Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Abigail's Serious Can of Whip-Ass

According to Joe Ellis, not many people tried to bite Thomas Jefferson’s head off. But Abigail Adams sure as hell tried, swallowing it whole before spitting it out. See, when Adams and Jefferson were running against each other for president, (this is, after Washington decided two terms was enough and any more ran the risk of appearing as monarchial) Jefferson had commissioned the scandalmonger James Callender to, in Ellis’s words, “write libelous attacks on Adams.” While they didn’t help Jefferson to win the presidency they did help to precipitate the fouling of his friendship with Abigail and John. (Interestingly enough, Callender was later to discover and first report on Jefferson’s sexual liaisons with Sally Hemmings.)

In any case, juicy snippets of Abigail’s smack upside Jefferson’s head are copiously quoted from in Ellis’s crisp and rewarding book, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. Definitely recommended for those looking for something more substantial then the trivializing myths that make up the bulk (at least my own) of our understanding of these folks.

When David McCullough’s biography of Adams, John Adams, first came out, much was made of the fact that Adams had long been lost to us, his own presidency squished between those of Washington and Jefferson. In fact, poor Adams knew he was doomed to suffer the “dramatic distortions” of Washington’s chopping of the cherry tree and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Ellis writes:

Adams realized that the act of transforming the American Revolution into history placed a premium on selecting events and heroes hat fit neatly into a dramatic formula, thereby distorting the more tangled and incoherent experience that participants actually making the history felt at the time.

I don’t know enough about current historical trends, but it would seem that there is a popular (both Ellis and McCullough’s books won Pulitzers) Adams rehabilitation afoot. Ellis does a remarkable job in persuading the reader of Adam’s historical vivaciousness. It accomplished what I want out of any good history- a desire to know more. I’ve only just begun McCullough’s bio, but I’ve enjoyed the first 100 pages quite a bit.

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