The enthralling, often surprising story of John Adams, one of the most important and fascinating Americans who ever lived.
In this powerful, epic biography, David McCullough unfolds the adventurous life-journey of John Adams, the brilliant, fiercely independent, often irascible, always honest Yankee patriot -- "the colossus of independence," as Thomas Jefferson called him -- who spared nothing in his zeal for the American Revolution; who rose to become the second President of the United States and saved the country from blundering into an unnecessary war; who was learned beyond all but a few and regarded by some as "out of his senses"; and whose marriage to the wise and valiant Abigail Adams is one of the moving love stories in American history.
Like his masterly, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Truman, David McCullough's John Adams has the sweep and vitality of a great novel. It is both a riveting portrait of an abundantly human man and a vivid evocation of his time, much of it drawn from an outstanding collection of Adams family letters and diaries. In particular, the more than one thousand surviving letters between John and Abigail Adams, nearly half of which have never been published, provide extraordinary access to their private lives and make it possible to know John Adams as no other major American of his founding era.
As he has with stunning effect in his previous books, McCullough tells the story from within -- from the point of view of the amazing eighteenth century and of those who, caught up in events, had no sure way of knowing how things would turn out. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, the British spy Edward Bancroft, Madame Lafayette and Jefferson's Paris "interest" Maria Cosway, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, the scandalmonger James Callender, Sally Hemings, John Marshall, Talleyrand, and Aaron Burr all figure in this panoramic chronicle, as does, importantly, John Quincy Adams, the adored son whom Adams would live to see become President.
Crucial to the story, as it was to history, is the relationship between Adams and Jefferson, born opposites -- one a Massachusetts farmer's son, the other a Virginia aristocrat and slaveholder, one short and stout, the other tall and spare. Adams embraced conflict; Jefferson avoided it. Adams had great humor; Jefferson, very little. But they were alike in their devotion to their country.
At first they were ardent co-revolutionaries, then fellow diplomats and close friends. With the advent of the two political parties, they became archrivals, even enemies, in the intense struggle for the presidency in 1800, perhaps the most vicious election in history. Then, amazingly, they became friends again, and ultimately, incredibly, they died on the same day -- their day of days -- July 4, in the year 1826.
Much about John Adams's life will come as a surprise to many readers. His courageous voyage on the frigate Boston in the winter of 1778 and his later trek over the Pyrenees are exploits that few would have dared and that few readers will ever forget.
It is a life encompassing a huge arc -- Adams lived longer than any president. The story ranges from the Boston Massacre to Philadelphia in 1776 to the Versailles of Louis XVI, from Spain to Amsterdam, from the Court of St. James's, where Adams was the first American to stand before King George III as a representative of the new nation, to the raw, half-finished Capital by the Potomac, where Adams was the first President to occupy the White House.
This is history on a grand scale -- a book about politics and war and social issues, but also about human nature, love, religious faith, virtue, ambition, friendship and betrayal, and the far-reaching consequences of noble ideas. Above all, John Adams is an enthralling, often surprising story of one of the most important and fascinating Americans who ever lived.
David McCullough was a Yale-educated, two-time recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize (Truman; John Adams) and the National Book Award (The Path Between the Seas; Mornings on Horseback). His many other highly-acclaimed works of historical non-fiction include The Greater Journey, 1776, Brave Companions, The Great Bridge, The Wright Brothers, and The Johnstown Flood. He was honored with the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the National Humanities Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in addition to many other awards and honors. Mr. McCullough lived in Boston, Mass.
MESSAGE TO BIOGRAPHERS: Tidy up your prose, sharpen your story-telling, knowledge up on your source material and bring your entire bag of game, because the gauntlet has been chucked, the bar has been raised and David McCullough has taken off his literary glove and pasted all of you upside your second rate heads. The challenge is before you.
This is, WITHOUT QUESTION, the best biography I have ever read. It is also, again WITHOUT QUESTION, the best story on the American Revolution and the creation of the United States of America that I have ever read.
The breadth, depth and detail of this biography is unbelievable. Epic does not begin in describe it. It is epic epicness on an epically epic scale. This is only appropriate given the subject matter.
After finishing this book, I believe the John Adams is the "founding father" I most admire. By making that statement, I do not want to downgrade the importance of the others. Jefferson was arguably more intelligent and was clearly the better writer. Washington was the most beloved and admired figure and without his leadership, the fledgling country would not have had a much needed symbol to rally around and the revolution may very well have failed. Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, James Madison, Samuel Adams, John Jay and all the rest deserve to be acknowledged for their significant contributions.
So why John Adams? Two simple but very important reasons. First, John Adams, through the beautiful prose of McCullough, came across to me as the quintessential HONORABLE MAN. True, he was short tempered and intellectually vain in so far as he very much desired to be acknowledged as "great" by his countrymen. He was a man with many faults.
However, he NEVER allowed any of his shortcomings or personal desires to influence any decision he made or any action he took. He was a ROCK OF INTEGRITY and every action he took and decision he made (though not always correct in hindsight) was what he genuinely BELIEVED to be in the best interest of the country. Thus, he came across in this story as the person who most aptly illustrated the qualities of INTEGRITY, VIRTUE AND MORAL FORTITUDE.
In contrast, Jefferson's "behind the scenes" attacks on Adams and his inability to even acknowledge the same later on struck me as shallow and less than admirable. I point that out not to bash Jefferson (who I also admire) but to demonstrate that even the best of men had moments when they did not act in accordance with their conscience. Everyone that is, except John Adams, who never seemed to waiver from the path his conscience set before him.
The second reason, and one that goes hand in hand with the first, is the absolute devotion, respect and love that he and his wife, Abigail, displayed for one another throughout their lives. Call me sappy and overly sentimental, but I was absolutely awe struck by the level of commitment and affection that they felt and showed to one another even across great distances and during long years when they hardly even saw each other. John and Abigail drew strength and comfort from one another in a way that was special and unique.
This just cemented for me the truly exceptional nature of John Adams' character. He made me proud to be an American and to have such men in my country's history. Anyway, to sum up, I loved this book and give it my HIGHEST POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATION!!! 6.0 Stars.
One final note: for those of you that listen to audiobooks, I wanted to point out that I listened to the unabridged version (all 30+ hours of it) narrated by Nelson Runger and Mr. Runger did an amazing job that I believe added both to my enjoyment and absorption of the material.
I LEARNED SO MUCH........ I'm moved - deeply moved...... at this 'book' and 'partly' at myself. SOMETHING HAS SHIFTED INSIDE ME THROUGH THIS READING EXPERIENCE. A handful of books have done this for me --but not usually 'two' in a very short period of time! But..... I can't deny what's so.
SNAP CRACKLE POP....... BOOKS THAT CHANGE OUR THINKING - OUR ACTIONS - MUST BE REMEMBERED..... this is another one of those books!!!!!!
A light switch is turned 'on' in my brain for the first time in almost 65 years. I haven't been reading biographies about past Presidents. I have some natural interest in Kennedy - Lincoln - and - Obama -- but I've never been the girl to run to the history or political sections in book stores... seeking out past Presidents to read about. WHY THE HECK HAVEN'T I? Fear of boring dry reading?? It's amazing how shallow and small my thinking is sometimes.
Has anyone else ever cried when coming 'nose-to-nose' with your own stupidity- laziness- and/or shame for allowing yourself to be ignorant? Really angry at yourself? I've been reading this book for 4 to 6 weeks ( other books too), but a couple of weeks ago I broke down: cried like a baby ..... facing the reality of HOW MUCH I DON'T KNOW. At the same time ...., I WAS FASCINATED WITH THIS BOOK - THIS STORY - I'm left wanting to explore more!!!! Hallelujah! :)
John Adams worked his ass off LONG HOURS A DAY - RISKING HIS HEALTH - making constant sacrifices and contributions with the most humble heart!! A GREAT MAN!!!
I've read my share of the "The dreaded multiple POV novels". I'm discovering it's possible that reading historical books about past Presidents might 'not' be drudgery or work any more than it's been to read about Jack or Libby taking turns narrating every other chapter. If more books about past Presidents are 'this good'.... ( good storytelling), I have nothing to fear!
I FEEL LESS RESISTANCE TO READ ABOUT MORE PAST PRESIDENTS!!! ....That's what's shifted!!! I'm ready to read another, and another! Ha ha .... we certainly have plenty of past presidents to choose from!!! :)
JOHN ADAMS - inspired me!!!! His character was outstanding!! Were all Presidents this honest, 'loving' toward his wife and children, down to earth, decent, .....really decent? He was bright - worked hard. Model integrity. I didn't think of him as a politician. I can't imagine Trump ever saying these word.... "I only wish I were better qualified" .....John Adams
Ohhhhhh, and Abigail.... did you not love this woman???? Up at 5am to begin her day... taking care of the needs of their family and home. - running a farm during war - loss of children while her husband was away -sadness - loneliness- missing her partner - She was a courageous independent woman ahead of her days.
I knew nothing about John Adams relationship with Thomas Jefferson. Friends, ......then enemies, then friends again. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson 'both' died on July 4, 1826, ---same day!!!! Blows my mind!!! John Adams lived longer than any other American President. I wonder if it was all that Apple cider he drank every day. :)
Question to those who are history buffs? Suggestions of 'which' President I might read about next? A few suggestions? And by whom?
Since reading John Adams I have continually been reminded of my delusion of our country's history. Today as I saw the conclusion of the John Adams' series on HBO I realized I was one of those John Adams saw as "deluded" by the artistic portrayal of our history in Trumbell's "Declaration of Independence." Adams was right. Too many of us believe Trumbell's view of the Declaration of Independence not acknowledging the many difficulties over many years before and after the signing of that great document.
I'm reminded of that as we too often expect other countries to simply get their act together over a short space of time to form a more free country such as we enjoy. It was never easy. It shall never be easy. There must be always those within the country who are willing and able to do something to make a difference. It takes many making a difference and it takes respect for one another--never simple. Much happens in the process in the making of people. God raises up good and able men and women to make a difference among every people.
This is a must-read for anyone interested in the American Revolution. I would call this David McCullough's masterpiece, except I've read several of his remarkable books, including Truman and The Wright Brothers, and they are all so good I don't think I could pick a favorite.
But let's get back to John Adams, who, along with Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, was a critical founder of America. If you've seen the impressive HBO miniseries based on this book (starring Paul Giamatti and the amazing Laura Linney as Abigail Adams), you already know the outline of events. John Adams was a lawyer in Massachusetts, and after the Boston Massacre in 1770, he agreed to defend the British soldiers, arguing that "facts are stubborn things." Despite widespread anger toward the British, John Adams won the case.
Meanwhile, the colonists were growing increasingly dissatisfied with their English overlords, especially with their "taxation without representation." When a Continental Congress was formed in Philadelphia, Adams was chosen to represent Massachusetts. It was there that he found his voice in politics, and met the other men who helped design the American government we know today.
Adams was also sent to France and England as an ambassador, and the stories of him abroad were charming in their fish-out-of-water-ness. Oh, and let's not forget Adams became our second president (and his son, John Quincy Adams, became our sixth).
In short, John Adams lived an amazing and full life, and had an impact on history that few have the opportunity to do. Aside from being a fascinating person, what really makes this biography shine are the passages from letters that John and Abigail wrote to each other. This is where McCullough excels as a writer of history, in weaving together the best quotes and stories and making the narrative flow as smoothly as a novel.
I came away from this book a great admirer of John Adams, and grateful that he was in the right place and the right time to help build this new country. He was smart and fair, but also stubborn and vain. He was a good man with flaws, as many of us are. As I write this, Hamilton the musical is a huge hit on Broadway, but in my mind, John Adams deserves his own show.
Favorite Quotes "The source of our suffering has been our timidity. We have been afraid to think ... Let us dare to read, think, speak, write."
"Our obligations to our country never cease but with our lives."
"So, it was done, the break was made, in words at least: on July 2, 1776, in Philadelphia, the American colonies declared independence. If not all thirteen clocks had struck as one, twelve had, and with the other silent, the effect was the same. It was John Adams, more than anyone, who had made it happen. Further, he seems to have understood more clearly than any what a momentous day it was and in the privacy of two long letters to Abigail, he poured out his feelings as did no one else: 'The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.'"
"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study paintings, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."
"The longer I live, the more I read, the more patiently I think and the more anxiously I inquire, the less I seem to know ... do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. This is enough."
A solid and satisfying biography of a key leader in the birth of the American Republic. This book helps make him my favorite of the bunch because of his paradoxical mix of humility and ambition, idealism and pragmatism. Unlike Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton, he didn’t have aristocratic bearings and valued honesty, sincerity, and free thinking as the highest virtues. He appreciated the simple things in small town life and farming and liked doing his own physical tasks like chopping wood. I also admire his 50-plus years of devotion to his wife Abigail and his family. By contrast, Franklin effectively abandoned his family for 17 years in Europe and was allured by the high life and ladies in France.
The book is at its best in explicating Adams’ character. He came from a 100-year line of farmers and common Puritan folk in Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston now part of Quincy. His father was devout, a deacon of his Protestant church, and expected John to become a minister. Instead he chose law after graduating from Harvard College and a boring stint as a schoolteacher. He wanted to accomplish something of lasting significance and law was a more likely path. On the one hand he criticized himself for the sins of vanity and selfish ambition, while on the other was always driven to fulfill the image and succeeded like few others. Taking Abigail for his wife kept him down to earth, as she was his sounding board and most significant advisor through the rest of his active life. The letters between them are the main window to Adams thinking and personality, and McCullough harnesses them well to reveal his steady good humor, love of people in general, and overall moral optimism
Soon his cases began radicalizing him against the powers exerted by the colonial government, like customs searches without a warrant and the imposition of import taxes without representation. I liked his courage in acting on his belief in a fair trial to the point of defending the British soldiers who killed several colonists who were protesting the Stamp Act in 1770 in a dangerously rowdy manner. He learned the arts of public speaking, of applying logic to negotiation, and of reading people’s motivations and likely actions. His ability to inspire trust and his reputation for honest dealings contributed to his becoming a leader among the Patriot crowd. His effective service as a Massachusetts provincial legislator led to his being included in their delegation to the Continental Congress. And the rest is history, as they say.
After the violence of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, Adams could readily lead efforts to build-up the local militias into an integrated Continental Army and was responsible for nominating the Virginian Washington for command. One last hurrah of the Loyalists had to play out with a failed petition to King George to relent before the majority was ready to assert independence. Compared to Adams, Franklin and Jefferson were surprisingly restrained and inarticulate in terms of pushing their ideas in debate. When it came to drafting the Declaration of Independence with them and two others on the committee, it fell to Jefferson to compose most of the writing, but Adams was its chief advocate and most responsible for its passage.
When the British response was cutting off trade and blockade, the key to success and survival as a nation became recognition of American independence by counties like France, including a source of naval muscle to assert rights of free trade. Adams was sent with the delegation to France to help pull this off. The dangerous trip, accompanied by his young son John Quincy, in a stormy February crossing was nicely covered in the book. Success in Paris came slow, and he only had a junior role. Upon return, he took up the task of drafting a constitution for Massachusetts, which was one of his accomplishments he was most proud of. In 1779 he was sent back to head up negotiations for a peace treaty with Britain. This time he took Abigail and their daughter along. McCullough is especially engaging in probing for the changing reactions of their plebian family to the fashionable and decadent lifestyles of Parisian society and the state of filth and misery of the lower classes.
The book seems to lose energy after this point. His languishing as the first vice president and tenure as president have few high points. The dissension between his Federalist Party and the Republican Party of his vice president Jefferson is given short shrift. When the French began seizing American merchant ships doing trade with Britain, Adams broke with his cabinet advisors (and Abigail) in refusing to join Britain in their war against Napolean’s forces. The libelous press became a target with the Sedition Act, which he felt violated the First Amendment, and did not support aggressive prosecutions as even Abigail wished. Life winds down for Adams after losing the next election to Jefferson. The high point in this book for the long succeeding decades of private life was his ten-year correspondence with Jefferson starting in 1812 through the encouragement of mutual friend Benjamin Rush to put aside their differences. I wish McCullough had done even more than pulling out a few choice sections on their play of ideas.
In the end, I felt the book was great for conveying a sense of the man in his times, but t was missing the elements of critical analysis and perspectives that provided a better balance in his biographies of Truman and Teddy Roosevelt. For example, in Isaacson’s biography of Franklin Adams comes off a bit as a drudge and moralistic party pooper in his time with Franklin in Paris. And the Wiki summary on Adams reveals unclear or contradictory positions of Adams on slavery and heredity legislators like Britain’s House of Lords. For readers interested in the American Revolution, McCullough’s “1776” is a better resource for the drama and broader understanding of how it was that ordinary rural people in a diverse set of colonies came together to form an independent nation. I loved Philbrick’s “Bunker Hill” even more. These relative judgments are subject to the caveat that I did this “read” as an abridged audiobook. I am only aware of missing sections that cover what his reactions and activities were during the period of British blockage of Boston and early battles of revolt, the course of his contentious relations with Jefferson and with Hamilton, and much of Adams; time as an ambassador to England.
When the door opened, they proceeded, Adams, as instructed, making three bows, or "reverences," one on entering, another halfway, a third before "the presence." "The United States of America have appointed me their minister plenipotentiary to Your Majesty," Adams began, nearly overcome with emotion. "I felt more than I did or could express," he later wrote. Before him, in the flesh, was the "tyrant" who, in the language of the Declaration of Independence, had plundered American seas and burned American towns, the monarch "unfit to be the ruler of a free people," while to the King, he himself, Adams knew, could only be a despised traitor fit for the hangman's noose.
If John Adams had only been the first ambassador to England after the war, that would have been enough to get a fascinating book about the revolution. What a cool moment, standing in front of King George after all that had happened. But ambassador to England was just one of about a zillion noteworthy things Adams did in his lifetime.
I'm in the middle of a project of trying to learn about the American Revolution by reading a biography of each of the founding fathers. With Hamilton I got a look at the foundations of the federal government. With Washington I got the view from the troops on the ground. With Franklin I got a look at the foundations of revolution - how people went from faithful subjects to rebels.
You get a lot of all those things with Adams too, but this book on Adams gives you something entirely unique to the rest - his relationship with Abigail. Their letters to each other are an American treasure, and they give you a view of the revolution through the eyes of a family.
Adams is the first of the founding fathers I've read about who was actually a family man. You might think that would make the book less interesting (Washington and Franklin were able to do the amazing things they did because they were able to make family less of a priority), but instead it makes the book more interesting. Adams' view of everything that happens is completely tied up in and shaped by his relationship with his family. It grounded him. He was a revolutionary hero, no doubt, but this is definitely the story of what happens when an ordinary man is thrown into the middle of world-changing events. And the events do not change him one bit.
I think if I'm ranking the founding father books so far, I would put them like this: 1. Chernow's Hamilton book. 2. This book. 3. Brands' Franklin book. 4. Chernow's Washington book. But I love all four.
Some notes: - I had always been told that after the 1800 election, Adams and Jefferson hated each other for the rest of their lives. That's not at all true, mostly because Adams' wasn't really capable of hating anybody. He always managed to get rocky relationships smoothed back out. Jefferson and Adams were friends pretty much all the way through, even when their relationship was occasionally strained. - Having said that, every book I read about the founding fathers makes me like Thomas Jefferson even less. - Came away from this book really impressed by John Quincy Adams. Looking forward to reading more about him in the future. - The best part of this book for me was Adams' first trip across the Atlantic, when he disobeyed the ship's captain's instructions and joined in a battle with a British warship. Great story. - John and Abigail never wavered in their hatred against slavery, something only Hamilton and Jay among the founding fathers can say. - Interesting to see the difference in how Franklin and Adams in Paris is handled by Brands in his book about Franklin and McCullough in his Adams book. In the Franklin book Adams is a bore and a killjoy. In the Adams book Franklin is a hindrance to progress and lazy. Both appear to be at least partly true, but it's interesting to see the same story from two different points of view.
McCullough dazzled with his depiction of Harry Truman and brings that passion now to look at the life of John Adams. As he tackles the more daunting task of bringing this Founding Father and former president to life, through a plethora of research and historical tomes, McCullough illustrates the varied life Adams lived and the complexities of his journey. Presenting Adams as both a man of the people and a politically-minded gentleman, McCullough shows how he shaped the formation of the United States and led it through its early years. Crossing paths with numerous greats, Adams not only took from them but also added some of his own ideas, which benefitted all who took the time to synthesise the discussion. Throughout the biography, McCullough shows three predominant sides to Adams, all of which play an important part in his entire personality: Adams the advocate, the political leader, and the family man, though not necessarily in that order of importance. Written in a clear and fluid manner, McCullough does an amazing job of showing John Adams to be more than a stuffy politician who signed the Declaration of Independence. I have new-found respect and admiration for Adams and took way so much from this one book, as I do whenever I give McCullough the chance to teach.
McCullough makes reference throughout that Adams enjoyed playing the role of advocate, especially for the underprivileged. In his early years as a lawyer, Adams handled defending those whom others would not assist, citing that he wanted to grow both in his knowledge of the law as well as strongly believing that everyone deserved a proper defence. McCullough shows that Adams sought to use his way with words (both the written and spoken) to present as strong a case as possible, no matter the defendant. One might extend this advocacy to Adams' role in Philadelphia, where he acted as one of Massachusetts' representatives at the Continental Congress. Adams planted the seed of formal independence from Britain in the minds of many, through speeches and shaped legislation. McCullough comments that Adams sought to advocate as vociferously as possible against the oppressive George III and tried to promote the idea of an independent country whose rights ought to be held in Congress, not some far-off parliament with no representation. McCullough illustrates Adams' passion for independence and while some of the pre-conference happenings receive but a passing mention (Boston Tea Party, for example), the actual constitutional discussions at the Congress receives much attention and exemplifies how Adams shone repeatedly. After declaring their independent interests in 1776, Congress sent Adams abroad to advocate for treaties of support and commerce in France, as well as peace with England when it became clear that George III's armies would be no match for Washington's forces. Congress went so far as to appoint Adams as the first Ambassador to the Court of St. James', an awkward honour in which Adams thrived. While these were by no means simplistic jobs, Adams took them as challenges in which personal growth was assured. McCullough depicts the trials and tribulations throughout these journeys, binding them together with the thread of intense interest to advocate for what Adams felt was right for all.
As a political leader, Adams looked past his own interests and pushed ideas of the greater whole while working in Congress and overseas. The oft stated belief that a leader ought to look outside themselves and seek what is best for the entire populace may have been based on Adams' life, as he tried to lead others when little or no precedent existed. Working to create a constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Adams drew on some of the key aspects found within the Declaration of Independence (something he thought might be tasked to him before he passed it along to Jefferson), and added key tenets that he felt were best for all those living there, Adams tried to lead by example and to use his passion for his home state (province in the early years) to better everyone. As mentioned above, Adam sought also to lead in his roles as plenipotentiary minister to both The Netherlands (an interesting story told by McCullough about how Adams scored this post) and England, seeking to forge new alliances and political ground for the newly-born state. Through trials and tribulations abounded, Adams worked to foster needed relationships and climb the ladder of importance, which worked when Congress eventually named him the first vice-president of the United States in 1788. The role still new (and the constitution's depiction of the job description lacking), Adams tried to lead from the dais of the President of the Senate, injecting himself into debate and offering up many opinions. Not used to the role well founded now, the vice-president is better seen and not heard, waiting for the demise of the president to assume any true role. Still, through his pamphlet writing, Adams sought to lead the country through his ideas and political commentary on world events, most especially the French Revolution, drawing parallels to the happenings in 1776.
Political leadership took on a new role when Adams narrowly defeated Jefferson (by a mere 3 votes) in the Electoral College in 1797. The presidential campaign of 1796 saw the birth of party politics in America. Tarred and feathered as a monarchist by many of those seeking to derail him, Adams had to shed the moniker in order to move forward and to keep him from the figurative (and perhaps literal) gallows. Forging ahead, Adams used a great deal of his political knowledge to act in as strong a capacity of president as he could. Faced with an openly volatile and confrontational vice-president, Jefferson, the nation faced its most strained administration. While Jefferson tried to set pitfalls for his president, congressional progress appeared glacial and the two parties (the Republicans and the Federalists) sought to stop the other from any crumb of success. McCullough presents much support for the argument that Adams' presidency was ultimately shaped by the post-revolutionary French government, which began goading America into war. Adams built up the needed defences, should war become necessary and proposed two major pieces of legislation to define America for decades thereafter, the Aliens Act, and the Sedition Act. He argued that these pieces of legislation would defend honour and patriotism within America and let foreign potentates know with whom they were dealing. While McCullough posits that peace was Adams' ultimate goal, this is hard to see amongst the military chest bumping. While making the ultimate decision to seek peace, Adams ruffled the feathers of many and may have cast himself in a poor light from thereon in in the eyes of Jefferson and other key Republicans. However, it is his prerogative to do so. This paved the way for the highly vicious campaign of 1800, pitting president against vice-president for the first and only time in history. McCullough presents a highly intriguing story surrounding this campaign and the dirty politicking for which America would eventually become known. McCullough further posits that the outcome of that election hinged greatly on Adams' decision not to go to war with France.
Perhaps his greatest role, seen as a major arc throughout the tome, is that of a family man. McCullough uses this role as an overarching one throughout the book. Abigail Adams plays a central role in the story of John Adams' life and there is no section found therein that McCullough does not have some reference to her importance in his life. Adams valued his family above all others and tried to include them wherever he could. Granted, looking at things through the lens of the time, some might query his dedication to family and he and Abigail discuss stillbirths and deaths by letter, but there is no doubt that Adams did all he did to better the lives of his wife and children, going so far as to bring his sons with him to France and The Netherlands on various plenipotentiary missions. His constant letters to Abigail and the detail in which he discussed his adventures, as well as the poetic way in which he waxed wand waned about missing his brood shows how dedicated he was to their inclusion in his life. McCullough does a wonderful job illustrating this through the book's numerous parts and keeps the theme of family predominant throughout the numerous segues. Bringing family along with him on his numerous political appointments, Adams sought to enrich their lives as much as his own, exemplifying his dedication to the family unit. McCullough shows a strongly supportive father and keen head of household whose determination to open new paths for his children as a central tenet of the biography. Even through his trying years as president, Adams always kept his family close at hand, especially Abigail's near death at the hand of yellow fever. He juggled things as best he could, never shutting him family out to run the executive of the country.
Of interest, McCullough does not isolate the story to the life of John Adams and family. Numerous, detailed accounts of some of the other Founding Fathers and key actors in the rise of American independence whose interactions with Adams were central tasks undertaken by McCullough throughout. Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, and even Madison all receive great attention from McCullough and offer a teaser to the biographical backgrounds of each. Jefferson surely played a significant role in Adams' life, even if they did eventually distance themselves when wearing their respective political hats. The executive clashes between Washington and Adams would likely be accentuated with an alternate perspective, making Ron Chernow's biography of Washington essential. In the same light, Jon Meacham will surely help show Jefferson's side to the numerous clashes with Adams, both as Founding Fathers and within the executive. Some great storytelling surrounding the difficulties Adams and Franklin faced while working 'together' in France may give the reader a new perspective on both, though surely that is to be expected in such a thoroughly documented tome.
One area I had hoped would receive more attention (though the length of the tome justifies its exclusion) is the debates surrounding the independence movement and eventual creation of the Constitution of the United States. Being an institutional reformer, I find it interesting to see where the constitutional seeds germinated and some of the important aspects arose. From his Truman biography, I know that McCullough does present electoral campaigns in a highly detailed fashion. While 1896 was a mere blink of the eye, the re-election campaign of 1800 proved highly entertaining.
Kudos do not seem to be enough to encapsulate how much I enjoyed this biography. Choosing a well-known president (by name, but not necessarily by background) appears to be a strength for McCullough as he weaves the detailed background of their lives, their successes and more certainly their demises. I learned more about early America (and the roots about some of the current goings-on) than I have in all my reading to date. Thank you so very much for this and I hope to dive into another McCullough classic soon.
I cannot imagine anyone who wouldn’t enjoy this book.
This is a book about a man, John Adams, but it is also much, much more. It is a book about American Independence, the American Revolution and all the Founding Fathers, the seven most important being George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, George Madison and Benjamin Franklin. The book follows all the events from the Declaration of Independence and the Revolution, through the presidencies of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Madison, James Monroe and finally John Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, the sixth president! This is a book about people, each very different in character, but the author brings each one of them to life. I adore learning about people. I loved the book for this reason alone. You understand how the individuals think, what they feared, what they loved, what made each one special. You understand their differences. It is the little details that will make you LOVE this book. John Adams, this guy wrote volumes in the margins of his books. Jefferson loved his books too, but rarely did he write in them. The relationship between these two men is extraordinary. John Adams relationship with his wife Abigail is extraordinary too!
I love how it taught me history, and it was never ever boring. I don’t read books about politics, but this book is definitely about politics, and I adored it! I normally avoid books on politics because I find them confusing. Why? Because for me politics doesn’t follow the rules of logic. A party claims they stand for a given set of principles, but then the politicians do not follow these principles. The result is that I get confused. A central theme is, and particularly John Adams presidency and the following election where he sought his second term but lost it to Jefferson, was a battle of politics, and yet I understood exactly what was happening. This book is clear, informative and presents a balanced view of all the prime players.
John Adams by David McCullough is stupendous. I cannot help but compare it with Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, which I recently read and loved, but Isaacson’s book doesn’t come near to McCullough’s. John Adams wrote letters to all his contemporaries, to newspapers, public officials, friends and his dear wife Abigail. He kept diaries. John Adams was opinionated. Jefferson and Franklin were close-mouthed! After his presidency, when he was much older, Adams wrote copious letters to his dear friend and previous arch-enemy, Jefferson. Adams is the person to follow if you are interested in learning about American Independence, American life in the colonies during the 1700s and about France and England and Holland too, about the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. It is all here and it is all interesting.
Every page has quotes. Don’t assume that this makes the book dry and difficult to read. The opposite is true! You learn about the peculiarities of all the important Founding Fathers. Jefferson bought and bought and bought. He couldn’t stop buying. It is the way the author depicts these small idiosyncrasies that will make you laugh out loud! Jefferson lists all that he buys, but the funniest is that the columns and columns of purchased items are never added up. Never. Both Adams and Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, fifty years after the Declaration of Independence!!!!! Guess which one was wealthy then! I REALLY love this book and I want you to understand that this is the book to choose if you have any curiosity about any of the Founding Fathers, about American Independence or about life in Europe during the 1700s and early 1800s.
Have I convinced you to choose this book? Here is another reason why! The descriptions of the people, places and events are vivid! When the British ships are set to attack at Staten Island you see them in the sun and you feel the imminent threat. At Washington's inauguration he travels in a canary yellow carriage pulled by white horses. I am skipping all over the place, I know, but the descriptive quality of the lines is perfect throughout the entire book. I personally adored the depiction of French, English and Dutch mores. I adored how family problems are described so you laugh. Charles, one of Adams’ sons, had some difficulties in Harvard and almost got thrown out. Yes, they were running around naked. But wait, you will cry too when you learn of his final fate. “Moral” and so very devoted to his wife as Adams is, you should hear his conversation with the French women! “Instincts” will show us what to do, he replies to a tricky question about men and women’s sexual behavior! :0) This reply is just so perfect; it is so “Adamsee”! And Hamilton, oh what he does! I could wring his neck!
All the details are amusing, engaging, thorough, and accurate. When I compare Isaacson’s versus McCullough’s portrait of Benjamin Franklin, I feel that McCullough’s is superior. His is unbiased and clear-sighted. An author may not “fall in love” with the character being portrayed; impartiality is essential. So here is my advice: read John Adams first! The two are similar, but this one is superior. Read Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life afterwards if you then still want a little bit more about Franklin’s scientific inventions. Nelson Runger is the narrator of both of the audiobooks. Yes, he slurps and seems to need to swallow his saliva repeatedly, but there is less of that in McCullough’s book. His French pronunciation could definitely be improved, but otherwise the narration is fine. Don’t shy away from either audiobook for these reasons. The narration’s speed and clarity is fine, and that is what is most important.
McCullough’s biography deserves all the accolades. It is written with depth and with passion. More than just a history, this is a penetrating look into the minds of Adams, Jefferson, family, friends and enemies that brings them and their times to life for us. This remarkable accounting of the birth of a country and how it found its early footing foreshadows the civil war and debates that still rage in America. Contrasting the beliefs, politics and personalities of Adams and Jefferson, McCullough exquisitely illustrates the divisions and binding forces of early America that persist to this day. That the deaths of Jefferson and Adams, the pen and the voice of the Declaration of Independence, occurred only five hours apart on July 4, 1826 exactly fifty years after its proclamation is simply astonishing. A must read for every American and anyone who wants to understand America, past and present.
John Adams is an extraordinary book, and an excellent political history of the beginning of the United States. This is the first book I've read by David McCullough, and I'm impressed at his ability to be respectful but blunt, and be serious but entertaining at the same time.
John Adams was an unusual man -- though he had the ambition and vanity characteristic of all politicians, he was a remarkably uncomplicated and generally happy family man. The impression one gets from this book is much like a hobbit -- a sincere, courageous fat little man, who was thrown into circumstances far beyond his expectations and rose to each occasion with incredible tenacity, determination, and eventual success, but who vastly preferred being at home on his farm, mending walls, resting with his wife, and playing with his children and grandchildren.
Adams was one of the most influential figures in the American Revolution, taking roles in the Continental Congress, choosing Washington as General of the Revolutionary Army, writing the constitution of Massachusetts, largely forming and approving the text of the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence, acting as ambassador to England, France, and the Netherlands, being elected Vice President, and eventually becoming the second US President, and father of the sixth. McCullough examines his life through his copious letters, articles, and books, with attention to both his external accomplishments, and his personal life. His joy and enthusiasm in life are impressive to read about -- over his lifetime, he lost a child in infancy, two of his sons grew up to be alcoholics, his only surviving daughter died of cancer in her 40s, he lost several grandchildren in infancy, and eventually lost his beloved wife. Despite this, and despite the public scorn heaped on him for every decision he made as President (yes, they did that back then, too), he managed to build a satisfying life for himself, and take joy in what he did have.
One of the most striking aspects of the book for me was how early partisan politics grew venomous and nasty. The country was already split irreconcilably into two parties by Washington's second term, and the race for president after him (between close friends Adams and Jefferson) grew so vicious that the friendship between the men was lost for 11 years. And while modern readers will side with Adams against slavery, and Jefferson against the Alien and Sedition acts, the degree of hatred and hysteria on each side was truly amazing, though Adams managed to stay above it as much as possible. Modern politics are always very different when viewed in the light of history.
This is an excellent historical and personal read, and I recommend it to anyone.
"No man who ever held the office of president would congratulate a friend on obtaining it," wrote John Adams, and this superb biography by David McCullough makes it clear why Adams was undoubtedly sincere in this sentiment. Adams was a plain and honest speaking man who rose to the challenges of extraordinary times. In this biography he emerges from the shadows of the better known presidents - Washington and Jefferson - whose administrations bracketed his.
McCullough did not originally intend to write a biography of Adams, it transpires, but a more general book on American history. (This eventually became his later work, 1776.) But Adams' character and life made McCullough reconsider, and soon he found himself writing a book solely on Adams.
I confess to having known almost nothing about Adams, and further confess to being dismally uninformed about the revolutionary period in general, especially considering that I majored in history as an undergrad (albeit with a focus almost exclusively in European history). Some dreadful instruction during middle and high school still casts a pall over American history for me, which I realize is a poor excuse now in my fifth decade, but sadly is the only one I can offer for not having really ever undertaken a more thorough study of my own country's development. Since reading this book, however, I've vowed to read McCullough's 1776 and several other notable accounts of the period.
I'm confident that I won't go wrong if I begin with more McCullough, for he is a master portraitist, using apt quotes and vivid description to make his subjects spring to life. Someone (I forget who) remarked that McCullough never wrote a bad page of prose, or something to that effect, and while that may be an exaggeration, it's no exaggeration to say that he is one of the most graceful stylists of our time. He is eloquent without seeming over-enamored of his own words. McCullough's long years as an editor no doubt paid off in honing his own style. Like John Adams, McCullough gravitates toward "classical" modes of oration and style. There's a forcefulness and directness that shines through both in Adams and in McCullough's portrayal of him.
McCullough has a gift for "humanizing" his subjects. Of Adams, he wrote, "He had a brilliant mind. He was honest and everyone knew it. Emphatically independent by nature, hardworking, frugal, he could be high-spirited and affectionate, vain, cranky, impetuous, self-absorbed, and fiercely stubborn; passionate, quick to anger, and all-forgiving; generous and entertaining. He was blessed with great courage and good humor, yet subject to spells of despair." Thus Adams is shown as not a paragon but as someone who had to struggle with his shortcomings.
The author's gift for fleshing out his subjects comes the fore in describing the marriage of John and Abigail. Here is a marriage shown in all its complexity; two people who were ideally suited to one another. I couldn't help but think that in their union McCullough saw something of his own -- he's often cited his own wife as being one of the reasons for his great success as a writer, especially in standing behind his decision to quit his job as an editor and research his first book.
I confess to having done something I usually hate to do -- I saw the HBO special based on the book before I listened to the audio version of it. Normally that ruins a book for me, but here I found it simply reinforced it. Edward Hermann is an excellent narrator, and in fact I've ordered another audio book read by him from my library, Mornings on Horseback McCullough's biography of Teddy Roosevelt.
It's easier for me to relate to history when I have a link with particular people and places. McCullough established that link for me in this period of history, and for that I'm grateful.
McCullough has us believe, for 466 pages, that Adams is generally disliked among the political set of his time and that there is no way he could be elected President: he is anti-slavery, deeply spiritual, a fine family man who loved first his wife, then his children, then farming, and he was always dedicated to doing the right thing (he even defended the British at one point and won the trial: it was the right thing, but not the popular thing to do). But suddenly, on page 467, in what feels like a plot twist, John Adams is inaugurated as America's 2nd President! Then, within a few pages, he is being trashed and slandered again. What does he do? He shuts down the slanderous publication and jails the publisher and a few writers in what feels like a violation of the 1st Amendment. (This would be like Obama shutting down Fox News after having enough of those ridiculous "birther" stories.) This book feels, and is, massive but stupendously readable. And McCullough doesn't err in the way of some historical writers and include all of his research notes: he sticks to the good stuff and delivers a page-turner. What I don't know about my own country's Founding Fathers is shameful: it's time to read more about these remarkable people. As the author says on the back cover, "With change accelerating all around, more and more we need understanding an appreciation of those principles upon which the republic was founded...What was the source of their courage...Who were those people...I don't think we can ever know enough about them." No, but we can make an effort to better understand them!
It's easy to forget all the hardships people went through during the era of John Adams. While Adams was traveling by horse from small town Braintree, MA, for weeks to Philadelphia to meet with the revolutionary braintrust, wife Abigail was back home scrambling to care for the sick, including her mother who died. There were many plagues, including dysentery and small pox.
The Adams clan was of Puritan stock, but they were not fundamentalists. They valued learning.
Adams worked hard and did well at Harvard, and was attracted particularly to mathematics and science, as taught by his favorite professor, John Winthrop, the most distinguished member of the faculty and the leading American astronomer of the time. Among Adams’s cherished Harvard memories was of a crystal night when, from the roof of Old Harvard Hall, he gazed through Professor Winthrop’s telescope at the satellites of Jupiter.
To his surprise, Adams also discovered a love of study and books such as he had never imagined. “I read forever,” he would remember happily, and as years passed, in an age when educated men took particular pride in the breadth of their reading, he became one of the most voracious readers of any. Having discovered books at Harvard, he was seldom ever to be without one for the rest of his days.
This is a wholly enjoyable book, which is the secret of its success. Merely flipping through and scanning a couple passages was enough to convince me to abandon everything else I was reading and to go on a pleasure cruise through history. McCullough’s writing is charming to a rare degree—elevated yet folksy, readable without being simple, and filled with personality without being opinionated. I can see why he is so popular.
Yet it must be said that McCullough achieves this charm by relegating much of the tedious, dreary, or ugly side of Adams’s life to the background. A serious intellectual appraisal of Adams would require a much deeper analysis of his political writings; but here they are minor episodes. A serious appraisal of Adams’s presidency would require a far more thorough review of his policies and legistlation, most obviously the Alien and Sedition Acts. Yet here they are just touched upon. Obviously, such a book as I am describing would be both longer and, almost certainly, duller.
Instead of attempting any kind of definitive appraisal, McCullough gives us a literary biography, a portrait of a man in his times. And Adams is well chosen for the subject of such a book. He left a huge correspondence and a copious diary, writing with rare candor and verve throughout his life, which gives the happy biographer a great deal to work with. Further, Adams was a personality of rare proportion: prickly, warm, passionate, brilliant, stubborn, loyal, foolhardy, blunt, obtuse, principled… the list is endless. As are all of us, Adams was a strange inter-mixture of virtues and vices, yet none of his were moderate.
Even if Adams had been devoid of character, however, the events of his life would still attract attention. He was at the forefront of the Continental Congress, instrumental in driving the early stages of the Revolutionary War: creating an army, appointing Washington to head it, declaring independence, and then choosing Jefferson to draft the declaration. Then, Adams had a long and adventurous life in Europe, working in England, France, and the Netherlands—a feast for the biographer. What is more, Adams was intimately involved with many of the leading personalities of the times, not to mention being the father of another president. So you can see that McCullough had plenty of grist for his mill.
Apart from all of this, John Adams was married to perhaps an even stronger character, Abigail. She comes across as truly John’s better half, if not more intelligent than wiser than he, with a personality more stable but no less fascinating. Thus the biography is, quite often, more of a dual biography of these two extraordinary people. Jefferson receives almost as much attention as Abigail, alternately friend and foe, serving as Adams’s foil: calm, reserved, duplicitous, underhanded, and often unwilling to live by the principles he professes—which makes him a far more effective politician. McCullough turns Adams and Jefferson into the twin poles of the Revolution, much as Chernow did with Hamilton and Jefferson. I suppose I should read something about Jefferson now.
Even if the reader will not come away with an understanding of Adams’s politics and policies, there is still a great deal of value in this book. As with every McCullough book, it is a window into a bygone age, illuminated by bright personalities. And in my case, that is all I wanted.
Adams always seemed like a dumpy old president, but the man was incredibly physically and intellectually rigorous, and without his undaunted labors that were often overlooked, we might not have had the necessary support to win the war against the British.
McMullough is a master. He takes musty old documents and makes them read like fast-paced fiction.
I know that I was supposed to love it, but I must be flawed since I found myself reading it as if it were on a required reading list for American History 201. It came highly recommended and admittedly I learned a great deal, however with apologies to my history buff friends, reading it was not enjoyable for me and rather than finding it compeling as did they, I had to compel myself to finish it.
I have revisited this review written in 2001 after reading the three volume Library of America set of John Adams' writings and the one-volume LOA edition of Abigail Adams' letters. I revisited the review again after reading the recent book by Isenberg and Burstein "The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality" which is critical of McCullough's book for its giving short shrift to John Adams' philosophy and writings. The authors are right in their criticism but McCullough's book has performed a great service in introducing Americans to John Adams.
John Adams has been the most overlooked of the American Founders. David McCullough's large, epic-scaled biography seeks to correct this omission and to bring the character and achievement of Adams alive for today's reader.
McCullough describes well the essential role Adams played in his long life in our Nation's founding. The stages of Adams career, each filled in their own way with accomplishment, can be divided as follows: 1. early years as a young attorney culminating in his courageous defense of the British militia responsible for the Boston Massacre; 2. ceaseless advocate for American Independence during the First Continental Congress; 3. Diplomat to France and Holland during the Revolutionary War and American negotiator of the peace treaty; 4. Diplomat to Britain to negotiate commercial treaties for the fledgling nation 5. first Vice-President of the United States; 6. second President of the United States who successfully kept the country out of war with France; 7. retirement in Quincy.
Each of these periods of Adams's life is described in detail with good attention paid to giving the reader a feel for time and place. I thought the descriptions of early Philadelphia and of Paris both before and after the Revolution were well done.
McCullough also concentrates on Adams's character. He emphasizes his honesty and integrity, admitted to even by his opponents, his love of learning, his relationship with his remarkable wife Abigail and his sometimes sad relationships with his children, and his relationship with other leading figures of the time including, of course, Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin and many others. Adams's vanity, his sharp temper, and his ambition also come through well.
For all of Adams's accomplishments, I was most impressed with the final stage of his life following his 1800 loss of the Presidency to Thomas Jefferson. Adams retired to his farm in Quincy, Massachusetts and devoted himself to reading and to extensive correspondence. In particular, Adams and Thomas Jefferson effected a reconciliation following the conclusions of their Presidencies and exchanged a remarkable series of letters on their thoughts on government, their political experiences, their reading, and simply on growing older and wiser. These letters are indeed treasures of American literature and thought.
Both Adams and Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, as befitting the stature they have for our country. Virtually on his deathbed, Adams was asked for a toast for the celebration. He responded with the words that are the title of this review -- "Independence Forever".
This is a deservedly popular book. May it awaken in the reader an appreciation of our country's revolutionary past and a devotion to its present.
6 stars! I appreciated what this biography revealed to me about the character of John and Abigale Adams' lives so much that I have purchased the hardcover editions for my two grandsons (ages 12 and 11) who love reading and history for their birthdays. (There's a 20 dollar bill inside to use as a bookmark.) John Adams is the kind of man I hope they will try to emulate as young men and adults without desiring to go into politics.
I began reading John Adams four years ago, if you can believe it. Somewhere along the way I set it down and failed to pick it up again until a few weeks ago. I was a fan of David McCullough before I read John Adams, but it has certainly deepened my respect for this incredibly gifted historian. I think it’s rare for a biographer to leave you with the feeling that you don’t just know about the subject, but that you actually know the subject on a personal level. And that is exactly what McCullough accomplished with this portrait of one of the most remarkable and heretofore overlooked founding fathers in our nation’s history. — Kate Scott
This is a masterpiece! McCullough writes history that reads like a novel. I know his access to all the Adams correspondence gave him an advantage, but still, the man can write. I didn’t realize what a fascinating man John Adams was and the many personal sacrifices he made for our country. I felt like I knew the Adams family and actually slowed down my reading because I didn’t want the book to end. In fact, I want to read it again instead of the Thomas Jefferson biography next on my tbr list.
I knew so little about Adams before reading this. I've heard some rank Jefferson as an historical figure they'd like to dine with: forget Jefferson! Adams is seemingly so under appreciated, but was a giant both in his role as a founder of the United States but also in character.
Thanks to David McCullough's 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning biography Adams will no longer be overlooked as a lesser president of the United States.
Although our currency fails to recognize him, that's never been much of a big deal to me, as my wallet generally fails to recognize any currency... they're so rarely acquainted:
John Adams - the president - was complex, ambitious, decisive. John Adams - the book - is complex, ambitious, definitive, and a remarkably readable masterpiece.
McCullough doesn't get bogged down in the tedium of mind-numbing details, and instead writes the book in more of a narrative form, starting with Adams family history, but focusing on his career in politics.
Before I go on, I have to say I was apprehensive about reading this after seeing the family tree at the beginning. Six John Adams? 4 Abigail Adams? 3 Williams? 3 Thomas's? 3 Susannas? Seriously, whoever wrote The Very First Big Book of Baby Names deserves a prize. Too bad it wasn't around in 1691... (parenthetical aside: I'm a little sensitive to this right now as I recently read One Hundred Years of Solitude, and everybody had the same name in that book.)
Adams' life was eventful. Oh, to be blessed and cursed to live in the times of such change.
There's so much that is telling about his life - of his intelligence, integrity, his ambition and conceit.
Although a steadfast patriot, he represented the Redcoats charged with murder in the Boston Massacre. (It is also telling that his friend - a Tory - was the prosecutor.) He took the case when no one else would because, "no one in a free country should be denied the right to counsel and a fair trial." (pg 66)
The love and devotion he and Abigail had for each other is nothing short of amazing. Truly, they were soul mates - if ever there was such a thing. They spent roughly ten years apart, due to his devotion to the nation. Yet their love never faltered. Their correspondence is remarkable in volume and substance - to think they were writing it all in a time before the internet, when the news they'd get could be months old - if it arrived at all. The transparency seen in their letters is a beautiful (albeit slightly voyeuristic) look into who they were and how they loved.
Abigail, in a letter to James Lovell (pg 262) writes of her husband, "Yet it wounds me, sir. When he is wounded, I bleed." They are a couple worth emulating. They endured. They endured.
There's a lot made of Adams' time as president, and before as a politician, his hand in The Declaration, his friendship with Jefferson. I won't go into all that, because it's found elsewhere. (I will say, I loved the part where Jefferson was listening to Congress dissect The Declaration of Independence... ouch...) Yes, there was a rift between them that was bridged. Yes, they both died on the same day, July 4th - 50 years after the signing. (Note just the same date, but the same DAY.) Yes, the country took it as a sign...
That is remarkable. What I find more remarkable is that Jefferson died $100,000 in debt after railing about debt. And Adams died with $100,000 to his name.
Jefferson's acceptance and affection for the French Revolution is appalling, and horrific - especially given the fact that he didn't free his own slaves.
Slavery, well... let's not even go there during this review...
The book was great. You should read it.
Before I leave this conclusionless review though, let me say one more thing that I liked - the parts at the beginning before John was in politics, while he was still a teacher. The things he said solidified my view that things were neither better, nor worse back then... people were people. Human nature does not change.
Of course, I can't find it now... but John said he thought students responded better to a little praise and encouragement, rather than a "thwacking." If I find that quote, I'm going to hang it on my wall.
Biography of John Adams told in the style of narrative history. Fortunately, Adams left lots of correspondences, which McCullough has used to bring him to life for the reader. We learn about his early life in Braintree, Massachusetts, education at Harvard, marriage to Abigail Smith, involvement in the independence movement, involvement in Continental Congress, visits to France and Holland, vice presidency, presidency, and later years. A good portion of the narrative focuses on his friendship with Thomas Jefferson, their falling out, and reconnection later in life. We learn about his accomplishments and a few blunders. He comes across as a person of integrity, character, and statesmanship.
McCullough paints his scenes in vivid detail. Adams apparently suffered from malaria, which he initially contracted in his travels. He had a bit of a temper, but never let it get out of control. He suffered from bouts of melancholy, which we might call depression. While President, he pitched in to help in a bucket brigade. I was hoping for more on Adams’ time as President, but this part of the book is fairly sparse and does not appear until the last quarter of this rather lengthy book.
Nevertheless, it is easy to recommend McCullough’s vivid portrayal of John Adams, a founding father who gets less attention than some of the other notables such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. He comes across as a devoted husband and someone who cared passionately about doing what was best for his country. Fans of American history will enjoy this one.
What can I say? This book took me months to read and challenged my thinking on a number of preconceptions I had about the Revolution and the Founders. Instead of "correcting" me and forcing me into a new way of thinking, McCullough gently and deftly inspired me to soak in everything he had to say about Adams and to seek out biographies of other Founders to compare and contrast the men, their ideas and their accounts of history. This book is verbose but in a very engaging and pleasant way. It would seem to the reader that McCullough believes Adams to be the primary hero of our nation's birth and establishment and I suspect that he might be right. I knew little of Adams before reading this text but I have fallen in love with he and Abigail and plan to read their letters as a follow up.
I wish that every high school in America would throw away their white washed, pc, editorialist American history textbooks and require all students to read biographies like this. Our passion for America, her heroes and her challenges could only be kindled by such a move.
This is such a well written, interesting book. I keep wishing we had a John Adams to vote for this November. The caveat for me is that there is so much content to this book I need to continually take a break and do some light reading between and/or at the same time. Highly recommended for any American history buff.
I read John Adams largely because my grandfather's response when I told him I was reading Alexander Hamilton last year was "I hear that John Adams biography is excellent." Additionally, I was interested because Hamilton was always at odds with him, but I like them both a great deal (and incidentally do not feel the same way about Thomas Jefferson).
This book did not disappoint. McCullough masterfully selected quotations of Adams, Abigail, John Quincy, Benjamin Rush, Jefferson, and other major players in Adams's life, and incorporated them without disrupting the prose. Every thirty pages or so I found a quote so striking that I wrote it down in a little notebook, or marked the page number on the post-it I used as a bookmark.
Through quotes and narrative alike, the book illustrates the remarkable, influential man John Adams was, from his years negotiating peace and loans in Europe to his one term as the nation's second President. Adams's thoughts on education, slavery, war, and the dangers of faction are compelling; his conduct in the face of constantly being misunderstood complicated and sympathetic; his ever-present integrity inspiring. In fact, at least for the moment, the admiration I've developed for Adams through McCullough's book has rendered my regard for Hamilton something closer to an infatuation.
If the book has one flaw, it is in McCullough's confrontation of Adams's. Whereas the picture of Adams is for the most part brilliantly developed, the book at some point discusses his lapses in judgment, his temper, his indignation, as if it were assumed knowledge. True, these aspects of his personality were likely not as well preserved for history in letters, but I would have liked this to be fleshed out more and earlier on. This is not to say that McCullough pedestalizes Adams; I only wished to understand better these qualities of his. Also, McCullough handles some of Adams's obtrusive character traits quite well - I literally giggled imagining Adams presiding over the first Senate debates, unable to refrain from butting in in spite of his own intentions to refrain from doing so.
I cannot neglect to mention Abigail in discussing her husband's biography. John and Abigail had a great romance of the kind I had sort of thought rare in general, but especially in that era. Their need for each other, the pain they express at being apart, their unyielding support for one another, and the deep deep friendship that resulted in Abigail's fond salutation to Adams as her "dearest friend," shine through in the book to demonstrate their unique bond. Intellectual, opinionated Abigail was a treat to read about. Her accounts of France in general were fabulous, and one of the highights of the entire book for me was her description of meeting and despising a preeminent French woman Benjamin Franklin had raved about (page 305-06).
Less substantive matters - the book includes a family tree chart at the beginning that I constantly referred back to. The part and chapter breaks were appropriate, and the index is comprehensive and easy to navigate. Finally, a word about length: this is a book you have to be a bit patient with. It's about 700 pages long and starts off in a slow, arguably boring description of Adams's simple beginning as the son of a New England farmer, facts which of course literally define Adams. Stick with it through the first hundred pages or so, resign yourself to at least a couple of months with it, and what you never knew about Adams is sure to enrich your understanding of the fascinating times in which he lived.
2022-08-09 I just learned the author died last Sunday, 2022-08-07 at 89 years old. RIP The obituary in the Wall St. Journal by Danny Heitman was very good.
3 Jan. 2018 - I listened to this book not long after it came out (2002 or 3?) and really liked it. McCullough narrated the book himself and was very good. Only faults I remember with the book was that the author was far too forgiving of Adams for his: - foolish/pernicious position on the Alien and Sedition laws, - allowing/helping the government to expand more than necessary - foolish promotion of grandiloquent language for addressing the President and promoting the power of the government in general.
Adams was an amazing man. He had an incredible wife and one of his sons, John Quincy Adams, was pretty darn amazing himself.
He was crucial for the American revolution's success and founding of the US.
He was a highly civilizing force in American society and acted honorably, vigorously and effectively in the colonies, in the new republic and in his international capacities too.
The original HBO mini-series did a great job in adapting the book to that medium too. Very dramatic, very powerful. I have not yet seen the further (expanded) TV series yet.