Monday, November 29, 2010
I got my first taste of history in the 1950s. The Great American Narrative was well established. Firmly set. Elementary school texts told the story. Our nemesis, Russia, was a dark place where citizens dutifully reported their comrades for the slightest infraction. Freedoms of speech, religion and the press were non-existent over there on the other side of the world. Dank prison cells were the destiny of those who dared criticize their totalitarian government. Our great American heroes fought for our liberty, and wrote the texts we memorized. “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” George Washington never lied. Thomas Jefferson authored that Declaration. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.
It would be later that I would grasp the concept of legend. We embellish our stories. Our heroes become, as a matter of course, larger than life. We don’t think of them as saints, but almost. It is the role of higher education to find history in the myths. Historians base their expositions on hard data. Some would rather that the mythologies remain in place, unchallenged. Scholars frequently deal with the angry charge of idol smashing. When a biographer strays from the generally accepted version of a popular story, some will call it heresy. If the facts contradict the folklore, a scholar risks ridicule or worse, censure. Some of us prefer the bronze image to the flesh and blood human being that occupied real time and space. We would rather have Thomas Jefferson the architect of freedom of religion than Thomas Jefferson the slave-owner. We like our legends to be tidy.
So I learned all about George Washington crossing the Delaware and Thomas Jefferson’s feather pen and John Hamilton’s oversized signature but not much about the second President of the United States. I knew his name; and confused it with the sixth President with the odd middle name of Quincy*. But it took David McCullough’s “John Adams” to transport me back to a period in American history I thought was familiar. McCullough spent years pouring through the letters of Mr. and Mrs. Adams, a Massachusetts couple who would leave their indelible mark on the best of American history.
McCullough’s book is more than a story of a great American hero; it is the story of a great American marriage. John and Abigail Adams were both raised on the classics. They studied language and literature and poetry and philosophy and science. From the beginning, they wrote long letters. Their elevated prose, their cherished original phrasing and their passionate precision filled pages with perceptive recollection and keen observation. The letters are rich. They left behind a treasure of insight, informative and fascinating and entertaining, prized even more now, two hundred years after they were written. But most compelling is their devotion to one another. Their engagement continued throughout their life. John’s considerable contribution to the birth of a nation can not be understood apart from Abigail’s perspective; her conscience, her tenacity, her discernment, her wisdom. Their collaboration moved the Congress and the people toward not just independence, but liberty.
I was not aware of Adams’ rise to national prominence, from Boston to Philadelphia. It was a combination of vision and verbal acuity that informed his oratory, tempered by Abigail’s sagacity. He fully engaged the debate on the floor of that Philadelphia conference. He answered the Federalists. He demanded a declaration. He recruited Jefferson to write. He articulated the essence of that great document. He and Benjamin Franklin edited Jefferson’s draft. He had no care for credit. Only outcomes. He negotiated the necessary alliance with the Louis XVI in Paris by Franklin’s side. (Adams despised the excesses of the French, and Franklin’s feckless accommodation.) Adams, Franklin and Jefferson collaborated together in Paris, engineering the constitution of the newly independent colonies. And when the Americans won their freedom, John Adams would be the first to have audience with the defeated His Majesty King George, after a costly war, mending the relationship of the two nations as first ambassador to Great Britain.
So I listened to the McCullough’s audio book while traveling up and down the state. A good book is spiritual food; a sheer delight. The miles pass with purpose. And then I learned that Tom Hanks made the book into a series, starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. The two exceptional actors breathe life into the characters, animating the story; living up to the standard set by McCullough’s prose.
Why don’t we write long letters anymore? It is our loss.
And maybe history’s loss, too.
Copyright 2010 Kenneth E. Kemp
* John Quincy Adams was John and Abigail’s son. Also, thank you Mary Strauss. I made the correction… Washington indeed crossed the Delaware… not the Potomac (well, maybe when he went to visit Arlington).