By CRAIG D'OOGE
Historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer David McCullough spoke on "The Enduring Examples of John and Abigail Adams" in a packed Coolidge Auditorium on the night of Tuesday, April 24. John Adams is the subject of Mr. McCullough's newest book.
The event, which was preceded by an invitation-only dinner, was first proposed by Rep. Tim Roemer (D -Ind.) to honor John Adams and his family and to announce legislation that would authorize the placement of a commemorative work in Washington to honor President Adams and his family. Rep. Roemer introduced the bill (H.R. 1668) on May 1.
Mr. McCullough opened his remarks with a tribute to libraries: "Freedom is found through the portals of our public libraries; this is the greatest of public libraries."
He recalled writing his first history, The Johnstown Flood (1968), after seeing pictures of the 1899 flood in the Library's Prints and Photographs Division. "I discovered my vocation here in this great library," he said. "I have done research on all my work here."
Mr. McCullough told the audience that when he originally set out to write about both Adams and Thomas Jefferson, he was worried that Jefferson's stature and written record would overwhelm Adams's legacy. But after he began to read the thousands of Adams family letters that survive, he realized that here was "one of the great stories of our history." He dropped the plan to include Jefferson and decided to concentrate on Adams.
"No other collection of family papers compares with it," he said. "Nothing else even comes close." The letters are preserved on some five miles of microfilm and include exchanges that Mr. McCullough characterized as "often reading like something out of Shakespeare," with "command of language that is enough to humble us all."
During the early years of the Republic, Adams spent long periods away from his beloved wife. Fortunately for history, they created a body of correspondence, which, because of the "absolute candor and vitality of their writing," allows us "to know them better than any of the others at the time," Mr. McCullough said.
Adams believed in writing the way he spoke. "His prose has a directness, a modern quality that makes it quite different from anything else written at the time," Mr. McCullough said. Judging from a number of examples he read out loud, this was a family trait.
"I have never had a better subject," the author of biographies of Truman and Theodore Roosevelt said. "He's good company, John Adams, and I have kept company with him for six years." He described his association with Adams as "one of the most wonderful features of my writing life."
Mr. McCullough closed the evening with a strong endorsement of the proposed memorial to the Adams family, calling it "long-past time" for an honor that was "absolutely deserved."
Mr. D'Ooge is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.