The NFB Reading List: John Adams


John Adams – David McCullough (2002)

The second book in this series may not be one that, unlike John Keegan’s famous work, springs to mind quickly when thinking about “war”. David McCullough’s biography of Adams covers that individuals rather notable life, from his legal practise in Massachusetts, through the events of 1776, his ambassador roles in France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, his holding of the first Vice-Presidency and then the second Presidency of the United States.

Before I even discuss issues related to warfare, John Adams is still an extraordinary account of an extraordinary man, the very pinnacle of what biography should be. Yes, McCullough could be accused of being too sympathetic to his subject – a flaw that was far more obvious in his Truman – but I don’t think it ever really becomes too much of a negative here. McCullough gives the reader a complete and total overview of nearly every facet of John Adams’ life, thanks to an epic amount of research into the primary source material left behind, mostly in the form of Adams’ preserved correspondence. Reading this biography is to come as close to knowing John Adams, as it is possible to know someone who lived and died 200 years ago.

But what does John Adams teach? Well, first and foremost, it a book about politics. How to perform that most subtle art, of bending popular opinion to your will, and making legislative decisions for the good of all, something that Adams had a multitude of successes (and some failures) with. This is a recounting of the intricacies and delicate negotiations at the continental congress, of the pitfalls and perils of ambassadorship, of making a new form of politics in a very new nation. Looking at the life of John Adams can give us a fascinating glimpse into these areas, while offering the most insightful examples of politics in general: the requirement of compromise, the importance of loyalty towards allies and keeping hold of strong personal morals.

But what of the topic at hand? The story of Adams’ life is a story of war, mixing in with a lot of politics. There are two wars that involve Adams intimately, and both instances, thought the words of David McCullough, taught me something.

During the War of Independence, Adams must learn to lead, influence and direct things from a subordinate position, almost forgotten behind men like George Washington. But lead, influence and direct he does. He’s critical when it comes to the Congress taking the fateful step of renouncing crown control, understanding the difficulties that war presents, but calculating the rewards that victory can bring. Adams see’s the value inherent in men like Washington, and is one of the key movers behind his appointment to lead the continental army. He understands how vital the naval aspect of the war will be, and more than anyone else pushes for a focus on that arena.

In a frequently brutal and merciless struggle, he carries on through great hardships. Adams accepts the most difficult of positions and roles, all in order to see the great task done. He endures a difficult time as an ambassador in pre-revolution France, seeing his personal morals tested by a decadent society on the verge of collapse. He dusts himself of and tries again in the Netherlands, securing vital credit for the new American state. He does his utmost to make good relations between the US and the UK in the years following the end of the war, recognising the geo-political reality of needing to choose between either London or Paris.

And then there is leading from the front. Adams became President of the United States in 1796, somewhat unexpectedly, and then dealt with a new kind of challenge, one both political and military, in facing down Revolutionary France. He had to do so with sometimes overwhelming opposition, while dealing with elements within his own administration who sought to greater militarise the United States.

Throughout this ordeal, Adams struggled to keep a firm hand, but ultimately made the tough decisions, and the right ones, refusing, initially, to back down in the face of French aggression and focusing on building up the United States Navy. But then, refusing to contemplate aggressive expansion at the cost of the state freedoms he fought so hard for, he sought and made peace with France, recognising that such a move was the best course for America, and would put a definitive end to the military scheming of men like Alexander Hamilton.

The end result was a single-term Presidency, but the maintenance of his moral compass, and recognition, today, that Adams held to the most optimal course for his fledging nation. McCullough brilliantly illustrates the tangled web of inter-personal and international relations that Adams had to navigate in this period, and how he was able to achieve a measure of success, and further the cause of his country. Adams refused to let the Quasi War grow beyond the political objectives most favourable to the United States. Clausewitz would have approved.

But more than any of that, John Adams taught me about belief, conviction and never, ever giving up, which has obvious applications to war. Adams, through his private letters, public speeches and life of service, constantly demonstrates many things: an unflappable sense of right and wrong, a commitment to his wife and family, and an unbendable belief in the power of democracy and freedom. Adams believed so much in the idea of the republic, that it was the highest good, that he was willing to die for it, and indeed, to fight for it. In the darkest hours of the fight for independence, his belief that it was the right thing to strive for never left him. He never let go of that belief, in the power of those “self-evident” truths. That image spoke to me a great deal, especially today, in an era of vast political disillusionment.

He made mistakes: he let his temper get the better of him, he struggled in foreign cultures, he sometimes pushed for the unpalatable in American political circles, he let himself be dominated by others, like Hamilton, for a time. But after every failure, he dusted himself off and kept going. I had never before been shown, in such extraordinary detail, a man of such firm convictions, which translated into several different instances of strong wartime leadership.

So, what did it teach about war? That it requires a firm hand when it comes to leadership, on several different levels. It taught me much about the machinations of wartime politics, how different factors have to be tried and weighed, from individual state opinions to the right European ally to hitch your carriage to. It taught me that there are some instances in history when war is fought for a reason that borders on nobility. It taught me that an unpopular, but advantageous peace is always better than a popular, but questionable war. And lastly, it taught me that, in something like war, that approaches the appearance of a maelstrom of vying emotions and violent chance, you need to have strong, unshakeable convictions if you are going to make it through.

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