Saturday, July 2, 2011

American Founding -- John Adams 2

Rising Tide

Tides do rise, and John Adams's reputation started to rise a half century before McCullough's biography. In 1953 Russell Kirk canonized John Adams in his magnum opus, The Conservative Mind, arguing that of all the patriot founders, it was our second president who best understood history, constitutions, and the consequences of ideas. Kirk realized Adams's intellectual achievement was one key to any fame posterity would confer.

Two decades later the musical 1776 came out, and it was not Washington, Jefferson, or Franklin in the limelight, but the brainy delegate from Braintree, Massachusetts, who took center stage. In the movie that followed, Adams's irritability was turned into a clever device to make him more human and approachable than he otherwise would be.

Also during the Bicentennial celebration, PBS aired a 13-part series called the Adams Chronicles that presented 150 years of the family's history and fetched many Emmys.

And then McCullough's masterpiece came out in 2001 and brought about a historiographic revolution, a paradigm shift in the way we regard America's founding fathers. Adams waxes, Jefferson wanes. As of this writing (June 2011), according to, McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Adams is the 9th-most-purchased book on the American Revolution, and the 14th-most-purchased book on US presidents. And the HBO production based on McCullough's book is the 4th-most-purchased miniseries on the site.

The book's splash caused more than a ripple. The historian Gordon Wood, who is currently editing a collection of Adams's papers for the Library of America series, observes that Washington and Jefferson got only one volume each of their writings, whereas Adams is getting four volumes.

And the U.S. Treasury has issued a John Adams gold coin honoring the 2nd president, an unwitting double-entendre for his "currency."

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This essay is the second in a series on John Adams. The Adams series served as the basis for my talk accompanying the exhibition, John Adams Unbound, organized by the Boston Public Library and the American Library Association. The talk was given at the Loutit District Library, Grand Haven, Michigan, on June 30, 2011.

This Adams series is posted on July 2 because he thought that was the day our country's independence should be pondered and celebrated.

For more on presidents and leadership, see

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