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Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. This is Lee Habib, and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. And up next, a story about one of our founding fathers, a star of all stars, and that is John Adams. To tell the story is Dava McCullough, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, which turned into an HBO series. The John Adams story you're about to hear was given by McCullough at the John Adams Institute in the Netherlands. We'd like to give a heartfelt thank you to the John Adams Institute and their podcast, Bright Minds, for allowing us to share this story with our listeners. Here's David McCullough with the story of John Adams. I've often stopped in recent years to try to figure out what it is I've been writing about in my writing life.
For a long time, I thought maybe I must have a water obsession. The first book was about the Johnstown flood, the second was about a bridge over the East River, the third was about the Panama Canal. But I think, at root, everything that I have been trying to do in my work is about courage, and principally, chiefly, the courage of one's convictions. And the story of John Adams again and again and again is a story of courage. I thought I would begin my remarks with a painting that hangs in our national capital. It's the most famous painting ever done by an American.
It is seen by more people than any other painting ever painted by an American, as it hangs there where millions go through as visitors every year. It's John Trumbull's signing of the Declaration of Independence. It is July 4th, 1776, and almost everything about it is inaccurate. The room didn't look like the room is portrayed.
The curtains at the windows are not the same, the furniture is wrong, the doors are in the wrong place. The Declaration of Independence was not signed on the 4th of July, 1776. They didn't begin signing it until August of 1776, and not everyone was present for the signing, because many of them hadn't returned to Congress yet. Some of them didn't show up until fall, and one man didn't get back until 1777.
But there is one thing about it that is entirely accurate, and those are the faces of the people portrayed. The signers of the Declaration, a declaration that set out to really change the world. And it wasn't something handed down by a king or a potentate or a czar, but the decision of a group of citizens acting on their own, acting very bravely on their own. Because by signing that document, they were signing their death warrants, they were committing treason.
If captured, they would be hanged. So when it says at the end, we pledge our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor, that's not just rhetoric. That's not just talk.
That's the literal truth. If you study the painting, you'll notice that all the lines of perspective all come down to three characters in the foreground. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, who were the three responsible for the document itself. Jefferson did the draft, Adams and Franklin were sort of his collaborators.
But if you study it further, you'll see that the figure that stands in the exact center of the painting, and clearly the intention of the artist is to draw your eye to him, is John Adams. John Adams was not the author of the Declaration of Independence. He chose the author of the Declaration of Independence. He said it must be written by Jefferson. What he did was make it happen. He got the Congress to vote for it.
He was the driving spirit. If Jefferson was the pen, Adams was the voice. He was, in that sense, one of the most important Americans who ever lived, and had he done nothing else with his career, he would be a figure that we would know about from that time. We know very little about what he said in his great speech. We know very little about what he said in any of his speeches, because all the sessions of Congress were conducted behind closed doors in secrecy. Philadelphia was full of spies.
There was every chance that the word would get out. Adams went on then to have one of the most astonishing careers in all of American history. He became our emissary to France with Franklin. He became his own emissary to the Netherlands. He spent two years here, and succeeded on his own, against all kinds of odds, without authorization to begin with, not knowing the language, not knowing anybody here. Bringing two of his little boys with him, he succeeded in negotiating a loan from the Netherlands, from the Dutch bankers, of five million guilders, or two million dollars, at a point where we were in desperate need of money to fight the war. 1782. There was by no means any guarantee that we would win the war.
In fact, every sign suggested that we hadn't a chance. But there were some people who would not give up, and Adams was one of them. He then, after the war, became our first ambassador to the Court of St. James's, as at the same time he was still the ambassador to the Netherlands.
And as a consequence, he came back and forth many times, from London to Amsterdam and The Hague, to negotiate further loans. After he left the Court of St. James's, he returned to the United States to become our first vice president, and then succeeded George Washington as president. He served one term, after which he was defeated by Thomas Jefferson in one of the most rancorous, difficult, closest elections in our history, with vicious charges being made on both sides, and a contest that wound up in the House of Representatives, and was only settled after 36 votes, when one man changed his vote. So when we read about presidents of the United States becoming president by a very slim margin, or by a controversial contest, it all is a very old story.
Adams then returned to his home in Braintree, Massachusetts, where he lived for another 25 years. Now here was a man who traveled farther in the service of his country, at greater risk, at a greater discomfort, and greater chance of losing his life, and I would say his livelihood to support his family of any of the major figures of that time. And you've been listening to David McCullough tell the story like no one else can. The story of John Adams continues here on Our American Stories. Lee Habib here, the host of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we're bringing inspiring stories from across this great country, stories from our big cities and small towns.
But we truly can't do this show without you. Our stories are free to listen to, but they're not free to make. If you love what you hear, go to OurAmericanStories.com and click the donate button. Give a little, give a lot.
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Say free this week into your Xfinity voice remote. And we continue with our American stories and with Pulitzer Prize winning biographer David McCullough sharing the story of John Adams. Let's pick up where we last left off. I have been interested in Jefferson since I was a youngster and went to visit Monticello for the first time. And I felt that Jefferson was a figure I would like to write about. I had never ventured into the 18th century and it was a country I felt I wanted to visit.
And now that I've been there I may never come back. But I had the idea because I was very interested in the fact that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had died on the same day. Incredibly on the same day. And that it was there, in effect, day of days.
July 4th, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, 1826. And I thought, what if I began with the death of these two men, these two very important and very different men, representing entirely different parts of the country. My concern was how was I going to keep glamorous, famous Thomas Jefferson from forever upstaging this short, stout, cranky, Yankee John Adams. And it was only when I got into the material that I realized that this was a biographer's dream. A writer's job is to get below the surface, it seems to me. And to do that with Jefferson would be extremely difficult because, among other things, he didn't want you to get below the surface any more than necessary. And as a consequence, he destroyed every letter that his wife ever wrote to him and every letter he wrote to her.
In fact, we don't even know what she looked like. By contrast, there are over 1,500 letters just between John and Abigail Adams. And they pour it out. You know exactly what they felt. You don't have to speculate, I wonder how he felt about that fellow or what kind of mood were they in that morning.
You know exactly because it's all there. And they wrote such letters to their children and to many of their close friends. So I was drawn by the material. I was drawn by the fact that how could it be that this tiny little population on a remote frontier, keep in mind that the settlement of the United States at that point was only about 50 miles inland along the eastern seaboard.
That's all it was. Massachusetts in 1776 was still two-thirds, not just woods, forests, as was Pennsylvania. How did these men come to be? How did they arise?
Without the benefit of great educations in Europe and availability of books to everyone and the rest. How did that happen? That to me is close to a miracle. And the more one reads about the revolution, the more one reads particularly about fighting the war, because after all the Declaration of Independence was only that, a declaration, unless they won the war. And when you see what happened and why it happened, you have to think again and again it was very nearly a miracle. When the direction of the wind changed the course of history on one night.
So all of this is of extreme interest to me and those people, they're so endlessly interesting. I want to begin by reading you something John Adams wrote about himself. He wrote this when he was feeling quite low.
He had not succeeded very well in his first turn at diplomacy in France, and he was going home after a relatively brief stay. And he stopped and looked at himself in the mirror and he wrote about his face. He said, by my physical constitution I am but an ordinary man. The times alone have destined me to fame. He saw too much weakness and languor in his nature. When I look in the glass, my eye, my forehead, my brow, my cheeks, my lips all betray this relaxation. Yet he could be roused, he knew.
Yet some great events, some cutting expressions, some mean scandals, hypocrisies, have at times thrown this assemblage of sloth, sleep and littleness into a rage a little like a lion. That's John Adams. He is a flesh and blood human being. And when he says by my physical condition I am but an ordinary man, the times alone have destined me to fame. I can guarantee you that he's fishing.
He doesn't believe it for a minute. He knows he's not an ordinary man. He's anything but ordinary. Now he is commonly thought of as a rich Boston blue blood. He was none of those. He wasn't rich, he wasn't a Bostonian, he wasn't a blue blood. He was a farmer's son. A farmer's son who through a scholarship had the good fortune to go to Harvard. His father we know could read, write his name, but that's about all. His mother almost certainly was illiterate. And when he went to Harvard, as he said, I discovered books and I read forever.
He became the most widely and deeply read American of that very bookish day. And he knew right away that he wanted to excel. Now that's a little different from ambition.
He wanted to excel. He wanted to be good at what he did and he wanted to serve the public good. The Americans of that time had no history. They had no history to read, no history to have as part of their own sense of who they were. What they had was classical history, educated Americans. And most of the founders were educated men. They had not just learned to read and write in Latin and Greek, but they knew Roman history and Greek history. And they knew from the Roman and Greek history the classic models of valor, of honor, and virtue. When Adams finished Harvard, he went to become a schoolteacher.
He was the first of our presidents to begin his career as a schoolteacher. And in that period, when he's searching to find out what he's going to do with his life, what he's going to make of his life, he poured out his innermost feelings, as he would all of his life in writing, on paper. And those little diaries have all survived. They're about the size of the palm of your hand. And they're in a microscopic handwriting. I had to use a magnifying glass to read it.
And of course, that's in part because paper was so expensive and this boy, this young man, had no money. I will read you an excerpt from July 21, 1756. In other words, 20 years before 1776.
He's 20 years old. I am resolved to rise with the sun and to study scriptures on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings, and to study some Latin author and the other three mornings. Noons and nights I intend to read English authors. I will rouse up my mind and fix my attention. I will stand collected within myself and think upon what I read and what I see.
I will strive with all my soul to be something more than persons who have had less advantage than myself. Now, clearly, that is a young man with a rare idea of what he might be and a very good mind. It's so admirable. But then the next morning, he slept until seven o'clock. And the one-line entry following a very rainy day dreamed away all my time. When I read that, I knew I had my man. Here's somebody that I can identify with.
He's a human being. And you are listening to David McCullough tell one heck of a story about the great John Adams. And it's so interesting to hear how McCullough even chose Adams, because it was not his intention. He had started by wanting to cover Jefferson and tell Jefferson's story. But the more he prodded, the more he poked, the more he realized that Adams was more interesting. In the end, let's face it, Adams chose Jefferson, as he said, to write the Declaration. Jefferson was the pen, but Adams the voice. And if you go to Monticello, and I went to the University of Virginia Law School in Charlottesville, everything Jefferson, all the time, what I learned in three years there, reading almost everything, you can't know Jefferson.
He hid himself. And by the way, we have friends like this and people like this in our lives. You don't know them.
They don't tell you anything about themselves. The story of John Adams continues. And boy, do we know a lot about John Adams. You're about to hear so much more, so much more. We all need to know and learn. And we'd like to give a heartfelt thank you to the John Adams Institute and their podcast, Bright Minds, for allowing us to share this story with our listeners. The Institute's name commemorates the man who was the first American emissary to the Netherlands in 1780.
The story of John Adams continues with David McCullough here on Our American Stories. I'm always upgrading my car, not because I need to, because I want to. Today, it's custom rims for my ride. Tomorrow, it might be a new driver's side seat cushion. And eBayMotors.com always has what I need.
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Say free this week into your Xfinity voice remote. And we continue with our American stories and with David McCullough telling the story of one of our founders, and perhaps the founder, John Adams. Let's pick up where we last left off. He finally decides that he is not going to be a school teacher and he is not going to be a minister as his father had hoped. As most parents of students who went to Harvard hoped.
As most of the faculty expected the students to become. Preachers, ministers, Protestant ministers. Instead he decides he will become a lawyer.
He will enter public life. And this was a great struggle because he knew he was going against his father's wishes and he adored his father. And one Sunday after church. He was a very devout Christian I should emphasize. Inspired by the sermon he had heard. He went out under the night sky to behold the glorious spectacle of a starry night. And beholding the night sky, he wrote, the amazing concave of heaven sprinkled and glittered with stars.
I am thrown into a kind of transport. He knew that such wonders were the gifts of God. And then he writes, but the greatest of all was the gift of an inquiring mind. But of all the provisions that he has made for the gratification of our senses.
This same 20 year old wrote, are much inferior to the provision, the wonderful provision. That he has made for the gratification of our nobler, nobler powers of intelligence and reason. He has given us reason to find out the truth.
And the real design and true end of our existence. He then says it will be hard work to become an attorney. To learn the law. To qualify for the bar.
But the more difficult and dangerous the enterprise, the higher the crown of Laurel is bestowed on the conqueror. But the point is now determined. I shall have the liberty to think for myself. Now what did the founders of our country believe? What did they think when they talked about the pursuit of happiness? They didn't mean long vacations. They didn't mean travel to foreign exotic places. They didn't mean a nice comfortable afternoon in a hammock or a lot of expensive possessions. What they meant, what they were talking about was an extension and enlargement of the experience of life through the life of the mind and the life of the spirit.
And they all talk about it. This is not some notion imposed upon them by latter day biographers and historians. Jefferson said any nation that expects to be ignorant and free expects what never was and never can be.
In other words, you cannot have a self-governing system without a population that is educated. Adams' story could very well be taken as a metaphor for the transforming miracle of education. And it's all through his life. And it is most dramatically and I think most memorably illustrated by the fact that he brought John Quincy with him to Europe. And later on the second trip, John Quincy and Charles who was even younger. They were little boys and they were not big boys.
They were small for their age. Who came across in the winter time on two voyages. The first voyage was absolutely horrendous.
Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. They were hit by a hurricane. They engaged closed with the British warship, fought a battle. People were killed. They were stalled in the sea. They were becalmed for days on end. The food was wretched. The accommodations were miserable. In the winter months on the North Atlantic, virtually no one was out there who valued his life. Even in peacetime.
Nobody from New England went to sea in the winter time if it could possibly be avoided. And Adams did it twice. And twice he took these young boys with him. Why would he do that? Why would his wife, their mother, risk their lives?
And the answer is very simple. Their education. She wanted them. And one cannot underestimate the importance of Abigail Adams.
Not just in the story of John Adams, but in the history of what happened to Adams, Jefferson and so many of them. She was without question one of the most remarkable Americans of all time. She wanted that young boy to come because she wanted him to have the example of his father.
To live with, see, on a day to day basis. She knew that he was coming to Europe at the time of the Enlightenment. That he would have the chance to be with the great French intellectuals and the intellectuals in other countries. That he would have the chance to learn different languages. All of which he did.
All of which happened. Now after the horrendous voyage of the first trip over, and he had returned to the United States with his father. And his father was called back here. And his mother said, you're going again? And he said, no.
I've done that. And it was so terrifying he didn't want to leave a second time. So she wrote him a letter.
A letter in which she spelled out what she expected of him. And I don't think there's anything that I know of in all of the writings and literature of 18th century Americans that expresses it quite so well. What was it that was moving these people? These very imperfect people. None of whom was a god.
None of whom was unflawed. She said to him, remember she's writing to a little kid. These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It's not in the still calm of life or the repose of a Pacific station that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which otherwise would lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.
Well, you know, he had to go after reading that. But keep in mind in that last sentence, she is referred to the mind and the life of the mind several times before she comes to that last sentence. But then in the last sentence she makes the point. When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life.
In other words, you have to have it here too, not just here. John Adams had an immensely successful life. For him, the real success was in seeing his son, sons and daughter, arise as thinking, independent, good citizens, the most noteworthy of all of whom was John Quincy Adams. Now, John Quincy Adams is a whole subject unto himself.
But let me just say briefly that I believe that if it were possible to give all the presidents of the United States an IQ test, John Quincy Adams would come in at the front, even ahead of his father. And you've been listening to the late, great biographer David McCullough tell the story of John Adams. And by the way, he was telling this story at the John Adams Institute in the Netherlands.
By the way, they have a terrific podcast called Bright Minds, which I'd urge all of you to listen to. And my goodness, what we learn from this man, he goes to Harvard, which at the time is a divinity school, thinks about teaching, thinks about ministry, but in the end disappoints his father, whom he admired, because he wants to pursue the law. And my goodness, what a correct choice that John made as it relates to his future, pursuing the law. And by the way, those letters between John and Abigail, if you ever get a chance to read them, there's nothing quite like them anywhere in all of literature, frankly. And what a story of a marriage, how those two communicated, lifted each other up, fought each other, pushed each other. And my goodness, that letter that Abigail wrote to her son. What a letter. Great necessities call out great virtues, she wrote to her young son, calling him to ride that rough winter Atlantic again and risk life to learn.
When we come back, more of the story of John Adams with Zaven McCulloch, here on Our American Stories. I'm always upgrading my car, not because I need to, because I want to. Today it's custom rims for my ride. Tomorrow, it might be a new driver's side seat cushion, and eBayMotors.com always has what I need.
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Say free this week into your Xfinity voice remote. And we continue with our American stories and the story of John Adams, as told by the late author David McCullough. Let's pick up where we last left off. When his time there was up, and it was time for you, he returned by himself at age 15 all the way across from St. Petersburg here to the Netherlands. Which in that time was like traveling to the moon and back, and on his own. Now you see, that boy wasn't just brilliant, he had been raised to be that way. And he'd been raised to be grown up and adult and responsible far earlier than we raise our children that way today.
Much more so. He became president and he was not a particularly effective or successful president. He was not a failure as president, but he was not one of our great presidents. And we don't, for some reason or other, there are probably good explanations, we don't include one term presidents in the pantheon of great American presidents. Unless they're killed in office.
And then they rise to the top. And neither John Adams nor John Quincy Adams served more than one term. But it was after John Quincy Adams left the presidency that his heroic and important time in our history begins. Because he was the only president, the only former president, before or since, who went back to serve in the House of Representatives. Which was thought at the time to be such a step down as to be almost embarrassing. But he said to his credit, and he meant it because no Adams ever said anything they didn't mean.
Which was part of the disadvantage they operated under as diplomats and politicians. He said that he considered it to be the highest honor he'd ever had. And what happened was he went back to Washington and went into the Congress, went into the House of Representatives, now Statuary Hall, and there's a mark on the floor at Statuary Hall, the old House of Representative marking the spot, where he battled slavery day in, day out, year in, year out. He was called Old Man Eloquent.
And he died there, died with his boots on, as we say, fighting the good fight to the end. And most interestingly, his mother and father were very strongly anti-slavery all their lives. John Adams was the only, I hope you know this, if you don't, I hope you won't forget it. John Adams was the only one of our founders who did not own a slave, ever, as a matter of principle. Abigail Adams, in the worst years of the early years of the Revolution, when everything seemed to be going wrong, pestilence and disease were sweeping through her part of Massachusetts, said, I wonder if our sufferings are not God's punishment for the sin of slavery. So there, years later, is the son battling on the floor of the Congress against slavery. He was his father and mother's son to a very large degree. Abigail liked to quote a line from an English poet, adversity is a good man's shining time.
And this is true of so many of them. They knew they weren't perfect as human beings and they knew what they had done wasn't perfect. To attain a life where all men were created equal would take a long lot of hard work and struggle and grief and disappointment. But that was the idea, that was the advantage. They created the ideal and the successors were supposed to achieve it in the theme of the American experiment as an ongoing experiment.
They sent True North for us, in effect, and we've been trying to reach it ever since and will continue to do so. And they were such noble people in their willingness to serve the country and their heartfelt belief in what was at stake. Now some of them did not feel that. Washington's army had deserters by the thousands, deserters and people who went over to the other side, people who quit, people who quit the Congress, people in Congress who went over to the other side. They were by no means all heroes, but enough of them were. And the greatest of them, by far, of all, was Washington. There would not have been the country we have if it hadn't been for Washington. So when people say that John Adams was eclipsed by Washington or he was in the shadow of Washington, of course he was. We have never had a figure in our country who had the same power over people as George Washington.
He was a figure of union during the war and a figure of union after he became president, when already the country was starting to pull apart because of factions and rivalries based in large part on slavery and on sectionalism. They were very great men and quite imperfect, and they changed the world. When George Washington turned over his command of the Continental Army to the Congress, relinquished power as no general had ever done before, no conquering general had ever done before.
King George III had heard that this might happen, and he said, if he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world. That was the example which goes back, of course, to Cincinnatus, the Roman model. So they were learning from history, profiting from history, drawing strength from history. Not the same history we draw strength from or our examples from, but a different history. But we should draw history from their example, and we should draw a sense of what humanity can be from their example. In a way, nobody ever lived in the past. There is no such thing as the past. Jefferson, Adams, Washington, they didn't walk around saying, isn't this fascinating, living in the past?
Aren't we quaint in our funny clothes? They were living in the present, but it was their present, not ours. And it was different from ours, which means that they were different. What had happened was this.
John Adams, in his final journey, had come to the conclusion that, contrary to the ideals of the Enlightenment, that everything could not be explained, that there were inevitable mysteries, and that that was a good thing, that we need mysteries. And as he grew older, he began to lose everything. His friends died. His beloved daughter died of a hideous mastectomy.
Then Abigail died. One of his other sons had destroyed himself with alcohol. He had seen his son become President of the United States, but he'd lost his friends. He'd lost his hair. He'd lost his teeth. He couldn't ride a horse anymore. It was as if the Lord had destroyed the last thing he had.
Everything, it would seem, was gone. And everything was there to make this supposedly pessimistic man even more pessimistic than ever. But a very curious thing had happened.
He became increasingly optimistic with age. History ought to be something that reminds us of who we are and what we stand for, what we believe. The previous Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin, once said, trying to approach the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers. We must know history. We must understand who these people were and all that they did for us. And we must draw strength and confidence from them.
And my message is this. We are up against a foe, all of us, who believes in enforced ignorance. And we don't.
And we never will. And a terrific job on the editing by Greg Hengler. And a special thanks to the John Adams Institute in the Netherlands for sharing this audio with us. And their podcast, Bright Minds, it's terrific.
Go to the John Adams Institute website to hear more from them. And my goodness, that voice, McCullough's voice, there's nothing like it. It's featured so prominently in Ken Burns' The Civil War. But it's his heart and love of the founders and of history.
And he's right. If we don't know where we came from, we won't know who we are. And read the John Adams book. Watch the HBO series. Your whole family should watch them.
You'll get to know more about your country. In the end, Adams propelled himself to greatness. He wanted that education. He wanted it all. And in the end, he knew he was not an ordinary man. He knew it. And he knew it young. And boy, was he not. And my goodness, that final part of his life when he loses everything. And imagine losing your friends, then losing your wife, losing your hair, your teeth, everything.
And yet he grew more optimistic with age and understood that the Enlightenment, that science and reason could not explain everything. Back to that divinity where it all started. The story of John Adams, the story of America, and the story of so much more. Here on Our American Stories. This February, Xfinity Flex is unlocking premium entertainment for you to try every single week, no strings attached. Celebrate during Black History Month with shows like Unsung the Decades. Snuggle up during Valentine's Day with a Lifetime Movie Club pick like Harry and Meghan A Royal Romance. Or crank up the action with Godfather of Harlem from MGM Plus. Get down and funky with the Classic Soul playlist from iHeartRadio. Easily discover new free content each week across the best streaming app.
Say free this week into your Xfinity voice remote. With ever longer ingredient lists on beauty products, it's hard to tell what you're really buying. That's why Sephora is committed to cutting through the clutter and confusion, helping to push the industry forward by showing what's really in their products. At Sephora, their clean standards mean products formulated without parabens, sulfates, phthalates, mineral oils, and more. So when you see the Clean at Sephora seal, you know you're getting a clean you can count on. Learn more about their clean standards and shop clean at Sephora Beauty at Sephora.com
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-21 04:48:00 / 2023-02-21 05:04:12 / 16