The Magazine

America at Birth

Independence was won. Now begins the hard part.

Feb 18, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 22 • By EDWARD ACHORN
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Just as Adams feared, Franklin seems to get the full godhead treatment here, while the man from Massachusetts is portrayed as a gaffe-prone intruder and member of a diabolical congressional conspiracy that seems hell-bent on destroying the kindly, randy doctor for no better reasons than jealousy and spite. Fleming cannot even send poor Adams off to dinner without injecting a note of mockery, as when the Comte de Vergennes, the French foreign minister, "treated the cranky puritan to a feast of fine wine and succulent food that left him burping contentedly all the way back to Paris."

A more scrupulous historian might have thought twice about slinging around the word "puritan" in regards to Adams, who had in fact stepped away from the puritan tradition in his religious beliefs and habits of thought. A more nuanced--and surely more interesting--evaluation might have taken into account that Adams, though a thorn in the side of Vergennes, had a point in warning that America should be wary of securing independence from the British at the price of utter dependence on the French. And that Adams, by writing such terrifically indiscreet (and wonderfully human) private letters, subjected himself to greater risk of being parodied and pummeled by historians than his less honest and forthright contemporaries.

Indeed, Adams's life of high achievement, and his deft work in keeping America from going to war either with France or Britain during its feeble early years of his presidency, suggests there was a good deal more to the man than meets the author's narrowing eye. Still, the good here--the sprightly writing about events on two continents during a little-appreciated period of vast importance to the world--significantly outweighs the bad. Fleming's account culminates in Washington's moving farewell to Congress (which would surely inspire a "blast of rage" from the ACLU) as he lays down his power as general and retires to private life: "I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my official life by commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God and those who have superintendence of them, to his holy keeping."

The general's own moderation and virtue were far from the least of the blessings bestowed on America in these years. As the events of The Perils of Peace make clear, if God did not have a hand in this most improbable and hair-raising story, we were, at the very least, awfully lucky.

Edward Achorn is deputy editor of the editorial pages at the Providence Journal.