Drums, by James Boyd

As one begins this 1925 novel, one immediately becomes immersed in the world of the 1770s, just before the American Revolution. And one also becomes exposed to that world of more traditional literature that reigned until the 1920s. It was usually a world of rich description and little forward movement. Far different from what is soon to evolve, in which human beings drive the action, in which the story must move on.

Here, the initial effort is to create the world of rural North Carolina in the months before the Revolution. What concerns the people of that era? What are their lives like? What are their homes like, their fields, their clothes, their food? So much detail has been researched by this author to enable him to recreate that world of 150 years earlier. So much that it is clear the author wants his readers to experience that world—before he wants them to identify with his main character, the teenager Johnny Fraser, an insecure boy who respects his father and mother and is unaware as yet of the challengers of the adult world beyond the limits of the family farm.

But soon the novel will introduce both him and the reader to that adult world, beginning with rural North Carolina where the British administer that colony but where some of the local people are unhappy with the new taxes and their own lack of political control. And where tension rises as word reaches them about a rebellion in the North.

Much of the novel focuses on the youthful Johnny. His parents send him away from their farm to a local seaport, Edenton, where a preacher, Dr, Clapton, educates him in Latin and prepares him to be a true gentleman, not a farmer like themselves. There, Johnny meets more worldly people, and another kind of education begins. He meets and is impressed by Captain Tennant, the British officer who represents the King and administers the colony, although he is confused by Tennant’s sassy daughter Eve. He meets the worldly and friendly Captain Flood, who transports him to and from his family farm. He meets the distinguished Sir Nathaniel, who raises horses and organizes cockfights, and is impressed by him, as well as by the wealthy and pretentious Wylie Jones. He also meets the Merrillees, and is fascinated by, but confused by, their beautiful daughter Sally.

The character of Johnny ends up being elusive, much as was the political thinking of that era in North Carolina. Throughout the novel, in fact, Johnny is analyzing the faults of others, as well as doubting himself and his own faults. He also sees people’s good qualities, and he strives to adapt many of those for himself. But he is confused by the various attitudes he observes among his fellow North Carolinians when word first arrives of the unrest and then the military action in the North. For they reveal mixed feelings about whether one should be loyal to the King, or whether one should strive to be free of England.

Johnny has even greater difficulty, however, is in reacting on a more personal level to the attitudes shown by young women, particularly Eve Tennant and Sally Merrillee. Note, however, that there is no discussion here of the status or the freedom of their black slaves. Indeed, the care given here is that the dialects of the Negroes be as accurate as possible—along with the spoken language found in the rural South or in the formal clubs of London. Any discussion of the rights of slaves does not arise, not until nearly a century later, and then only in the North.

Meanwhile, when news of dissension does spread southward, Johnny’s family sends him to England, both to enable him to avoid making a choice in the potential conflict, as well as to preserve some family investments abroad. And that London world is richly drawn as well, from its social scene to its political scene, as well as from its pubs to its clubs. Once again one marvels at the brilliance with which that far different world is captured. For Boyd again captures the details, in order to bring that distant European reality to life—a sedate and peaceful life for Johnny, which is soon disrupted by battle scenes. These are aboard an American warship under the captaincy of John Paul Jones. For Johnny has at last chosen sides in the American rebellion. And, following a brief interval in Brest, France, Johnny rejoins Jones and his crew on a newly refurbished Bonhomme Richard, which encounters a British warship and overwhelms it in a famous battle.

Whereupon, a wounded Johnny returns to North Carolina to heal, and to witness the arrival of the Revolution in the houses and taverns back home. And we realize that this novel is not so much a portrait of Johnny Fraser as it is a portrait of the Revolution seen through the eyes of Johnny Fraser. He has been less the hero of our novel than the vehicle with which we watch a cross section of society experience this dramatic period in American history. The novel itself is not dramatic, even as the events themselves range from mundane on one level to truly dramatic on another. In fact, we do not even identify with Johnny, even as we see that world through his eyes. And, at the end, when we do see in him a final maturity, there is also an open-ended conclusion about how his life will continue, especially a love life that has until now been unfulfilled.

This novel has been called “the best novel of the American Revolution ever written.” And I would not argue. Well, I loved the smaller scale April Morning by Hoard Fast, but not least because it was about the Battle of Concord and Lexington, near where I grew up. And, in fact, to support Drums’ pedigree is a later decision by Scribner’s to bring out a special edition with illustrations by N. C. Wyeth.

The title, Drums, refers to the drums of war. Before he leaves for England, a youthful Johnny encounters an old Indian who explains that the drumming he hears is that of nearby Indians who have heard reports of rebellion in the colony, and their reaction to the rumors is to send out a message, as they have long done when their own tribes prepare for battle. Boyd also recalls this incident in the last lines of the novel, when Johnny, hailing a distant soldier, “raised his stiff arm in the Indians salutation….[and] the distant figure lifted a long black rifle against the sky.” It is a final touch of the artistry that went into this novel. (March, 2019)

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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)