America's 'Less Splendid Sun'

July 17, 2002

John Adams by David McCullough. Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2001

For those of us whose image of Harry S. Truman was enriched by David McCullough's Truman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author again has teased out of history a narrative of sweeping breadth and personal insight, uncovering the authentic life of an often-caricatured figure.
In developing his account of the life of John Adams, McCullough plumbed the depths of an enormous cache of letters. More than a thousand missives written between John Adams and his wife, Abigail, reveal a devoted relationship between two individuals invested with a firm sense of history.
Adams wrote -- indeed, lived -- with the assumption that his actions and those of his contemporaries would alter the course of the world. "The second day of July, 1776," he wrote to Abigail, "will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America." That we celebrate the fourth of July, rather than the second, is a quirk of historical insignificance. The real matter is that Adams' intuition was correct, and that the republic he envisioned, independent and robust, remains intact today.
It was the persistence with which Adams persuaded his fellow congressional delegates that led to the glory of July 1776. Although Thomas Jefferson is credited with authoring the Declaration of Independence and John Hancock with first signing it, it was Adams, through his tenacious rhetorical wrangling and deft political persuasion, who delivered the votes for independence. 
Were McCullough simply to have recounted the story of American independence through the lens of Adams' life, it would have been enough. For, despite generations of second-grade plays and silhouettes of presidential profiles, too often we forget the tumult out of which our contemporary freedom and liberty were born.
But McCullough did not stop there. Rather, he continued beyond the story of independence to craft an eminently human image of John Adams. In the heady environs of the Court of St. James, Adams became homesick. In the presence of colleagues, he wrestled with self-doubt. He loved his family and his farm and pined for both, even in moments that demanded his attention be focused elsewhere.
Adams was an irascible contrarian, given to fits of rage and remarkable displays of vanity. Yet, he also was capable of a curious degree of honest self-assessment. Fully cognizant of the gravity that attended the authorship of the Declaration of Independence, and the inevitable greatness that would be ascribed to its creator, he nonetheless argued that Jefferson was the rightful author: "Reason first: You are a Virginian and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second: I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular ... Reason third: You can write ten times better than I."
Yet, in the moments that should have brought the most glory -- his inauguration, for example -- Adams always seemed a bit misplaced. Adams' inauguration on March 4, 1797, should have been his day. Standing between George Washington, the outgoing president, and Thomas Jefferson, who had just been sworn in as vice president, the scene must have set in stark relief what Adams had written to Abigail: "Virginian geese are all swans." Short of stature and a bit corporeal, the plain-dressed Adams -- "his rotundity," as his detractors called him -- must have felt out of place between the heroic Washington and the genteel Jefferson. Long having lived in the shadow of the beatified first president, Adams said of his Inauguration Day, "The sight of the sun setting ... and another rising -- though less splendid -- was a novelty."
Yet, if Adams' curious personality and tepid presidential record do not commend him to the annals of history, his notion of civic engagement should. It was Adams' sense of public duty that perhaps can most benefit a generation in need of inspiration. John Adams' public service -- as a congressional delegate, a foreign diplomat, a vice president and, ultimately, as president -- came at significant personal expense. He forwent a potentially lucrative law practice in Boston to commit his energy to life in the public sphere, often leaving Abigail to manage the affairs of home and hearth. 
The idea of personal sacrifice for the public good is a notion that is at once outdated, old-fashioned -- and exceedingly noble. If there is a lesson in Adams' life for our generation, it may be that service rendered sacrificially is the essence of citizenship.

Loughridge is Chief of Staff to Baylor President Dr. Robert B. Sloan, Jr.