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An unjustly ignored Founding Father

David McCullough brings 'John Adams' to life

David McCullough won the Pulitzer Prize for 1992's "Truman"  

By Todd Leopold

(CNN) -- When it comes to the Founding Fathers, it's easy to fall back on cliches.

George Washington is immortalized as "the father of his country." Benjamin Franklin is the wizened old scientist and diplomat who lent his authority and charm to the country's early years. And Thomas Jefferson is remembered as the author of the Declaration of Independence, the Sage of Monticello and the founder of the Democratic Party -- the oldest political party in the world.

But what of John Adams, Jefferson's longtime friend and occasional rival? He's remembered as that guy who served a single term as president between Washington and Jefferson, and as a short, vain, somewhat rotund man whose stature seems to have been dwarfed by his lanky colleagues.

Which barely scratches the surface of the truth.

"The problem with Adams," says historian David McCullough, author of the new biography "John Adams" (Simon & Schuster), "is that most Americans know nothing about him."

The David McCullough file

• Age: 67
• Born: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
• Residence: West Tisbury, Massachusetts
• Notable works: "The Johnstown Flood," 1968; "The Great Bridge," 1972; "The Path Between the Seas," 1977; "Mornings on Horseback," 1981; "Truman," 1992; "John Adams," 2001
• Honors include: National Book Award (twice), Francis Parkman Prize (twice), Pulitzer Prize (for "Truman")
• Interesting facts: Hosted PBS' "The American Experience" from 1988-1999 (although he says he enjoyed the experience, "I began to feel like an actor who had been in the same part for long enough") and he narrated several documentaries, most notably Ken Burns' "The Civil War" (1990)


There is much to know, as McCullough's biography reveals. With his principles leading the way, John Adams helped drive the Declaration of Independence. His constitution for the state of Massachusetts served as a model for the United States Constitution. He served his country as an important international emissary during the Revolutionary War, as an ambassador, as a vice-president and as its second president.

Work on the book changed McCullough's own perception of Adams. After all his research, he says, he found himself admiring the statesman all the more.

"The man who emerges is truly heroic, and that was a surprise for me," McCullough says in an interview from New York. "This is a greathearted fellow, for all his failings ... a very warm, full-dimensional human being."

'I've never worked with better material'

McCullough didn't set out to write a book on Adams. After winning the Pulitzer Prize for "Truman," his 1992 biography of Harry Truman, he was led to the voluminous correspondence between Adams and Jefferson and intended to write a book on the two of them. Only after beginning work on the project did he realize that he wanted to focus on Adams.

He says the work was continually rewarding -- seven years of it, which took him not only to Adams' Massachusetts (where McCullough lives) and Jefferson's Virginia, but also to England, France and the Netherlands.

"I've never worked with better material," he says. "It wasn't just for one (person) or another, but plentiful all the way through."

The correspondence between John and Abigail Adams, in particular, was "extraordinary," and there were also countless letters to his children, including his son John Quincy, a future president himself. "There is no collection of family correspondence to equal that of Adams," says McCullough. "That was a joy ... that was an adventure."

John Adams posed for this painting when he was close to 89 years old  

What the letters -- and the book -- reveal is a very flawed, very human man. Adams was something of a know-it-all (the portrait of him in the musical "1776" isn't inaccurate) but he was a man aware of his vanity, and had a sense of humor about himself.

He also had some daring, although in a reserved, New England kind of way. McCullough writes particularly movingly of Adams' mission to France during the Revolutionary War. The trip took place in the heart of winter -- the worst time to sail the Atlantic, and with the English patrolling the high seas -- and the journey could have resulted in Adams' death. That he went says much about Adams' belief in public service.

Moreover, he was willing to be unpopular for his principles. As a lawyer, he defended the British soldiers who committed the Boston Massacre. His actions during the revolutionary period could have had him executed by the British as a traitor.

And Adams was a man of many friends, maintaining a staunch loyalty to them even when the favor wasn't returned.

"We can know a lot by (Adams') friends and his loyalty to them," says McCullough. "In the face of political disagreements and eccentricities, it's an inspiring example of how much friends can mean in life."

'These men are not perfect'

The book has received mostly warm reviews. McCullough admires his subject, obvious in his vigorous writing, and his research was extensive. But some reviewers have quibbled with the work, saying McCullough smoothed out some of Adams' rough edges. Others have taken issue with McCullough's descriptions of Adams' contemporaries, particularly Franklin and Jefferson.

McCullough brushes off the criticism. "Franklin was charming and gifted, but also wily," he says. "And Jefferson was admirable -- but he could also be elusive, and he was inclined to work behind the scenes.


"I think it's important to remember that these men are not perfect," he says. "If they were marble gods, what they did wouldn't be so admirable. The more we see the founders as humans the more we can understand them. Imagine starting out to create a country -- at the risk of their lives."

"John Adams" is McCullough's third presidential biography, after "Mornings on Horseback," about Teddy Roosevelt, and "Truman." He's also written books about the Brooklyn Bridge ("The Great Bridge") and the Panama Canal ("The Path between the Seas"). What attracts him, he says, are the people at the center of each work.

"All my books are about courage and what makes civilization," he says. "I'm interested in the creators" -- the Roeblings, the Brooklyn Bridge engineers who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to connect Manhattan and Brooklyn; Ferdinand de Lesseps, who cleaved Panama; and Adams, who helped create a country.

"A writer wants a good subject," says McCullough, "one where you don't have to resort to objectifying, because he tells you (about himself)."

Adams, he says, was such a subject. "He's a terrific story -- a great life journey," he says. "We can learn a lot from John Adams. I know I did."

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