No, that’s not a line about the election, though it could be. Today I’m finishing David McCollough’s masterful biography, John Adams. I have found the book almost wholly captivating, particularly in the interactions between characters — PEOPLE — that aren’t John Adams. Abigail is fascinating. Consider this wonderful advice she gave to her son John Quincy, who she’d been told was acting a bit superior (emphasis mine):
Adams himself is fascinating, solid, stolid, and stately. He’s vain, sure, but overall an admirable man and character. His counterpart, as best there can be one, is Thomas Jefferson, who is wily, scheming, and, well, I’ve been using a four-letter epithet to refer to him in my mind (rhymes with “brick”) that is a little surprising to think about one of the founders of the nation and the man whose monument I love so much in D.C.
One of the best parts of the book for me has been, to my surprise, the, well, surprises. I’ve forgotten so much of my American History that at different points, I’m in terrible suspense as to what will happen next. And McCollough, I believe, plays to this — so that I’ve just finished the election of 1800, wondering all along, wait, did Adams get a second term? Then, the things that I do remember play an equal role in increasing the drama. Right now I’m waiting to find out exactly how Alexander Hamilton, who is, here, a worse villain than Jefferson, comes to his end with Burr.
(A note on Thomas Jefferson: he’s not a villain completely, but next to upright Adams, he’s a total back-stabbing political weasel. Not to mention, as is widely noted here, probably the reason that candidates now get such scrutiny of their financial records. The great suspense of the book to me so far has been to see how these two men, who were friends and confidants at the beginning of things, might reconcile their friendship, as I know they will).
I think going into this book as any kind of scholar of the founding of the country probably would frustrate me, or leave me crying but what about him and him and her? But since the focus is just Adams, the forays into other lives feel like little narrative treats, and everything comes back to the big man in the end. I’ve enjoyed this read immensely, except for the ways in which it makes me sad about out current political climate. Consider, for instance, Adams’ reply to an ally who wrote to say that his absence from the Capitol was having a negative effect on the passage of an issue and his re-election as President: “I have only one favor to beg, and that is that a certain election may be wholly laid out of this question and all others.” Today, we’d sum that up in a different way: country first. And John Adams, the first man to run against a Republican for president, would mean it.