Joseph J. Ellis, a popular and prize-winning biographer, has produced in "First Family: Abigail and John Adams" another of his patented narratives of this nation's founders. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Ellis practices what might be called impartial biography.
Ellis portrays the Adams family with empathy and detachment: On the one hand, he demonstrates how the deserving Adams was denied a second term owing to the machinations of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson; on the other hand, he shows that Adams could be his own worst enemy because of his intemperate behavior and his obliviousness to the plotting against him, personal failings that a savvier politician would know how to temper.
Similarly, Abigail is accorded high marks for effective management of her mercurial husband, even as Ellis regrets her zealous embrace of the Alien and Sedition Acts, among the more pernicious pieces of legislation the U.S. Congress has ever passed.
Here is Ellis describing the low point of Adams' presidency and its aftermath:
"These infamous statutes were designed to deport or disenfranchise foreign-born residents who were disposed to support the Republican, pro-French agenda, and make it a crime to publish 'any false, scandalous, and malicious writing or writings against the Government of the United States.' John played a passive role as the legislation made its way through Congress, and lived long enough to acknowledge that the Alien and Sedition Acts constituted a permanent stain on his presidency."
Virtually no historian would dispute Ellis' account. What is missing, though, is an exploration of why Adams was so "passive" and of why he later repudiated his support of such deleterious laws. Instead, we whiz past this problematic period, obviating the need to probe the darker designs of policies that destroy lives and corrupt governments.
If Ellis is a popular biographer -- his publisher has announced a 500,000-copy first printing -- it is, in part, because of the patina that impartial biographies impart to their subjects. God forbid the biographer show anger or be deemed "judgmental." Who can quarrel with Ellis' brand of evenhanded and elegantly turned out biography? To do so makes the reviewer seem crabbed.
But is it merely pique to point out that the Ellis brand is perhaps a tad too bland? Is it unjust to demand an edgier work that acknowledges what was at stake then, and what is at stake now -- in the age of a "War on Terror," the "Patriot Act" and the Arizona immigration law?
Carl Rollyson is a biographer and professor of journalism at Baruch College, City University of New York.