John Adams: A Book Review

A review of David McCullough’s warm and engaging portrait of one of America’s most under-sung Founding Fathers

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A Recalcitrant Patriot

John Adams, the second president of the United States, described himself as a farmer, sometimes a lawyer. Perhaps he would have been happier had he spent his life on his Massachusetts farm or practicing law in the countryside around Boston, but America would not have been the same.

Intelligent, irascible, and egalitarian, John Adams was among a handful of brave individuals who shepherded a fledgling country along its path to liberty, guiding her through her first steps as a nation.

In his outstanding novel John Adams, David McCullough brings this stalwart patriot to life.

John Adams

A Winning Biography

Representative from Massachusetts to the First Continental Congress, eloquent debater for the cause of freedom, staunch supporter of social equality, and steadfast man of integrity, John Adams was one of the most important politicians in the history of the United States. He worked with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to pen the Declaration of Independence, and stood firm as it was endlessly debated and ultimately ratified. He was America’s ambassador to France during the crucial years when the fledgling United States needed France’s support (and money). John Adams was one of the most influential and steady patriots of the American Revolution, risking his life in the pursuit of his country’s freedom.

Simultaneously, John Adams was a lawyer (famously — and successfully — defending the British soldiers involved in what came to be known as The Boston Massacre), a farmer, and a devoted husband and father. Gauging from his writings, this was the life he preferred over politics.

In John Adams, the large and small of this man are presented by Mr. McCullough as a three-dimensional portrait of a great patriot.

Taking much of his material from the letters Adams wrote during his lifetime — to his beloved wife Abigail, to his fellow statesmen, to his friends and relatives — Mr. McCullough’s vast talents as a writer work to resurrect an important historical figure from the archives. What emerges from the pages of John Adams is the story of the flesh-and-blood man who would be America’s second President.

The Appeal

There is much to recommend this book: The narrative is fluid, the details informative and inspiring without weighing upon the reader. Although well researched and reliant on actual documents produced at the time (or shortly thereafter) for its educational richness, there is nothing dry or lifeless in its pages.

Mr. McCullough easily guides his readers through Adams’ philosophy on the role and importance of government: his adamant insistence upon the separation of church and state (a certainty wholeheartedly shared by his fellow patriot and sometimes rival Thomas Jefferson), his belief in a bicameral Congress and a clear and distinct separation of the three branches of the new government: The Executive, the Legislative, and the Judiciary.

Through Mr. McCullough’s smooth narrative style, we learn of the complex relationships and political struggles Adams maintained (most notably with Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton) and, using the intimate letters the couple exchanged during their many years of politically induced separation, we catch a glimpse of the vast love and trusting partnership Adams maintained with his wife Abigail — an intelligent, gracious, and opinionated woman who lived during a time when only graciousness was valued in females. Two hundred years before there was “open marriage” (defined as an independent relationship) there was the partnership of John and Abigail.

This is an inspirational book, well researched and well written. Mr. McCullough does not try to hide the warts, but the picture that emerges from his pages of this argumentative and logical man of integrity does more to highlight the strengths than dwell on the weaknesses. The author even intimates that Adams is fully aware of his own shortcomings and uses this knowledge together with the coaching of his wife to find ways to overcome.

Mr. McCullough has been criticized by some historians for being too light with his subjects (see the list of other biographical works by David McCullough below). However, as a more casual historian, I found the book to be one of the best biographies I have ever read.

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The author receives NO remuneration from any sales of this book.