ability to scrape together enough electors one last time, that Adams was able to win his single term.
Nevertheless, Adams governed in a responsibly nonpartisan way. One great issue was France, which was interfering with American shipping. The Republicans, admirers of the French Revolution, advocated peace; the Federalists, spurred by Alexander Hamilton and Washington, spoiled for war. Adams defied his party, conducted a delicate diplomacy with Paris and ended up averting both war and the rise of the ambitious Hamilton as a military leader.