Book Reviews -- John Adams and the American Press: Politics & Journalism at the Birth of the Republic by Walt Brown

Article excerpt

Brown, Walt. John Adams and the American Press: Politics & Journalism at The Birth of the Republic, Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1995, 213 pp. $34.50.

"The history of our Revolution will be one continued Lye from one end to the other," John Adams lamented. He decried that history books would certify "that Dr. Franklins

sic.

electrical rod smote the Earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod -- and thence forward these two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislatures and War."

Thanks to books such as Walt Brown's insightful analysis, Adams' fear of obscurity has proven unmerited. Brown's stated theme is how Adams was portrayed in the press, particularly during his four years as president -- which was quite badly, Adams claimed. After retirement, he referred to himself as "a constant object of the billingsgate, scurrility, misapprehensions, misconstructions, misrepresentations, lies and libels of all parties."

With impressive research, Brown has demonstrated the validity of Adams' assertion. Noting that his presidency marked 'the first full-scale, full-term confrontation between a president and the press," he convincingly explains how Adams contended with an unprecedented amount of press scrutiny and criticism, while steering the ship of state through turbulent political waters. Adams, of course, had the dual misfortune of serving as president during an intensely fictional era and of following a national icon into the executive office. These factors made Adams' presidency uncomfortable and brief.

Adams failed in his 1800 re-election bid because of the press. Noting that Adams could have won if 108 popular votes in New York had been cast for him rather than Thomas Jefferson, Brown concludes, "It was ultimately the presses, grown strong by ten years of strenuous effort, abusive rhetoric, and political polarization, that decided the outcome of the election of 1800. …