Learning to Like John Adams

A year after I originally planned it, I am reading John Adams, David McCullough’s biography of the great American leader. I have seen the television series so can’t really get Paul Giamatti out of my head, and it appears that he did a good job of portraying Adams: plain spoken, intense, impatient. In talks I give, I compare him unfavorably with Franklin and Jefferson in terms of getting along with people, and that may be an exaggeration, although I haven’t gotten to his years in France.

Perhaps the surprising part of reading the biography for me is that I’ve always been a Jefferson admirer–the complex Renaissance man living on a mountaintop surrounded by books–but I think I’m actually more like Adams. Here’s McCullough’s comparison:

“It was Jefferson’s graciousness that was so appealing. He was never blunt or assertive as Adams could be, but subtle, serene by all appearances, always polite, soft-spoken, and diplomatic, if somewhat remote. With Adams there was seldom a doubt about what he meant by what he said. With Jefferson there was nearly always a slight air of ambiguity. In private conversation Jefferson “sparkled,” But, in Congress, like Franklin, he scarcely said a word, and if he did, it was in a voice so weak as to be almost inaudbile” (p. 112).

Adams kept diaries of his thoughts and feelings while Jefferson kept meticulous account books. Jefferson was interested in mankind but not particularly interested in individual people. Here’s one more line:

“Where Adams was stout, Jefferson was lean and long-limbed, almost bony. Where Adams stood foursquare to the world, shoulders back, Jefferson customarily stood with arms folded tightly across his chest…Jefferson wished to avoid the rough and tumble of life whenever possible. John Adams’s irrepressible desire was to seize hold of it” (pp. 111-113).

There’s another thing I share with Adams, or at least the young Adams, and that is a sense that I never quite meet my resolutions: “Why we he constantly forming yet never executing good resolutions? Why was he so absent-minded, so lazy, so prone to daydreaming his life away? He vowed to read more seriously. He vowed to quick chewing tobacco.” McCullough quotes a diary entry from 1756 in which Adams resolves to “rise with the sun” and study each morning, the Scriptures on the weekend, and then Latin authors on the other days. “But,” writes McCullough, “the next morning he slept until seven and a one-line entry the following week read, ‘A very rainy day. Dreamed away the time.'”

Oh, one more thing…as we get closer to closing on the farm, I’ll be balancing the academic and the domestic life. In this way, I am also like the young Adams. Like Adams in fall of 1758, my formal education is complete, and I am moving into a new phase of my professional and private life:

“For the first time, he was on his own with his studies, and he bent to them with the spirit of independence and intense determination that were to characterize much of his whole approach to life. In his diary, he wrote of chopping wood and translating Justinian, with equal resolve” (p. 43).

I am reading the book slowly…it is very detailed and I want to enjoy the story and the prose. Friends felt it was too detailed perhaps but I like having the human view of this time period as McCullough describes Adams and his colleagues as the human beings they were, human beings forced to be leaders in extraordinary times.