John Adams: Now the most widely sung unsung hero





In 1819, 18 years after leaving the White House, John Adams fretted that "Mausoleums, Statues, Monuments will never be erected to me. … Panegyrical romances will never be written, nor flattering orations spoken to transmit me to posterity in brilliant colors."

He was mostly right. Where's the Adams Memorial in Washington, the college named after Adams, the currency bearing Adams's image? The first and third presidents are on Mount Rushmore, but no Adams gazes out between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Nevertheless, the past 20 years have witnessed a slowly accelerating Adams revival, fueled mostly by works of scholarly and popular history and sure to gain further momentum from a lavishly produced, well-written, and superbly acted seven-part series on HBO. The series is called John Adams but it could easily be subtitled "A Panegyr-ical Romance." Adams is fast becoming American history's most widely sung unsung hero.

The historian John Ferling, of the University of West Georgia, started the ball rolling with his admiring 1992 biography, John Adams: A Life (University of Tennessee Press). Lucidly analytic, shrewd in its judgments, and, especially, surefooted in its command of Adams's times, Ferling's book remains the best of breed. A year later, Joseph J. Ellis published a fine collection of connected essays called Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (Norton). Ellis, a historian at Mount Holyoke College whose scholarly books customarily crack the best-seller lists, focused on Adams's postpresidential years (of which there were many: Adams left office in 1801 at age 65 and lived another quarter-century).

David McCullough, the nation's leading popular historian, produced his own Adams biography in 2001. John Adams (Simon & Schuster), a competent but windy book with gusts up to 12 pages on subjects like a 1778 ocean crossing to England, debuted as the New York Times No. 1 nonfiction best seller and remained on either the hardcover or paperback list for nearly three years. Although Ferling, in contrast to Ellis and McCullough, is more in like than in love with his subject, all three books were designed, as Ellis puts it, to right the wrong that has made Adams "the most misconstrued and unappreciated 'great man' in American history."

The HBO production formally identifies McCullough's biography as its inspiration, but the scriptwriter Kirk Ellis also credits Ferling's and Joseph Ellis's books. ...


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