The Pulitzer Prize-winning, bestselling biography of America's founding father and second president that was the basis for the acclaimed HBO series, brilliantly told by master historian David McCullough. 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 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. 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.
Well, I certainly was wrong about the boring part! McCullough’s splendid biography of Adams brings both periods to life and provides a fascinating account of the politics of the time (sleazy). He offers truly intriguing portraits of the prominent figures of the times: Jefferson ( a lot less noble than he is ordinarily made out to be); Washington (fairly inscrutable); and of course Adams himself along with his remarkable wife, Abigail. all these people and more and the times they lived in are vividly portrayed mostly though their own words. It was a letter-writing era, and some of the most important and most illuminating have survived. The correspondence between John and Abigail alone is worth reading the book. Abigail was no demure “little woman”, submissive and silent, leaving important matters to her husband. On the contrary, she was quite a match for John, who was one of the most erudite men of his age--more so, actually, than Jefferson.
Through these letters, between these prominent figures (and Abigail kept up a spirited correspondence of her own with Jefferson), we see the age and its issues in quite a different, more vibrant light than is usually taught in history books. Far from boring, it actually is thrilling; we know the end of the story, that US independence was won, a constitution framed and signed, and a young republic born. But how this was done--what the controversies were, the terrible odds against all of it coming to pass, the intrigues in England and France--are never exposed so thoroughly as in the letters that passed among all the principals.
I know that many times I’m tempted to think that US politics has never been worse than they are at the moment, that there have never been politicians of such low integrity, such partisanship as exist in our times. Actually, slander of all types--lies, smearing of reputations (the noble Jefferson was adept at this), blatant falsification of positions--was much worse right after the US was born that it is even now. And the US public was just as gullible, just as uninformed as it is now. McCullough does modern readers a service to point out the origin of these attitudes and behavior; while it may be depressing, it perhaps can give some comfort to know that modern US politics is no different from the way it’s always been, and that the basic issues have not changed. That may not be McCullough’s intent, perhaps; if not, then it is a serendipitous result of an affectionate look at the second president of the US.
It's also an account of a remarkable family--not just John and his wife, but their other children as well who, with the exception of the brilliant John Quincy, led tragic lives.
McCullough is not the best writer of the current crop of historians, but he is more than adequate for his subject. A very fine book--highly recommended.
One must be wary of the tendency of biographers to lionize their subjects. But McCullough has a very good reputation as an objective historian, and "Truman" was a warts and all biography. John Adams may have been the most important single figure of the American Revolution and formation of the country. He was the main drive for selecting George Washington to lead the military revolt against England, and for choosing Thomas Jefferson to compose the Declaration of Independence. He was chosen as our representative to France during the Revolution, when that country's support was desperately needed. During that time he worked with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, with whom he formed a deep and lifelong friendship. Adams later became our first ambassador of the new America to England, our first vice-president, and our second president.He was instrumental in developing the standing navy. Short, rotund and unprepossessing in appearance, he aroused strong loyalties and enmities, and was somewhat betrayed by Thomas Jefferson when running for his second term of president, a race which Jefferson instead won.
In many ways, Adams as portrayed here reminds me of Truman; they had similar qualities and beginnings, and both were fortunate to be married to strong and supportive women who made it possible for them to devote so much of their lives to their country. By comparison, Ben Franklin, Jefferson and particularly Alexander Hamilton do not fare so well. The first two are favorite historical figures of mine. I have lengthy biographies of both waiting to be read; I'll be interested to see if McCullough's interpretation of Franklin and Jefferson reads true in the hands of other biographers. I already knew it, but the death of both Adams and Jefferson on the same day, July 4, 1826, 50 years after the country declared its independence, was incredibly moving and was seen as an omen favorable to the future of the young America.
I honestly find myself reflecting on my life and wondering what I could emulate from him, and find myself emboldened in our similar characteristics.
This book really is monumental - over 700 pages. But for the most part, it didn't really feel too long. There were some great pictures in there, which helped a bit, but I think the main thing that made it a fun read is that there were so many stories; that's what I love to read.
I had read a little about Adams before, and about his wife, Abigail. But I loved the story of their courtship and their abiding love for each other. I was also interested to read of the complex relationship between Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Despite their serious differences, both men had an abiding respect for one another.
I couldn't help thinking that there are few such patriots around today. Patriotism is in fact a sort of code word that some political groups use to throw around, but most of us feel a little uncomfortable with such a concept. And yet how long would the United States have lasted if it weren't for unabashed patriots in the infancy of the country? Adams contributed much towards making the continuation of our country a possibility. He had enemies on almost every side, including his own cabinet, but he was able to leave a lasting legacy.
I gave this book 5 stars. It kept my attention, despite the size, and I felt that I knew so much more about John Adams than I did before I started. A really great book.
Not that McCullough fails to show that Adams was one of the three great revolutionaries of the period (Washington and Jefferson being the other two). McCullough admirably shows the reader Adams' central role in the American cause, and his efforts to keep the struggle alive by obtaining financing and support in foreign courts while Washington did his part by keeping the British army occupied in North America. Nor can one fault McCullough's efforts to bring an irascible and sometimes all-too-human and irritating character to life. The problem is that Adams clearly did his "best work" before and during the revolution, and his post-revolution career had little direct and lasting influence on the young nation. He was clearly out of his depth as President, adrift and ineffective in his one term, and after his wretched experience and bruising re-election defeat he essentially fled public life.
It is in his descriptions of Adams the private man that McCullough's book excels. Adams' self doubt and consciousness of his own foibles go a long way toward endearing him to us, and making the long tale of his post-Presidential exile (essentially a litany of health problems and private correspondence) hold our interest in McCullough's capable narrative. In the end, though, McCullough could not improve on Benjamin Franklin's one-sentence summation of Adams: "He means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses."
I found the stories of Adams and his constant support of the fledgling country engaging. I have tried to follow his example of constantly reading. He had an extensive library and always had a book with him where ever he went. This last summer my wife and I took a trip to Rhode Island and New Hampshire. We took a couple days to tour Boston and Quincy, Massachusetts. We toured John Adams' house and library. If you really want to enjoy a biography, go see the places discussed in the book. It was thrilling to see the very book that Adams discussed as his nemesis while studying law. The library is a two story building he had built that is filled floor to ceiling with his and his son's (John Quincy Adams) books. With permission, you can look at them and see the notations they made in the margins. He made scribbled his feelings on everything, often arguing with the writer, in the margins.
I would really like to get the unabridged book some day and fill in all the holes they had to leave out. The history is huge, mostly taken from his letters to and from Abigail, his wife. They wrote to each other constantly. During the Continental Congresses, John would often write two letters to her a day. They were the vision of perfectly matched couple, each loving the other more than anyone else. Their writings are probably the most prolific of any couple.
I have really gained a greater appreciation for John Adams and the other Founding Fathers (except for Benjamin Franklin - John didn't like him much. I need to read the new biography on him next). Their tireless efforts in giving me the freedom I enjoy should be celebrated and made standard knowledge among his present day benefactors. We owe them a great debt.
The writing is concise, but descriptive enough to give what appears to be an accurate sense of place and time. McCullough tries not to stray into hero worship too much by providing evidence of Adams’ character flaws and lapses in judgment, but this is essentially a book that tries to right some wrongs about Adams. Even though Adams might have had issues with vanity and stubbornness, I think these things actually firmed his resolve to see things through his way and we are better off for it. His insistence on neutrality in the face of multiple European wars was perfectly reasoned and worked out for us in the end. His insistence that we build up a strong Navy was ignored and we lost a great many ships and men as a result. Basically he wanted the fledgling nation to be taken seriously and that we should set up policy and precedent accordingly. In hindsight, all clearly good ideas.
McCullough’s descriptions of other founding fathers, heroes in American history, were not as positive. Jefferson, whose image has suffered greatly as of late, was a prominent example. Portrayed as a hypocritical spendthrift who betrayed trusts and scuttled friendships, I had to rethink my image of Jefferson as noble patriot. Patriot he surely was, but deeply flawed and terribly ambitious. It was a shame to see the Adams/Jefferson relationship deteriorate after such intimacy and dependence while on their ambassadorial missions to France and England. Largely due to Adams’s bountiful capacity to forgive and Jefferson’s willful blindness to his own faults, they patched things up after both their terms as President and shared a very long correspondence. It is truly auspicious that they died within hours of each other on the very same day; July 4th 1826. Spine-tingling and eerie. Just beyond the pale.
The most intense relationship of Adams’s life was that with Abigail. The scenes of their separation and her death brought tears to my eyes. Clearly they were deeply in love and even more binding than that emotion, they truly depended on each other for emotional stability and support. Abigail was extremely intelligent, well educated and unashamed of her opinions. He respected her judgment so much that he often deferred to her in situations where he was unsure how to act. When stressed beyond his limits in political skirmishes, his need for her was palpable. It is amazing how they coped with the everyday distances in life; days or weeks to get anywhere, delays of letters, of news. In today’s world of instant messaging, text messaging, the internet and cell phones, it is very hard to imagine these hardships and the toll they took on intimacy.
The end of the book is understandably less interesting and active as the beginning. As Adams lived into his 90s, it is not surprising that he slowed down. After an unsuccessful Presidency, his retreat into private life smacked of licking ones wounds. He kept his head down and out of reach. He felt resentful of those who didn’t appreciate him. He expected people to recognize and celebrate his achievements in Europe to stabilize and strengthen the US and its new place in the world. When that wasn’t forthcoming, he sulked. He admits to the sulking, but it doesn’t make it any more attractive.
The success of this book is twofold; first, I understand a lot more about this groundbreaking period of history and second, I want to read more about the major players. Chiefly Washington and Jefferson, but also the more minor players like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. The Adams biography deals mostly with diplomatic and political events that shaped the times and the nation, while a Washington biography will probably deal more with battles and tactical issues of the day, which should round out my knowledge considerably. Not a bad legacy for a book.