John Adams could never shake the feeling that history would be unkind to him. “I have very serious ideas of the duties of an historian,” he wrote to his friend Benjamin Rush in 1806. By this time Adams’s career was in ruins, and he was toughing out a bleak retirement scarred by family disasters and the triumph of his political enemies. Would Adams at least receive vindication from posterity? He wasn’t very hopeful, unless historians could be forced to swear the same oath that compelled witnesses in the courtroom: “to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”
Adams would surely have been cheered by the slant of HBO’s recently concluded “epic miniseries event” about his life, which is consistently sympathetic to its title character. And he wouldn’t have grumbled about the casting of Paul Giamatti in the role–Adams was fat, short and bald, so he couldn’t have been expecting Ashton Kutcher. Yet there was a stubbornness about Adams, a refusal to take the easy option or to acquiesce in received wisdom, that might have prompted him to hold his applause. Adams was a lot better at grumbling than applauding in any case, but there’s something about HBO’s worthy effort that doesn’t ring true.
America’s second President has traditionally gotten a bum rap from historians and the public at large. It’s not hard to see why. Even before he succeeded Washington to the nation’s highest office, he had a reputation for being irascible and vain. He made enemies easily, and he had a touch of paranoia that made his outbursts seem pompous and detached from reality. In the first half-century of the Republic, he was one of only two Presidents who failed to win a second term. (The other was his son John Quincy, who failed at what the Bush dynasty has mastered: the trick of loosening up the second time around.) Adams spent more than twenty-five years in a bitter retirement, brooding over his mistakes and–more often–ascribing them to others. Little wonder that he was excluded from the founder pantheon, pushed aside even in his own lifetime as Americans celebrated Washington, Jefferson and Franklin–and to Adams’s horror, Alexander Hamilton.
In 2001 David McCullough’s biography presented a very different picture. Its John Adams was vain and crabby but also courageous and important. He was as much the architect of the American Revolution as any other man, and even his turbulent presidency had its noble elements. His relationship with his wife, Abigail, revealed a tenderness and (occasionally) a humility that belied his public image, and he endured personal tragedies and public opprobrium with considerable fortitude. Books about the founders were already hot property in the publishing world, not least because the Clinton impeachment had produced endless calls for the rediscovery of “character” and “rectitude” in American life. John Adams went straight to the top of the bestseller lists in June 2001, but 9/11 seemed to give it a second wind with the American public. Adams, after all, was a conservative President struggling to steer the country through a time of war. McCullough’s positive spin allowed readers to embrace the prickliest of the founders and to console themselves with the fact that America had endured dark times before.