John Adams: A Life by John Ferling

Number two on the John Adams reading list is John Adams: A Life, authored by John Ferling.  This detailed biography explores the fascinating life of John Adams, beginning with his early life as a lawyer and continuing into his decades spent as a public servant, ultimately concluding with his life after the presidency.

John Ferling was born in Charleston, West Virginia, but grew up in Texas City, Texas.  He attended Sam Houston State University, later receiving a master’s degree in History from Baylor University.  He retired from academia in 2004 to concentrate fully on writing books, with an emphasis on the American Revolution.  Ferling has authored 13 books, including The Ascent of George Washington, Adams vs. Jefferson: The tumultuous election of 1800 (review here), and Jefferson and Hamilton: “The Rivalry That Forged A Nation.”  The author’s most recent publication, Whirlwind, won the 2015 Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award for the best book on the American Revolution period.

Ferling’s work is an exhaustive and splendid account of the career of John Adams.  His portrayal of Adams is even handed throughout the book.  The author begins his volume by giving a brief description of a young John Adams who wanted to be a farmer.  His father, however, had other plans and ensured that his son received excellent tutoring in preparation for attending Harvard College.  Ferling follows Adams from the Boston Massacre, to the Continental Congress, to his time in France conducting diplomacy.  The author showcases Adams’ vanity throughout the book.  As a serious student of history, I appreciate the honest portrayal of Adams and the opportunity it affords the reader to get to know him in a more personal way.

The book covers Adams and his ambition without getting bogged down in minute details.  The book works well because the author slows down the story once Adams is chosen to be a delegate to the continental convention.  Ferling’s in depth research is striking once he approaches the revolutionary war period which is his specialty.  As in David McCullough’s account, the reader gains a depth of appreciation as to how important this patriot was in the formulation of the Declaration of Independence.

Ferling minces no words in the description of Adams as Vice-President and his single term as President.  The author depicts Adams as an underutilized Vice-President, who spent much of his time away from the nation’s capital.  The account of Adams’s presidency is comprehensive from the perspective of Adams and the others surrounding him.  Ferling does not let Adams of the hook for retaining Washington’s cabinet, which proved to more loyal to Alexander Hamilton than the second Chief Executive.  The Alien and Sedition Acts is critiqued by the writer without giving Adams a pass for not vetoing the legislation.  However, the handling of the XYZ affair and avoidance of war with France, are meticulously documented in the book.  Ferling’s approach to his writing ensures the reader understands the deft handling of these crises by Adams.  The avoidance of hostilities with France allowed the new nation to continue taking root in North America.  Adams sacrificed his popularity within in his own party, and most likely a second term in office by putting the interests of the nation above his political career.

I found three major differences between David McCullough’s John Adams (review here) and Ferling’s writing in the two biographies I have read so far.  The first difference was McCullough’s heavy reliance on Adams’s correspondence to Abigail Adams and his peers.  Ferling’s profile may have relied on the research of Adams’s letters, but the author did not highlight the communication in the same way.  Ferling accomplishes writing a book that is highly detailed though absent of portions of letters.

A second distinction between the two authors is the treatment of their subject matter.  Ferling presents a level assessment of Adams as a person and President.  His unbiased manner in describing John Adams makes the reader feel more confident in the author’s point of view throughout the book.  Ferling did not have an issue displaying contrary opinions of Adams, whereas McCullough seemed to support Adams in any disagreement with other leaders.  The reader may finish McCullough’s book with less affection for other great leaders such as: Jefferson, Hamilton, and Franklin.

The final difference in John Ferling’s, John Adams: A Life, is the treatment of the marriage between John and Abigail Adams.  The mini-series based on McCullough’s book, McCullough’s actual writing, and anecdotal stories from history book indicate a strong bond between husband and wife.  Ferling portrays Adams as an absent husband and stern father for many decades.  The impression I got from reading the book is that John Adams was more concerned with fulfilling his own ego, than with being the perfect husband and father.  The account that Ferling puts on paper, does not detract from Adams, the man, but does contradict some of the other published accounts of Adams.  He does credit Abigail for being a strong, independent woman, a very advanced notion for the period.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed John Adams: A Life by John Ferling.  The author’s outstanding depiction of Adams causes me to regret not having read his book, The Ascent of George Washington.  I believe his very even handed account on Adams is an impartial treatment of the man.  The book is well researched and I like the writing style Ferling applies to his tome. I rank this book slightly ahead of McCullough’s version of Adams’s life due to the evenhanded assessment Ferling presents throughout his biography.

Overall Rating- 4.5 Stars


2 thoughts on “John Adams: A Life by John Ferling

  1. For what it’s worth, I LOVED this biography – it’s currently in my top 2 or 3 of the 175 I’ve read – but I didn’t like (comparatively speaking) “The Ascent of George Washington.” It was almost as if they were written by two completely different authors.


    • I noticed the difference you had in your ratings of the two books- it’s the reason I selected The Wonder of the Age to read on Washington.


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