Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Books: John Adams Take II
Ah, I finished my book. I realized I left the author out of the first post, so just in case you want to know, it's John Adams by David McCullough.
I have a confession, first off.
I'm a history buff, but I usually find American history to be short and boring. *holds up hands* I *know*, I *know*, but in comparison to the rest of the world, where their history can be traced back twice as long as ours, sometimes far, far more, we're a blink! So, while I'm passing familiar with American history, I can't recall esoteric details, like I can with some eras and countries that have struck my particular fancy.
I picked up this book and another by Mr. McCullough, 1776, in a book buying frenzy several years back, and never got around to reading either one.
This book was absolutely *fascinating*. I really got into it, so that I actually finished the second half of the book (about 350 pages) this past weekend, because I couldn't put it down. It's not just the historical events that are taking place - the American Revolution, the birth of America, the French Revolution, and on, but the people that are highlighted. I came away from this book feeling like it was the lives of people set against a background of history, as opposed to the historic events over riding the lives of the people. And that's really how it should be, because history is not some monolithic *thing*, but the story of lives. People caught up together, whether they want to be or not, changing the course of the world.
Some points I really enjoyed:
I got a real sense of the relationship between John and Abigail Adams. They were, though I hate to use the cliche, soul mates. I don't think that either one of them would have worked as well without the other.
And Abigail came across as an incredibly strong and independent woman. I'd love to know more about her on her own. You have to know that during the Revolution, John Adams was sent to France to aide in negotiations for support from a reluctant government there. Abigail was left with their young children, alone on a farm in the middle of a war. And she ran that farm efficiently and well. She kept them all together, and never complained. There was one incident where someone wrote a letter that insulted Adams, and Abigail wrote back, very, very politely telling the other party off. Abigail Adams was *strong*. I cannot emphasize this enough.
This isn't a white washed version of history. While I can see that McCullough has an affection for Adams, or at least it really seems like he does, he doesn't gloss over the man's faults. Adams was proud, vain, and had a heck of a temper. 'Apoplectic' is used quite a lot to describe him. He believed that he knew more than a great deal of the people around him (and to be fair, much of the time he did...), but he was *aware* of these faults, and sought to counteract them as much as one is capable.
We get a view of the infighting and back stabbing and, well, politicking that existed, even back in the 'golden' days of our new republic. I know plenty of people who harken back to the days of the Founding Fathers and the honor and morals of the day, and how we should strive to get back to that point, and that's all well and good, but it's a 'grass is greener' view of the world. There was corruption even then. Members of the government had affairs, were blackmailed, resigned to avoid a scandal, were bribed - all of that in that first generation. They once had a *fight* on the Senate floor with a cane and fire tongs! Our government broke down, almost immediately, into parties: Federalists and Republicans (not the Republican party we have today by any means...). What's the line from Battlestar Galactica? 'All of this has happened before and will happen again.' There's nothing new under the sun. *Especially* not in politics.
Thomas Jefferson: His friendship with Adams was rocky. I don't know how anyone can call it anything else. Jefferson seems to have been all about himself, and his image. The man spent like it was going out of style! When he died they had to sell all of his things to try and pay back his debts.
The contrast I find most interesting between Jefferson and Adams is their view of the French. Adams liked the French. He liked many things about them. But he did not want to be so entwined with the French that they owned our infant country. Jefferson was enamored with the French. They could do no wrong, in his eyes. He *adored* the French Revolution, no matter how bloody it got, and even told off a French friend of his that had lost family to the Revolution, telling him that he was too emotional about it and to never bring it up to Jefferson again.
I'll be honest and say that by the end of the book, while I didn't exactly dislike Jefferson, I liked him far less than I liked Adams.
I mean, this quote from Jefferson really stuck with me: "God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. ...And what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure." I come away with the impression of a man who loved war and bloodshed. And I look at it, and I think of what they'd *just* lived through, what they were watching in France, and I wonder how anyone could be so eager for *more* death and destruction.
On the eerie side of things, Jefferson and Adams, who had renewed their friendship in their twilight years, after a good silence caused by Jefferson taking pot shots at Adams' politics, died on the same day: July 4, 1826. *makes eerie Twilight Zone sounds*
Also, Adams was responsible for the formation of the U.S. Navy, in large part. It was a part of his drive for America to be able to defend herself against the French and the British and the pirates out there. Jefferson, and others, didn't see the need for a Navy, but Adams knew that without some form of defense, America was doomed to fall.
Right. So. Much, much love for this book, and now I want to see the HBO miniseries that was based off of it.
My new non-fiction book is The Theology of the Body, so that should be interesting.