David McCullough Discusses His Book “John Adams”
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GWEN IFILL: The book is “John Adams,” the author is Pulitzer Prize winning biography and historian David McCullough. Relying on thousands of pages of letters and reminiscence, he tells the story of the birth of America through the eyes of its often misunderstood second president, the revolutionary diplomat and political leader, John Adams. Welcome.
DAVID McCULLOUGH: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: So what made you decide to retell John Adams’ story?
DAVID McCULLOUGH: I began thinking I would do a book of the intertwining lives of Jefferson and Adams, who is I know you know died on the same day. And not just any day, but their day of days, the 4th of July in 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. And my initial concern was that Jefferson with his fame and his aura and his glamour would outshine, outbalance, overbalance, stout short John Adams, who has been in the shadows of the two tall Virginians — Washington and Jefferson — all these years.
But I very quickly realized that the pull for here was John Adams, because to me he was a far more compelling subject, a more, a more fascinating story because of the letters you just mentioned. They really take us into his life and we can know him and his wife, Abigail, which is very important, better than we can know almost anybody of that whole time.
GWEN IFILL: Was he popularly in history books misunderstood?
DAVID McCULLOUGH: Yes, I think he has been, not so much misunderstood as just forgotten, neglected, which doesn’t reflect well on us, because there were very few in our history who have served more diligently or have accomplished as much.
Except for George Washington, he really had more to do with winning independence and with the establishment of the system of government we have than anyone at the time. It wasn’t just that he was involved with the Revolution, he was involved with the Revolution and that very difficult and dangerous period really in the first 12 years of the country. And he’s a great story. He travels farther than anybody in the service of the country. He’s involved with the Revolution as early as 1765, ten years before Lexington and Concord.
He wrote the oldest existing Constitution in the world, written Constitution in the world today, the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was, as you said, a diplomat. He was the first president to father a president. And he married Abigail Adams, which was no small accomplishment, because she, in my view, and the view of many, is as interesting and as impressive a person from that period, as any from that period.
GWEN IFILL: In fact this book wouldn’t have been written if it had not been for their exchange of letters?
DAVID McCULLOUGH: Well, she was part of the draw for me. Here was the chance to tell the story of a genuine love affair. A genuine true love affair, maybe as well documented as any in history. I remember once that Ann Merrill Lindbergh when I was doing a piece for PBS years ago, for the Smithsonian World Series, told me that true love isn’t just gazing at each other; it’s also looking out together in the same direction, and if ever there was an example of that, it’s John and Abigail Adams.
GWEN IFILL: But a far more intriguing and complicated and prickly relationship John Adams had with Thomas Jefferson, as you alluded to, and to Benjamin Franklin as well. That was very intriguing to me.
DAVID McCULLOUGH: Well, he was often a difficult man to get along with, he could be abrasive, opinionated, vain. He was grumpy much of the time.
GWEN IFILL: And Jefferson could be duplicitous?
DAVID McCULLOUGH: Yes. And Adams, but also Adams was very warm hearted, affectionate, adored his friends, loved life, right up until his final days, he lived longer than any president in our history. And at the end he’s lost everything, he’s lost his wife, he’s lost some of his children and some of his grandchildren, he’s lost his teeth, his hair. But there’s still that burning fire of love of life right to the very last week.
GWEN IFILL: He and Jefferson, as you mentioned, died on the same day, they were as close as friends could be at some points in their lives and great enemies at others. I’d like to refer to a portion of the book where Jefferson and Adams had been traveling together through England when Adams was stationed in London and this is where — Jefferson’s take on John Adams.
DAVID McCULLOUGH: Yeah, he’s come back to Paris after several weeks with Adams and they’ve gone off on this very interesting historically unimportant but very interesting tour of the English Gardens together. And Madison, who is back here in the United States, doesn’t much care for Adams, he’s never met Adams or had any real dealings with him, but doesn’t care for him. So Jefferson is writing to Adams saying, “you know the opinion I formerly entertained of my friend Mr. Adams, yourself and the governor were the first who shook that opinion. I” — in other words I liked him at first, but you’ve persuaded me that he wasn’t somebody I should like.
“I afterwards saw proofs, which convicted him of a degree of vanity and of blindness to it of which no germ had appeared in Congress. A seven months intimacy with him here, in Paris, and as many weeks in London have given me opportunities of studying him closely. He is vain, irritable, and a bad calculator of the force and probable effect of the motives which govern men. This is all the ill which can be said of him. He is as disinterested as the being which made him. Now to be disinterested, to be impartial was considered in the 18th century one of the great attributes. He is profound in his views and accurate in his judgments except where knowledge of the world is necessary to form a judgment. He is so amiable that I pronounce you will love him if ever you become acquainted with him.” And I think that’s a very apt selection, because he’s saying that with all his faults he is loveable.
GWEN IFILL: You also write several times in this book, you refer to the fact that he and Abigail were both very disapproving of slavery, and didn’t own slaves themselves. Yet you also say that he did not believe that all men were born equal, which we all hold these truths to be self-evident now.
DAVID McCULLOUGH: Well, he said look around, common sense, we’re not all born equal, some are born better looking than others, some are stronger, some are weaker, some have handicaps, some are born into families with money, some are born into families of great poverty. But, he said, we are all equal in the eyes of God, and we must all be equal before the law.
He is the patriot of that day who kept saying over and over again, we must be a nation of laws, and not of men. And he was the one who kept stressing that we must have a government that is in balance; that you have executive, judicial, and legislative branches, and especially we must have an independent judiciary. His point was, he was very distrustful of the majority if the majority had too much power. He said too much power in an individual, too much power in a majority is dangerous. And in this respect he differed greatly from Jefferson. There are also so many other fundamental differences between them, which is one of the reasons that makes the relationship so fascinating.
GWEN IFILL: Well, and it makes for fascinating reading. David McCullough, thank you.
DAVID McCULLOUGH: Thank you, Gwen, very much.