John Adams, by David McCullough

Immediately, one is in the hands of a master biographer. This 2001 work begins with Adams headed for Philadelphia, where he will participate in writing the Declaration of Independence. En media res, so to speak. Then we ease back into a brief coverage of his youth and courtship of Abigail. The honesty of the biography emerges from their mutual portrait. That they are each intelligent, honest-speaking, responsible, and plain-looking. They are also dedicated to their four grown children, including the oldest, John Quincy, but the children are increasingly her responsibility. Because he is off on official business to Philadelphia, and then to France and Holland.

Indeed, their relationship deepens with the letters they write to one another, letters that become the foundation of this biography. One speculates how the intimacy of their portraits made possibly by these letters is to be lost to biographers of today’s subjects—who write few letters, and whose personal digital writing tend to be much more brief.

Reunited with Abigail after the Declaration was agreed to, Adams is shortly sent to France to negotiate an alliance with that country, which is later changed to negotiating a commercial treaty with England. McCullough emphasizes the long separations of those days by describing the harrowing ocean voyage, surviving both storms and engagements with enemy warships.

What is fascinating about the early foreign negotiations is, first, the antipathy Adams develops toward an elderly Benjamin Franklin, who seems to shirk his duties by contributing little and agreeing with the French more than with his American partners. And, second, the French work to protect their own commercial interests at the expense of the Americans. They even spread false reports about Adams and complain about his ineffectiveness. Which is interesting, given how France helped the American Revolution.

As a result, Adams is moved to Holland to explore a commercial treaty there, as well as a loan for the young United States. And, going against orders from home and the strategy of the French, he succeeds. Moreover, his efforts are recognized by Congress, and he is sent to Paris to join the negotiations for the final peace treaty with England. There, Franklin now sees things as Adams does, and, along with Jay, they get the peace agreement done.

Adams and Franklin are then joined in Paris by Thomas Jefferson. They are there to establish commercial treaties with the rest of Europe, but nothing really happens. Instead, the Adams and Jefferson families establish a close relationship. The men agree on most things, even if their personalities are quite different, while son John Quincy and wife Abigail are really taken with the intelligent and cultured Jefferson. Again, interesting, since, the men will become rivals later.

Adams next step is as ambassador to England, and he insists that Abigail join him. There, everyone is personally courteous, including the king; but the press, the public, and government officials make life hard for both the ambassador and his family. Unable to make progress on the peace treaty agreement, Adams resigns and returns to Boston, where he receives a hero’s welcome. He has been in Europe for ten years, and his achievements include getting the French navy to help the Revolution, culminating at Yorktown; attaining U.S. recognition and a key loan from Holland; and writing the peace treaty agreement. He also became warm friends with Jefferson, although at the end this seems to turn into respect more than friendship.

Back in the U.S., with no plans, Adams is chosen to be Washington’s vice-president. He is the logical choice as a Northerner to balance Washington as a Southerner. He also was writing then about the importance of a balanced government, of equality among the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Whereas, Jefferson favored a democracy in which the majority ruled. Thus, Jefferson initially supported the revolution in the France of 1789, while Adams was concerned about the violence of the mob and the destructions of its institutions. This was to be the beginning of their separation in politics, and of increasing political attacks on Adams.

While Adams’ role as vice-president is uneventful, interest lies in his disagreements with Jefferson (who cites Adams’ “heresies”), in Jefferson’s disputes with Hamilton (now the hero of a Broadway hit, but whom Abigail Adams labels as an underhanded Cassius), and the Republicans’ (Jefferson’s party) criticism of Washington. The latter are happy when Washington’s second term is over, and favor Jefferson to succeed him. But the electoral college gives Adams three more votes than Jefferson, who becomes his vice-president under the system of that era. Interestingly, Jefferson then writes a very friendly letter congratulating Adams, but forwards it first to his Republican colleague James Madison, who tells Jefferson that to send it would be a political mistake. And the letter, which McCullough says “could have been one of the most important letters he [Adams] ever received,” is never sent.

Adams’ time as president is dominated by the country’s relationship with France, which refuses to receive a U.S. peace delegation after the U.S. declared neutrality in France’s war with England. The Republicans and Jefferson were identifying with France because of its revolution, and saying that the Federalists and Adams espousal of neutrality was to turn their back on France. Except, this was complicated by the High Federalists and Hamilton, who want to declare war on France, and said Adams was weak for not doing so. This detail reflects how close we were to waging war in 1800 against France, which I was not aware of, and which, if it had happened, would likely have made Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase impossible.

Thus, Adams has two camps working against him, and this includes his own Federalist cabinet that he has retained from Washington’s administration. Battered on all sides, his popularity collapses. But, suddenly, there is a revelation: that Talleyrand had earlier demanded a bribe for France to enter into peace negotiations. Whereupon, Adams sends a new delegation and demands the French prove their sincerity; and his popularity revives when France then does welcome the delegation and does reach an agreement.

But it is too late to affect the election. For, at the last moment, Hamilton, who has his own ambitions, writes a scurrilous pamphlet against Adams that turns many Federalists against the president. (One wonders if this intrigue is in the Hamilton musical now on Broadway.) The result is that the electoral college gives Jefferson and Burr 73 votes each, and Adams 65—although McCullough notes that a change of 250 votes in New York State, where Burr was based, would have given Adams the election.

McCullough sums up: “In the last analysis, it was not Jefferson or the ‘dexterous’ Burr who defeated Adams [his second term] so much as the Federalist war faction and the rampaging Hamilton. And none of this would have happened but for Adams’ decision to send the second peace mission to France. It was his determination to find peace and check Hamilton that cost him the full support of the party and thus the election.”

At this time also, the U.S. capital is moved to the banks of the Potomac. Originally, New York, where the first inauguration took place; Philadelphia, where the Declaration and Constitution were written; and the Potomac area, where Southerners wanted the capital—all sought to house the seat of the federal government. The compromise reached placed the capital in Philadelphia for ten years, Washington’s and Adam’s years, while a brand new city was being built on the Potomac.

McCullough sums up the Adams presidency: “To his everlasting credit, at the risk of his career, reputation, and his hold on the presidency, he chose not to go to war [against France] when that would have been highly popular and politically advantageous in the short run. As a result, the country was spared what would almost certainly have been a disastrous mistake.”

He also cites how even if Adams endured malicious attacks, personal disloyalty, the loss of his mother, the near death of his wife, the death of a son, and his own physical ailments, “his [Adams] bedrock integrity, his spirit of independence, his devotion to country, his marriage, his humor, and a great underlying love of life were all still very much intact.”

I have been impressed but was not moved emotionally by this fine biography, until the next-to-last chapter. In a casual moment, Adams tells a friend of Jefferson that he still loves Jefferson. Adams’ friend Dr. Benjamin Rush tells Adams that Jefferson has reacted positively to this news, and an exchange of letters begins. Thus, these two old friends from the past who have been separated by their politics, and often nasty politics, reconnect. They begin writing long letters to each other, discussing a variety of political, philosophical, and personal subjects. I reacted to this because a revived communication between two people always moves me, whether in fiction or in history. Indeed, it is why I myself write, in order to communicate.

The final chapter is also moving, but for a different reason. Here is where the vigorous Adams sees some in his family struggling to survive, and his colleagues dying. Except not his son John Quincy Adams, who becomes Secretary of State and then the nation’s sixth president. And not Thomas Jefferson, with whom he continues to exchange letters about their political life, for which they forgive each other, as well as about literature and other matters.

And then the bodies of these two patriots begin to fail. The fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence is approaching, and both are asked to attend celebrations marking that day. But they are infirm, and cannot. And McCullough realizes he need not embellish these final days. Because the events speak for themselves. It is not the author who makes this moment so moving, but the lives of these two men who have meant so much to their country. And the breath of Divine Providence also seems to be behind their joint death on July 4, 1826. Jefferson died around one in the afternoon, and Adams at about six, whispering mistakenly near the end, “Thomas Jefferson survives.”

The humanity of Adams shines through a letter he wrote to his granddaughter Caroline: “The longer I live, the more I read, the more patiently I think, and the more anxiously I inquire, the less I seem to know….Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. This is enough.” He also wrote of his faith: “He who loves the Workman and his work, and does what he can to preserve and improve it, shall be accepted of Him.”

This is a triumphant biography. It captures Adams relationship with his family, the national and international politics of his era, and his key relationship with Thomas Jefferson. The expanse of this biography, the interrelationship of all these historic figures and all these interlocking events, follows from the tremendous organization ability of David McCullough, and surely of his team of colleagues who likely fed him the information he needed. And the depth of this biography comes from the letters the Adams family left, particularly those between John and Abigail but also those of their children and grandchildren. And, fortunately, these family figures were frank in their letters; they were not writing for historians, or for posterity.

This biography works because it is about the times as much as it is about Adams—that is, until the final two chapters. Because Adams was so much a part of those times. It might also be termed a corrective biography, because it makes Adams equally as important as Jefferson. And makes Adams’ character superior to Jefferson’s. (McCullough originally was going to write a dual biography, until he realized the significance of Adams’ own life.) Regarding Hamilton, this work reflects his political maneuvering, regarding them negatively, as Adams did, but not his political beliefs or his contribution to the country. While Washington remains a quiet cipher.

This work should be required reading for all those who wish to learn more about the first forty years of this nation. It is not the only story to tell, but it is an important and fascinating one. Because Adams is an important and fascinating figure. (December, 2015)

The Official Warren Commission Report

As the 50th anniversary of the assassination approaches, I realize that this series of reviews does not reflect my comments after reading The Warren Commission Report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Here is an edited summary of what I wrote back in 1965 while reading the report, and then my conclusions.

 I find the chapter on the gunshots to be inconclusive. The point of entry is variously described, especially regarding the possible trajectory and the alignment of Kennedy’s back and throat with Connally’s body. The report also does not analyze the Zapruder film frame by frame, and match up the time Oswald would have taken to fire three shots.

   The report does suggest, as Edward Jay Epstein says in his book, that the film’s frames are really picked to make a point, not to refer to all possibilities. Just as the trajectory shown in one frame is fudged in its description, when such a trajectory appears to be impossible, so the tracing of the missed shot (1st, 2nd, or 3rd) is also indefinite and unsatisfying. The time between shots is not defined with any precision, either, ranging from 4.8 to in excess of 7.8 seconds.

   The report does show that the shots were probably fired from The Texas School Book Depository and that three shots were fired (shells found and witnesses), but it doesn’t explain how the one shot could hit two men, or how two shots could wound two men so quickly in the given time required by that rifle.

   The chapter on Oswald is more conclusive. It establishes Oswald as the owner of the rifle found in the Depository. It is not conclusive in proving Oswald fired the actual shots, but it does show how he brought the rifle into the building, and that his actions after the assassination were those of a man guilty of something. Proof that he shot policeman Tippet is stronger, however. And evidence that Oswald shot at General Walker is stronger than I thought.

   Regarding the rifle, Oswald did practice working the bolt, which the experts did not, so it is plausible that he fired the shots as the commission describes. Over all, the presented facts indicate that Oswald’s actions both before and after the shooting were those of a guilty man, not those of a victimized person or of a fall-guy.

   The chapter on the press is very interesting, as it shows how it took over the Dallas police station, how security was all but impossible for Oswald’s transfer, and how the police cooperated with the press. All was confusion in the basement at the moment of Oswald’s transfer. However, Ruby’s route is not traced exactly, and the question of his being aided is not clear either way.

   The chapter on a possible conspiracy offers strong arguments why Oswald was not involved in one. It is primarily based not on any evidence but on Oswald’s character. He did not get along with anyone. He had delusions of grandeur. He was just not the type of person you would ask to join you in any conspiracy. Nor was he the type of person the Soviets would want to use, and if they did they would never have sent him back with a Russian wife. Also people in the embassy felt that he was acting out what he thought and felt, not following a pre-written script.

   Oswald’s character suggests he was ready to commit a violent act, without regard to personal consequences, when he felt he was boxed in. Examples are an attempted suicide when the Soviets would not let him stay, the fair-play-for-Cuba activities, and the shooting at General Walker. The suggestion is that his inability to get to Cuba in October is what put him in the mood for the assassination.

   Ruby’s activities from November 21 to 24 are covered in the report, and nearly eliminate any opportunity he had to be involved in a conspiracy. His distraught, sentimental state was observed by too many not to be true. And his wanting to be in a big event is also in keeping with his character. Strangely convincing is the suggestion that he shot Oswald so Jacqueline Kennedy would not have to return to Dallas for Oswald’s trial.

   The chapter on Oswald’s background says the key to his character was the lack of love he had from his mother, with the result that he retreated from the world, into himself, and there was a compensating build-up of his own vanity when the world paid no attention to him. Life for him was a series of escapes, from his mother, from the U.S., from Russia, from love, from responsibility, from society, and from mediocrity and anonymity.

   Oswald’s relationship to his wife is never explored. The report covers what Oswald said and did, not what she said and did, nor how they interacted. And whether or not their getting together in the final week of their estrangement might have changed his plans is not sufficiently explored. Interesting is the commission’s view that the mood in Dallas did not motivate or influence Oswald. But I’m not convinced by its cursory treatment.

  The appendices reflect the lack of organization or precise thinking in the report. They are indeed almost as long as the report itself, as they work either to demonstrate why the evidence in the report is accurate, or to show that the investigation was complete.

   Yet one does not get a sense of completeness in reading these appendices, especially in the speculation and rumor appendix, where the Commission’s conclusions are stated very arbitrarily.

   All in all, these appendices should have been part of the main report. That they were not reflects its poor organization. And this is the result of the staff having to break down the various categories of the crime ahead of time, according to what they think the investigation will reveal, because of the limited time available. The tail thus wagged the dog, the truth; and this lends evidence to Epstein’s point that the Commission reported the subjective truth of what the country needed to know, rather than the objective truth of what really happened.

 Conclusion. One comes away with this report feeling that it probably hits close to the truth, that it is perhaps 75% accurate That probably Oswald acted alone, that probably the same shot hit Kennedy and Connelly. That probably Ruby acted alone, and his entry into the police station was unaided.

   But this is merely a set of probables. In part, this is because of the Commission itself and the arbitrary way it has presented its facts: that it divides up the book into subject areas, and uses the facts in those areas to draw its conclusion that Oswald was guilty. Its own hedging of its conclusions I interpret to be a result of skilled lawyers playing it safe (in case there are future developments), as much as an admission that one cannot be positively certain from the facts given.

   But, after all, one is asked in court only to prove within a reasonable doubt, even when there are many witnesses, as here. So many witnesses, so much news media, so many government officials, in fact, make it inevitable that there are contradictions in various areas, from the number of shots, to the various hospital and autopsy reports, to Ruby’s entry into the police station basement. (The disappearance of the Bible used in the swearing in ceremony on the plane shows the confusion that reigned everywhere.)

   With all this, however, the Commission should have done better. It should not have been under the pressure of time. Indeed, the loose ends and lack of follow-up appear to substantiate Epstein’s case. This means that while this is so far the major source of information about the Kennedy assassination, it is not the definitive source it might have been. (January, 1965)


One should also note the Historical Afterward by Bruce Catton that was published with the report. Here are excerpts:

 The exact and complete truth about any tragic historic event is impossible to get. We can never know precisely how and why certain things happened. The best we can do, usually, is to work out a rough approximation—to say, somewhere within these boundaries lies a truth that we shall never really see; somehow, out of all of these facts, this result emerged. Even the most painstaking history is a bridge across an eternal mystery….

   …In the case of President Kennedy we have the hard facts but we do not quite know what they really mean. How far was Lee Oswald like John Wilkes Booth? Did his haunted mind, like Booth’s, somehow respond to the hatreds and terrors that boiled up all around him?…Was this act part of 1963 in the sense that Booth’s was part of 1865, or was it simply an irrational explosion that might have happened to any President at any time and in any place? The Warren commission could find no trace of a plot that used Oswald as trigger man. It saw no evidence of a conspiracy of either the right or the left. It established that truth, which cuts the ground out from under the myth-makers but which also leaves us confronting a riddle. What did this really mean?

   The question will bother us for a long time to come because it involves the intangibles that lie beyond the reach of any commission. We know that John F. Kennedy was President at a time when many diverse hatreds were being aroused, hatreds born of hot war and cold war and the agonizing difficulty of adjusting a complex society to a time of incomprehensible changes; we know that he devoted himself as President to the task of quelling those hatreds and facing the future with hope and without terror; and we know that in the midst of all this he was shot to death. There our knowledge ends. In Lincoln’s case we can see that an era of irrational fury led inescapably to an irrational act of hatred. In Kennedy’s case we do not know.

   Perhaps we shall never know….


Updated commentary.

I have long accepted the determination of the Warren Commission, despite the popularity of books which challenged its conclusions. I was once even offered the opportunity to write a contrary work, but I never agreed with that view. I still believe Oswald acted alone, despite the intriguing speculation that behind the crime were such people as Fidel Castro, Joe Kennedy, the Russians, Marina Oswald, Lyndon Johnson, Mafia chieftans, and various sections of the U.S. government.

   I have long accepted the single-bullet theory (both Kennedy and Johnson were hit by the same bullet) and the explanation of why Kennedy’s head went backward when shot from behind (meaning there was no second gunman on the grassy knoll). Both these factors were explained, incidentally, in that PBS documentary I have referred to.

   More interesting to me are the literary efforts that treat of the assassination. For they enable me to return to a moment I will never forget, a moment that I need to rise above. In their way, they give a meaning to that horrible deed, although they explore a profounder meaning than the one that historian Bruce Catton cited.

   These novels range from commercial work to serious work. Four that I have read are:

   Winter Kills (1974), by Richard Condon. “This is strictly a commercial work, written with no style and grace. And yet it is enthralling. As the JFK assassination will always be. As the sense of powerlessness in a threatening world always will be for me….[But] there is no probing of ethical, political, psychological issues. And an opportunity to do so is missed, for there could be a conclusion in which the hero, for whatever reason, could not reveal the truth, and this is why America still does not know for sure what happened to JFK.”

   Libra (1988), by Don DeLillo. “The strengths of this book emphasize its weaknesses. In this fascinating story of conspiracy, the CIA plots to turn American public opinion against Castro by creating a failed assassination of JFK by the Cubans….This book would have been much more powerful if the character of Oswald as victim had been presented more strongly….Isn’t this where a serious novelist should probe, not just into the details of the conspiracy?”

   Flying into Love (1992), by D. M. Thomas. “This is a marvelous, imaginative novel. It is not what I expected it to be, however. For Thomas explores the actions and the thoughts of the actual people who were part of that tragic day….His framework is that the assassination is a conspiracy, not the act of a lone gunmen….The great conceit of this novel, and it is a magnificent one, is its description of a Kennedy visit to Dallas that never happened. For in this version there is no assassination. And this marvelous counterpoint works, for in 1963 many of us could not accept the fact of the assassination. So Thomas creates an alternate world of denial, a world we are comfortable with, the only world, indeed, we wish to accept.”

   11/22/63 (2011), by Stephen King. This is another brilliant, and imaginative, novel from King. No critic will dare to call it literature, but I would suggest that this work will survive as long as the Kennedy magic survives. Or perhaps longer. For this novel is King’s salute to Jack Finney’s Time and Again, the classic of time-travel novels….The two books are similar because both heroes travel into the past, both seek to negate an event that occurred in the past, both fall in love with a woman living in that past, and both are tempted to remain in that past.”

   If I prefer the King and the Thomas novels. I wonder if it is partly because both explore the possibility of the assassination not happening. That is, such an assumption reflects both an extra step in their imagination, and wishful thinking by all readers who were alive back then. (November, 2013)