David McCullough: Criticized for "founder chic"

Historians in the News

[Berra;] You write, “Founder chic authors depict political leaders as causal agents who are personally responsible for all the major events of the times. . . . Since the importance of their stories is determined in part by the importance of their protagonists, biographies have a vested interest in endowing their subjects with as much historical significance as the record will bear—and sometimes more.” You take particular exception to David McCullough’s view of John Adams: “‘It was John Adams,’ wrote McCullough in his Pulitzer prize-winning biography, John Adams, ‘who made it [the Declaration of Independence] happen.’” What’s your main point of contention with McCullough’s view?

[Raphael:] According to McCullough, John Adams acted the role of a lonely hero, willing to buck the will of the people. If Adams had been “poll-driven,” he would have “scrapped the whole idea,” McCullough claims, since there was little popular support for independence in 1776. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Twenty-one months earlier, people throughout rural Massachusetts had declared in favor of independence, but John Adams tried to talk them out of it. Later, after Lexington and Concord, Adams came around to their opinion. But he was hardly alone.

In January of 1776, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense sparked a nationwide conversation of unprecedented proportions. In every tavern and meeting house across the land, people argued the merits of the case, and by spring the results were in: an overwhelming proportion supported independence. More than 90 towns, counties, and states issued formal declarations urging Congress to take action. The largest state, Virginia, declared independence on its own.

It took a while for Congress to catch up with the groundswell of popular opinion. Delegates from Maryland, for instance, were opposed, but then the county conventions met and issued specific instructions: Change your vote, they said, and do it immediately. “See the glorious effects of county instructions,” a Maryland patriot wrote to John Adams. “Our people have fire if not smothered.”

The sweeping, deliberate debate over independence resulted in the most productive outpouring of patriotic sentiment in our nation’s history, but McCullough takes the honor and glory away from the people and bestows it on a single individual. Ironically, John Adams knew better, and he said so at the time. On July 3, the day after Congress voted in favor of independence, he boasted to his wife Abigail that the population at large had considered the “great question of independence . . . by discussing it in newspapers and pamphlets, by debating it in assemblies, conventions, committees of safety and inspection, in town and county meetings, as well as in private conversation,” and in the end “the whole people, in every colony of the thirteen, have adopted it as their own act.”...

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