John Adams: Party of One, by James Grant. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 544 pages, $30.
Any biography of John Adams that works anxiety, insecurity, worry and dread into its first paragraph is off on the right track. A host of superlatives attach themselves to our first ambassador to Great Britain and second President, who qualifies as well as the thinnest-skinned of the Founding Fathers. Either Adams had a degree of self-consciousness unparalleled in 18th-century America, or he had an overdeveloped habit of reaching for a pen-in his hand, a weapon of mass destruction-to fend off doubts and demons. At no time did he play well with others; even his fiancée described him as severe and unsociable. Erratic in his own century, he’s neurotic in ours.
In biography as in life, where you start makes all the difference. The financial writer James Grant opens John Adams: Party of One in 1785, as Adams prepares to represent his newborn nation at the Court of St. James. It’s a far cry from David McCullough’s indelible image of the cloaked rebel, forging his way to Philadelphia on horseback, pink-faced and pontificating, against a backdrop of silent New England snow. In Passionate Sage, Joseph J. Ellis ushers Adams in at the end of his Presidential term, amid moving crates in an unfinished White House. Catherine Drinker Bowen started at the opposite end, with the 10-year-old Adams following the French fleet’s progress toward Boston, a sight he would later claim made of him a politician. Mr. Grant’s is a most appropriate point of entry: The fretful Adams of his first paragraph bows before the man whose tyranny he has decried for two decades, an external state perfectly consistent with Adams’ internal, congenitally cross-eyed one. From the start, he was a man ill at ease in his own skin. And from the start, he was a man who yearned for a continental stage, which Mr. Grant proffers up front.
That stage was by no means preordained. It was very nearly willed into being by Massachusetts’ most prominent trial lawyer, obsessed from his early years by the sobering thought that he might “live and die an ignorant, obscure fellow.” From his 20’s, he remained alert to the “animating Occasion” that might summon him to greatness. History would oblige, or so Adams would assert; to his mind, “the child Independence was born” not with the Stamp Act, but in a 1761 courtroom hearing at which Adams argued against the writs of assistance. He admired a colleague, James Otis Jr., for speaking that day in what would later become the Adams tradition: “With the promptitude of Classical Allusions, a depth of Research, a rapid Summary of Historical Events and dates, a profusion of legal Authorities, a prophetic glare of his eyes into futurity, and a rapid Torrent of impetuous Eloquence …. “
Nothing of the events that followed would divorce Adams’ vaulting ambition from his bottomless insecurity. He was equally capable of fretting that he was unworthy of a position as he was of fretting that a position was unworthy of him. Even when it was ample, his lot was never enough. And to this tortured soul fell the most thankless fate in American history. In March 1797, Adams succeeded George Washington as President of the United States. The new chief executive was miserable. It seemed to him that more tears were shed that afternoon than at any tragedy he had ever attended-and Adams had been to a great deal of theater in his life. Were his countrymen weeping with joy or grief, over the serene transfer of power or over the exchange of a beloved leader for “an unbeloved one”? (There were plenty of tears at Washington’s inauguration too, but, typically, Adams neglected to mention as much.)
With the Presidency, Adams inherited an undeclared war on France, a crisis he nimbly averted. That was arguably the most diplomatic act of his life; it was, to his mind, his crowning achievement. (In the midst of that scrape, he also signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, to be considered the greatest stain on his honor.) The Adams Presidency and its attendant dramas claim less of Mr. Grant’s attention, however, than does Adams’ European career, by which he is both more intrigued and more impressed. Adams has been called a lot of names, but Mr. Grant is surely the first to hail him as America’s pre-eminent junk-bond salesman. He bills Adams’ European loan-raising among his greatest works, as indeed it was: On that foundation stood our credit abroad. If those loans have not often counted among Adams’ greatest triumphs, it’s because the details are abstruse; Mr. Grant lucidly unravels them. He is equally sure-footed on the subject of Adams and religion, on which he expands at length.
Along the way he makes some fine points. He pays tribute to the role ignorance played in the American Revolution; the half-year silences between America and Europe worked in the fledgling republic’s favor, depriving the continent of news that would have obliterated all hope of financial assistance. (The reverse was equally true: Congress was expert at spending funds that Adams-and Franklin in Paris-had yet to obtain.)
Mr. Grant also brings into focus the prosaic home life of a country lawyer, perennially short on funds, preoccupied by the demands of his estate. In early September 1774, Adams held forth at the Continental Congress. In early September 1783, he signed the peace that recognized America’s existence, in Paris. For early September 1796, Mr. Grant offers us Adams’ diary entry: “Carted 6 loads of slimy Mud from the Brook to the heap of Compost.”
Mr. Grant is not without his quirks. He lets drop so many remarks about the cost of an 18th-century education that one begins to wonder where he sends his kids to school. (And if Harvard is to waive tuition for the cash-strapped Adamses on page 307, why are we worrying about the cost of three Harvard tuitions on page 311?) Though he is quick to provide his subject with his continental stage, he is not always equally gracious. His Adams can’t sit still, can’t focus, suffers from a wandering mind; Mr. Grant essentially diagnoses A.D.D.
There is no question that Adams suffered from something we would medicate today, but even the most fun-loving of psychopharms might hesitate before dispensing Ritalin to someone who tore through Molière’s Amphitryon, whose idea of a good time was drafting the Massachusetts State Constitution. (Which Adams did, nearly single-handedly, in six weeks that would count among the happiest of his life.) Adams suffered at least one and probably two nervous breakdowns recently suggested to have been related to an overactive thyroid. The protuberant eyes, the irritable disposition, the paranoia buttress a case for Graves’ disease. Mr. Grant introduces that hypothesis early on, to cite it as fact 165 pages later. This is how financial panics get started.
With Adams’ character, he is spot-on and sparkling. So uneasy was Adams with himself that he was a misfit wherever he went. After a decade abroad, he returns from Europe to find himself turned into a monarchist; his discomfort in the official halls of power-even his own official halls-made of him an absentee President. Hinged or unhinged, he craved validation, vindication-odd hungers for a man so wed to his immovable principles. He had no tolerance for peccadilloes, and a vanity born of his own blamelessness. Who else would take a moment in his autobiography to assure his children that they had no illegitimate brothers and sisters? (Even by 18th-century standards, that was a losing recipe for memoir.) Adams was true to his principles but not his party; his duty to his country overrode all. His hatreds were, as Mr. Grant puts it, “throbbing, intricately constructed, and obsessive.” He may qualify as the worst team player in the history of our country.
It requires a peculiar constitution to vaunt one’s unpopularity, an Adams specialty, generally accomplished in what Mr. Grant terms “epic flights of self-pity and suspicion.” Our second President stands in no danger of fading into obscurity, only in falling victim to the inner sulks and outward storms. A party of one indeed, he was his own worst enemy. The eloquent James Grant rescues him from himself, to our good fortune.
Stacy Schiff’s A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America will be published next month by Henry Holt.