John Adams…Chapter Nine

Cartoon depicting the XYZ Affair, where the French try to bribe American diplomats.

We’re making our way slowly through the rest of David McCullough’s John Adams for Unputdownables’ Read A Long. Probably everyone else is long done with the book by now, but I feel a need to make it to the finish line too!

“Beds of roses have never been his destiny”, wrote Abigail Adams not long after her husband John succeeded to the role of the 2nd President of the United States in March of 1797. For a man who had labored long and hard to bring about the break with England and the ensuing peace following the Revolution, it might have been the capstone to a great political career. But Abigail’s words would more than sum up the tumultuous years of the Adams presidency.

Adams wins the Presidency by only 3 votes over his former pal Jefferson. Unlike his unquestioned loyalty to Washington as President, Adams would find he could not count on this same loyalty from his own VP, whose support of France and the ongoing French revolution would cause turmoil in their professional relationship. Plus once again one of Jefferson’s personal letters where he bags on everyone in the government makes it into the newspaper. Does the guy ever learn?? Adams makes the stupid move of keeping on Washington’s original cabinet members, not realizing they are all in the crafty Hamilton’s pocket and will only support Adams’ measures if they are supported by Hamilton also. He arrives at the new White House, which sounds like a real dump, lacking furniture and housing drunk, unruly servants. Plus he is once again minus Abigail, who makes even the worst situations easier for Adams. He would later beg him to join her, pleading that he ‘cannot live without her’. (Awwww!).

If the craziness of party politics doesn’t take up enough room on Adams’ presidential plate (there was an episode in the House where Congressmen were spitting on each other and going after each other with fire tongs!) there’s the brewing situation with France. After three American diplomats were refused to be seen unless they paid bribes to the French government (the XYZ Affair), it looks like America has no choice but to go to war. Adams finally gets his way with getting the American Navy started, and just in time, too. Although Adams is averse to war of any kind, he realizes it may be a distinct possibility, and makes the politically sound move of putting the retired Gen. Washington in charge of the new army. Unfortunately, Washington decides to make the crafty Hamilton his second in command. As the country is buoyed by a wave of patriotism, Adams gets lucky when France decides they will work with one of the three diplomats, and the prospect of war is avoided. He doesn’t get lucky when he passes the Alien and Sedition Acts, one of the worst moves of his presidency, where in a fit of paranoia Adams made anyone ripping on him in public or in print a crime. Apparently someone forgot to inform Adams about that little thing called the First Amendment.

My thoughts on this chapter: Why does everyone run off and get married without telling their parents? Both Charles and John Quincy get married and tell their parents like two months later. My mom would have killed me if I did that.

I also thought it was interesting that Adams spent much of his presidency away from Washington up in Quincy, which in hindsight probably wasn’t a bad idea since the White House sounded like a real hole. He was criticized for this and many felt he would be permitting others to take over if he were not there to hold the reins of government, but I appreciate he stayed where he was happiest.


John Adams….Chapter Eight

Alexander Hamilton, the Backstabbing Founding Father

Yep. It happened. I got behind on Unputdownables’ John Adams Read-A-Long. It’s that crazy-ass time of year again (summer soccer season) where I barely have time to keep my legs shaved, much less keep up on reading. In defense of myself, these next few chapters were so long that I was distraught to find I had only read two chapters in the last three weeks. I was sure it was three or four. Now it taunts me from my bedside table, hanging over my head much like Thomas Jefferson’s unpaid bills.

Oh, well. We’ve got a lot to catch up on, so let’s get right to it!

The Adamses finally return home from their British sojourn, only to find out that now Adams is going to be elected Vice President. Later they find out he could have been the First Big Man himself, were it not for the scheming,  financial genius Alexander Hamilton, who we’ll discover in the next two chapters is always up to something no good behind the scenes. (How weird would it have been to plan a trip to Adams, D.C., instead of Washington, D.C.??) So Adams takes his lumps and gets elected to the Vice Presidency, which we discover is probably the worst job in the world for an opinionated, passionate, and outspoken guy like Adams, who doesn’t make any friends in his new position at first, since he can barely keep quiet during Senate sessions and wants to call the new President “His Majesty”. He eventually learns “his place” and is reduced to simply tapping his pencil case to keep order during Senate sessions, only voting when a tie needs to be broken. How interesting that the Vice Presidency was originally decided by who came in 2nd place in the voting, rather than the President and VP running together as a ticket. The impracticality of this plan will become more obvious once Adams is elected President and Jefferson is elected VP.

Political parties begin to ramp up after Washington’s election. Major jerk-off Hamilton leads the Federalists, who support a strong central government, and two-faced Thomas Jefferson leads the Republicans,  who believe the people should have a greater say in the government. Looks like the sliminess of politicians was an early development in our history! Americans begin to take sides, and the partison press begin to ramp up their attacks on the opposition. Not even Washington is safe. Jefferson turns on Adams, disparaging him both publicly in writing and behind closed doors and avoiding him as much as possible, and even Washington wants very little to do with his VP. I always assumed that the Founding Fathers all got along, but boy, was I wrong! Ben Franklin kicks the bucket in this chapter, and the country decides (thanks to a slimy backdoor deal involving….you guessed it, Hamilton….and a bottle of Jefferson’s best wine) to make its permanent capital on the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia, appeasing both northern and southern states.

Something that has amazed me from this book was how frequently everyone got sick. It seems like some epidemic was always sweeping the nation every ten pages. And it wasn’t just people getting sick here and there; it was wiping out entire families and towns. Abigail is on the brink of death at least twice. Every year Congress breaks up to flee the big cities thanks to yellow fever. How scary would that be? Thank God big outbreaks like that don’t happen anymore.

I was also impressed to see how John and Abigail always tried their best to live within their means. Although he held high offices and many of his friends were independently wealthy, the Adamses always tried to make ends meet without going into crazy debt like Jefferson did. Adams spent many months alone in Philadelphia in a boarding house so that they could save money by not having to rent a house, and later on when Abigail joined him, they would make do without a coterie of servants and live modestly in a smaller home. I made the mistake of thinking all of the Founding Fathers were rolling in money, and I was actually glad to see that one of them wasn’t. It made him more human.

Meanwhile, the French Revolution has crowned heads rolling off the guillotine, and political parties are more divisive than ever back here at home over the issue. Jefferson strongly supported the revolution, feeling that America had done much the same (without the guillotine, of course) during our own break with Britain. Keeping his eyes on France (and apparently not on his bank balance), he decides to level Monticello and build an even more grand estate.

Although Washington is talked into a second term, which he serves reluctantly, he will not run again for a third, and Adams’ name is on the ballot to replace him in 1798. Will he win, or will Hamilton’s scheming once again prevent him from his highest goal?

John Adams…Chapter Seven

King George III of England

Chapter Seven of David McCullough’s John Adams has the Adams family on the road to London. John Adams has been elected to be the first American minister to England after winning the Revolution. The Brits don’t know what to make of the boisterous little Adams and his family, so they give him the cold shoulder and stare. Abigail’s letter describing the awkwardness of the Queen’s Circle (where the Adamses stand around for four hours just to get to small talk with royalty) was hilarious. I would so have been out of there after about 15 minutes. And worse…it sounds like they had to do this more than once, AND the king asked the same questions every time. How fast would that have gotten old??

Luckily, Jefferson pays many visits to the lonely Adamses, and asks them to look after his small daughter Polly, who will be arriving from Virginia. Understandably, Polly’s not real keen on adults, after being tricked by her aunt and cousins onto the ship in Virginia and hardly knowing her father, who has been noticeably absent since her mother’s death. Upon arriving in London, Polly and Abigail bond immediately, but are together just long enough for Jefferson to send a slave (and complete stranger) to bring Polly to France. I was so horrified by this. I was also horrified that parents didn’t seem to have a problem sending their children on long ocean voyages alone. Charles and John Quincy traveled alone by boat too. They apparently had a lot of faith in ship captains. In other Adams family news, Nabby gets married in this chapter, and now both John Quincy and Charles are now at Harvard.

Unfortunately, Adams and Jefferson are unable to overcome the political frosty-freeze of the British and aren’t able to come to any agreements about such important issues as whether or not the Loyalists should be compensated for their lost property and if the Americans should keep their fishing rights. Adams is able to strike a deal with the Barbary Pirates, whose specialty is capturing ships at sea and confiscating property, in the time-honored way of bribing them not to do it.  Jefferson and Adams decide to take a ‘guys’ getaway’ and rather than hitting some 18th century bars and strip clubs, go look at…..gardens…and soil….and crops. Oh, and get their portraits painted. Huh. The fun standard has definitely changed since those times! I loved the visual of Jefferson kissing the ground in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-on-Avon. By the end of the chapter, Jefferson is messing around with some married women, and quite possibly messing around with the famous Sally Hemings, who arrived with Polly earlier. The Adamses decide to head home to America once they realize they are at a standstill with the British.

Looks like the new nation is all set for its first Presidential election in the next chapter. At least they didn’t have to deal with all the political commercials like we do!

John Adams….Chapter Six

Thomas Jefferson

We’re rockin’ and rollin’ through David McCullough’s John Adams over at Unputdownables. It’s not too late to get on board and join up. You’re missing a great read if you are a nonfiction book lover.

Chapter Six sees the death of Abigail’s beloved father, which is the last remaining reason she has stayed behind in America during her husband’s European stint. Oh yeah, and she hates boats and water, so that hasn’t helped either. But  Abigail’s longing for her husband and an unpopular suitor seeking daughter Nabby’s hand finally motivate Abigail to make the move.  She leaves her two young sons in the care of her sister and her house in the care of former slaves, and the two women thus embark on what sounds like one of the worst ocean crossings in history. Happily both make it to Britain safely and the family is reunited at last in Holland, only to discover that John has been named envoy to France.

Abigail has much the same reaction to Paris and its extravagances as her husband. Not understanding the language, she struggles to communicate and figure out Parisian customs. She and John struggle to make ends meet financially, since financial “extravagance is taken as the measure of one’s importance”. Suddenly they have to pay for such frivolities as personal hairdressers and extra servants, since those she has would rather die than do more than their particular job assignment requires. Like John was at first, Abigail is horrified by the decadence of Paris society (her anecdote of Benjamin Franklin’s society friend Madame Helvetius wiping up dog pee with her dress is hilarious), but grows to love the theater and her small circle of Parisian friends, which include the wife of the American hero Lafayette and interestingly, Thomas Jefferson, who is also in residence in Paris with his daughter Martha, better known as “Patsy”. Soon enough, the family is on the move again to England, where Adams has been named the  first American minister to the British Court, while Jefferson is to stay in Paris as the French minister.

Like he did so artfully with Franklin, McCullough shows us the man behind the man with Jefferson. Devastated after the death of his beloved wife Martha, Jefferson roams the countryside, venting his grief  in quiet places, and accepts the assignment to France to escape his pain. The famous man responsible for writing the Declaration of Independence and our third president also frivolously spent money far beyond his means and was deep in debt all during his life, to the point where Adams had to secure loans for him to stay afloat. He lived like an independently wealthy man, yet McCullough notes that the income from Jefferson’s inherited lands (probably slave-generated) was never enough to make ends meet. The man who infamously became involved with one of his slaves wrote vehemently against the institution of slavery in his famous Notes on the State of Virginia. Even more interesting was that Jefferson wrote scathingly of Adams when first acquainted with him, but changed his tune dramatically after the year the Jeffersons and Adams’ families spent together in Paris.

It will be interesting to see how the British take to the new American minister in the next chapter.

John Adams….Chapter Five

The evil Comte de Vergennes, French diplomat and backstabber extraordinaire

Nothing’s going well for John Adams in this week’s installment of David McCullough’s John Adams, which I am reading along with the gang over at Unputdownables.

 I believe this chapter should be renamed Chapter Five: John Adams vs the World. Adams falls on some pretty hard times in this chapter. England hates him (he’s a traitor, remember?); France’s Comte de Vergennes and former pal Ben Franklin are out to ruin his career and/or reputation (whichever comes first), the Dutch are going out of their way to snub him, and poor Abigail is about fed up because she’s received maybe two letters in the past year. John Quincy takes off to Russia and leaves him alone with Charles. Even John Adams sounds like he’s a little sick of John Adams. Plus he gets malaria and almost dies. It’s a pretty bleak outlook overall.

Happily, and miraculously, it only takes Cornwallis surrendering his troops to Washington at Yorktown to transform Adams from Zero to Hero. Suddenly everyone wants a piece of him. The Dutch are putting his picture on everything they can get their hands on; he is the “Washington of Negotiation”. Where pockets (and doors) were firmly closed against him in Amsterdam before, now he’s the toast of the town and they can’t give him enough money for the fledgling US of A. Even Comte Vergennes breaks down and invites him to dinner with the Madame la Comte (what a party it must be being married to THAT guy!) Finally, the peace treaty is signed by one and all at Paris, and Adams and all his friends can breathe a sigh of relief that they’re no longer in line for the noose. That won’t last long, though. Now everyone is waiting with bated breath (and some disbelief) to see if the new country will make it. The odds are definitely against them. One thing is for sure, though…Adams promises Abigail he’s done doing the long-distance relationship thing. I’m glad. They are so cute together!

John Adams…Chapter Four

Abigail Adams

Chapter Four of John Adams takes us with Adams and his son John Quincy on a transatlantic trip to France. Adams has been appointed along with Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee to negotiate an alliance with France. The fledgling country needs France’s naval support to defeat the British. Knowing hardly any French, having no diplomatic skills, no experience with royalty, and never having crossed the Atlantic before in the middle of winter, Adams faces tough challenges. The sea voyage to France alone is filled with hazard. Bad weather, battles at sea, and lightning strikes are only a few of the highlights of the trip. Just another reason why cruises and boats in general have no appeal for me whatsoever. 🙂

Once in France, Adams struggles to learn the language, and is not only by turns bewildered and enchanted by the French and their penchant for luxury, but is also negatively enlightened as to the true character of his fellow representative, the eminent Benjamin Franklin. Having worked with Franklin during the Continental Congress days and to some extent while putting together the Declaration of Independence, Adams discovers another, less respectable side to “the good doctor”. Dallying with the ladies, sleeping late, spending too much money and generally neglecting his diplomatic duties in favor of society are only some of the indiscretions. Plus Adams finds himself in the midst of the uncomfortable conflict between Franklin and Lee. This leaves Adams as the only one doing the real work of the commission, lonely for his wife, children and farm, surrounded by spies and people he cannot trust, and feeling unappreciated by his Congressional cohorts back home. Adams finally gets the chance to return home to Abigail, but only after the Congress decides to make Franklin their French minister and send no instructions for what Adams is to do. Once home within the warm confines of family life, Adams takes on the challenge of writing the state constitution for Massachusetts, which is according to McCullough the oldest functioning constitution in the world. Go Adams!

What I felt was most interesting about this chapter were the letters that the Adams parents wrote to their children. Their letters were so formal, yet full of good advice, hopes and dreams for their future, and praise. The formality of the language of that time period in general is so amazingly different from how we communicate with our children these days. I’ll compare a sentence that Abigail Adams sent to her son Charles: “Great necessities call out great virtues”, to a sentence I texted my daughter last week: “Hope u had a gr8 day bby”. Has society really been dumbed down that much? Or have we become more relaxed in our relations with our children? What was more remarkable to me is that the portion of Abigail’s letter to Charles that McCullough included at the end of Chapter Four was to a 9 year old child. I’m not sure my daughter would have known the definition of half of the words in that snippet of letter at age 9.

We picture the famous folks of this era as something super-human, espousing all of the virtues that many claim no longer exist in our times, such as fidelity, integrity, and strength. I pictured Abigail bravely withstanding her husband’s absence with nary a complaint, but was surprised to read the voluminous correspondence she sent both to Adams and family and friends at this time bemoaning her situation and almost…..well, whining.  I can understand how alone she must have felt, without her husband and oldest son to protect her in a war-torn country, with bare necessities hard to come by, and little or no income since Adams was no longer practicing as an attorney.  It does not sound like girls were prepared in their pre-marriage lives for the possibility of trying to raise a family and keep hearth and home intact without a husband around, although I am sure it happened more frequently during the Revolution when men died in battle. And it was understandable that she would warm to the indiscreet Lowell’s flirtatious and flattering letters, even if she remained true to her husband in heart and soul. I wonder what Adams would have done had he known about the letters!

The next chapter has Adams heading back to France, once again sans Abigail, but this time with John Quincy and younger brother Charles. Soon the whole family will be speaking French!

John Adams….Chapter Three

Admiral Lord Howe, the British officer who met with Adams, Franklin and Rutledge in 1776.

In this week’s installment of David McCullough’s historical epic, John Adams, we go behind the scenes at the Continental Congress to witness the overworked, totally stressed out delegates as they continue to pound out the legislation that will form the backbone of our country. What was so interesting to me is how McCullough really takes you into the hearts and minds of the congressmen. I had labored all of these years under the impression that the Founding Fathers must have had a blast, being able to work with the blank canvas that was our country and make all the decisions that would affect their countrymen for centuries to come. McCullough shows us how the work was really anything BUT a blast. Not only did our new country have no money, no international recognition, and a ragtag army, but all of the brave men working so hard at ensuring our independence had everything to lose if things didn’t work out.  Signing such a traitorous document as the Declaration of Independence was basically signing a death warrant for all of the congressmen. As McCullough points out, John Adams himself was on George III’s list of rebels to hang. The exhaustion that many delegates such as Adams, Jefferson and Dickinson suffered is completely understandable, since they worked long hours without a break away from their families.

My daughter watched a bit of the HBO series John Adams with me a couple of weeks ago. What was most enlightening (and gross) for her was seeing how people in the eighteenth century were inoculated for infectious disease. Avery has never been a big fan of needles, but after watching the doctors of that era scrape some pus out of open smallpox sores and then cut open the arm of the person to be inoculated and put some of the pus into the arm, she informed me she’d take the needle over that anytime. This procedure was actually revolutionary at the time, and sometimes resulted in severe illness or death, but after reading about smallpox itself, seems like a much better option (and usually a milder form of the disease) than contracting the disease in the ordinary way. I could understand Adams’ concern for his family, as he was so far away from them during that worrisome time where anything could have happened.

I was most struck by Adams’ (and Benjamin Franklin’s) bravery and integrity when they met with Lord Howe, reminding me of David meeting Goliath. It must have taken some serious cajones to sit face to face with one of the most powerful British officers and basically tell him “thanks, but no thanks” to his pleas to reverse the step towards independence.  I love how Adams told Howe he’d rather be considered anything but a British subject. WOW. From that point, there was really no turning back.

Was anyone else glad that Adams finally broke down and headed home to Abigail?

Looking forward to see what happens next, now that the irreversible leap to independence has been taken.