John Adams by David McCullough

John Adams, written by David McCullough, is my first selection regarding the second American president.  Adams’s presidency is often overlooked when studying early American history due to the fame Washington, Jefferson, and later Jackson all achieved during their lifetimes.  I discovered a great man, who lived a captivating, event-filled life, driven by a desire to be acknowledged by his contemporaries.

David McCullough is currently one of the most popular historians of our day.  He was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Christian and Ruth McCullough.  The young Scotch-Irishman attended Yale University and was initiated into the Skull and Bones society.  After graduating with an English degree, he worked for Sports Illustrated, among other publications.

McCullough’s first book, released in 1968, tells the story of the destructive Johnstown Flood.  He won a National Book Award the following decade for The Path Between the Seas.  McCullough’s initial foray into the genre of biographies was Mornings on Horseback a National Book Award winner telling the story of Teddy Roosevelt.  The author received his first Pulitzer in 1993 for TrumanJohn Adams, released ten years later won a second Pulitzer for the biographer.  McCullough continued his string of acclaimed novels with 1776 and The Wright Brothers.  Currently, he is writing The Pioneers, which is set to be released in 2019.

McCullough’s, John Adams is a popular history book, ranking #1 on the website for presidential history and #5 on for novels set in the colonial period.  McCullough depicts Adams as a spirited young man, excited and nervous to attend Harvard College.  Adams becomes a lawyer, earning a name for himself for defending the British soldiers accused of killing Americans during the Boston Massacre.  Adams’s legal arguments resulted in a “not guilty” verdict for the defendants.

McCullough glides into Adams being named a delegate to the Continental Congress.  Adams, from New England, nominated a Southerner from Virginia to head up the Continental Army.  He worked with a second Virginian on the Declaration of Independence.  The lives of Washington, Jefferson, and Adams would intermingle for decades in the establishment of the United States.

Later, Adams traveled to France to serve as a diplomat.  McCullough sheds light on Adams’ difficulties working with Benjamin Franklin while serving in this capacity.  The author makes a point in proving that not all the Revolutionary heroes were always the best of friends.  McCullough continues his story with Adams successfully negotiating in Holland and obtaining an ambassadorship to Britain.

McCullough is at his strongest when detailing Adams’s presidency.  The author brings to life a turbulent time in American history examining Adams’ deft handling of issues, both domestic and abroad.  McCullough spares no detail in describing the XYZ affair, the battles between the burgeoning political parties arguing for or against support of France or England, as well as chastising Adams for signing the Alien and Sedition Acts.  McCullough concludes Adams’ single term by describing the treachery of Alexander Hamilton, who betrayed the Federalist party in the election of 1800.  The description of the four years Adams spent as Chief Executive is a fascinating and enlightening read for anyone.

Adams returns home after his presidency ends, but unlike Washington, who died shortly after returning to Mount Vernon, Adams lives for 25 years.  McCullough deserves high praise for the description of Adams’ retirement from politics.  The healed political wounds between him and Jefferson, his pride in raising John Quincy, and his happiness being a farmer makes Adams more personable than during his younger years.

The love affair between John and Abigail Adams is legendary; their letters are the subject of complete books of their own.  McCullough’s brilliant use of their correspondence strengthens the book immensely.  The author portrays Abigail Adams as a strong woman, serving as partner to her husband in every facet of his life.  A biography of John Adams cannot be complete without including extensive detail of their marriage.

McCullough brings the colleagues of John Adams to life on the pages of this biography.  He clearly did extensive research of John Adams who, to his credit, was a prolific letter writer.  The reader easily transports back to the revolutionary days and early 19th century during this enjoyable read.  I gained a better understanding of not just Adams, but many more of the early patriots who united 13 separate colonies into one country.

A drawback to the book is the personal portrayal of John Adams.  McCullough establishes Adams as a vain man who felt easily slighted when not praised by his peers.  However, I believe he could have written more about Adams’ failures as a leader, such as his propensity to blame others for their actions instead of taking responsibility for himself.  The author tends to fall on the side of Adams when depicting the bickering of early American politicians, giving Thomas Jefferson particularly rough treatment.  In comparing this epic to Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow (review here)- I feel that Chernow gives a more equal evaluation of his subject.

John Adams is an excellent book.  I learned a great deal about this often-overlooked hero of the Revolution.  He was called the “Voice of the Declaration of Independence.”  Adams is regarded by many as the Father of the US Navy.  McCullough does a remarkable job in re-evaluating this most important founding father.


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