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Radical History Review 83 (2002) 211-214

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The Abusable Past

R. J. Lambrose

The Adams Chronicles

"Modesty is a virtue that can never thrive in public," John Adams once remarked. "A man must be his own trumpeter. . . . he must get his picture drawn, his statue made, and must hire all the artists in his turn, to set about works to spread his name, make the mob, stare and gape, and perpetuate his fame."

Or you can be lucky in your biographers. It has taken almost two centuries, but Adams's trumpeters are suddenly blaring loudly. As we write, David McCullough's gushing valentine to the second president heads into its seventh month on the New York Times best-seller list, with 1.6 million copies in print. And Joe Ellis's equally celebratory Founding Brothers continues to enjoy very healthy sales despite—or perhaps because of—the increasingly dubious reputation of its author. (Ellis, it should be said, really started the Adams mania in 1993 with his Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, the book that led McCullough to write his own biography.) And then last November came the big news that Tom Hanks and HBO had optioned the McCullough book for a ten- to thirteen-part biopic. With that many episodes, the screenwriters ought to be able to get Adams to the beaches of Normandy.

Of course, not everyone has joined the Adams fan club. In a long review in the New Republic, Sean Wilentz describes Adams as "one of the most suspicious, pugnacious, and at times pig-headed conservatives of the early American republic" and lambastes McCullough for ignoring "Adams's intellectual ambitions, his brilliance and his ponderousness, his pettiness and his sometimes disabling pessimism." Then there is the small matter of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which civil libertarian [End Page 211] Floyd Abrams describes as "the most repressive law for free speech in our history." Richard N. Rosenfeld, author of American Aurora, which focuses on the acts, calls McCullough's book a whitewash. "Adams is not a hero," says Rosenfeld. "He created what Thomas Jefferson called a reign of terror. He saw his critics as subversives. . . . He was opposed to popular democracy and trampled on the Bill of Rights."

But with John Ashcroft in the attorney general's office, this does not appear to be a moment to quibble over a lack of sensitivity to civil liberties. And the push for the memorial that the second president obviously felt he deserved has picked up a wide range of supporters, including liberals like Mary McGrory and Ted Kennedy, centrists like Democratic congressman Tim Roemer of Indiana (the sponsor of the memorial legislation), and reactionaries like George Will. Joining the chorus of Adams celebrants were McCullough and Ellis, who testified last June before the House's Subcommittee on National Parks, Recreation, and Public Land on behalf of the monument. The timing turned out to be rather better for McCullough—who, in effect, made the promotion of the monument part of his book tour—than for Ellis. "David and I are here," Ellis declared just six days before the Boston Globe would reveal Ellis's own self-invented history, "to essentially put our credibility as historians on the line to say that in our judgment as American historians, John Adams is the most underappreciated great man in American history." Adams would no doubt have agreed.

The legislation passed easily, leaving the monument's projected location in Washington as the only remaining matter of debate. Roemer wants to put the monument at the Tidal Basin, despite the opposition of three different federal commissions to new monuments in that increasingly crowded area of the Mall. Ellis has also argued that the memorial should be at the Tidal Basin, directly beside the Jefferson Memorial, "so that he and Jefferson could take turns casting shadows over each other's facades," as they did in life. Nice idea, but we prefer the image of a supersized Claes Oldenberg sculpture of sour grapes, nestled at the base of the Washington Monument.

Which Past Do You Want to Visit...


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pp. 211-214
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Archived 2004
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