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I was inspired to read this biography of the second president of the United States, as it was the basis for the excellent HBO series.
As McCullough's writes in the introduction, "John Adams was a lawyer and a farmer, a graduate of Harvard College, the husband of Abigail Smith Adams, the father of four children. He was forty years old and he was a revolutionary." Why was that so? The biography reveals a man passionate about virtue and liberty, a man who would never give up the fight, and a man who was the real driver of independence. When people think of the fight for independence, they naturally bring to mind Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin - but it was Adams who was the driving force.
I am also glad that I read this book because I was able to see where the truth of Adam's life has been sacrificed for the drama of the TV series: the Hollywood version of history is just as active on America's own as well as the rest of the world's! For example, in the first episode I learn that Captain Preston was actually tried separately from his men, and of the eight soldiers, two were found guilty of manslaughter.
But there are also scenes that should have been in the series but which did not make it, scenes such as Franklin and Adams sharing a bed and arguing over whether the window should be open or closed. David McCullough's clear and highly-readable prose also covers much of the important but undramatic work of Adams, including his drafting of the constitution of his home state, Massachusetts, written whilst back home between time spent as ambassador to Holland and France.It is "the oldest, functioning written constitution in the world."
Much of the series played on Adams's relationship with his wife, and I was glad to see how true it was that they were a meeting of minds in so many ways and had a long and happy marriage, supporting each other and their children, although Adams himself had such high ideals that he was a difficult father to please.
The end came dramatically, like Beethoven, with a thunderstorm. And I still cannot get over how he died on the same day as Thomas Jefferson - and they both died on the fiftieth Fourth of July since independence! How amazing is that?
When I finished the book I really just wanted to read it all over again, to be taken again by the author into the vivid world of John and Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson and Elbridge Gerry and Benjamin Rush and Timothy Pickering and Alexander Hamilton and the many others who lived through the birth and early years of the USA.
This is an exceptionally superb biography, one reason from many is that the author paints his scenes with such an abundance of detail that you really feel you are there, and can hear their voices. Just from memory I can now see Adams watching slaves at the new White House with a heaviness in his heart; I can still feel the joy the whole family experienced when John Quincey returned from Russia; or the satisfaction felt by Benjamin Rush when Adams and Jefferson start to correspond again.
So it is much more than just a political biography. This is a work of art, taking us into all that was going in and around the Adams family. And as with all good art while there is no polemic, nevertheless it is impossible not to draw some moral lessons from the lives as they are drawn on the author's canvas.
This is especially true with the contrast between Jefferson and Adams. Adams the hard-working farmer, the faithful husband of Abigail, cautious with money who died with an estate to pass on; Jefferson the extravagant land-owning aristocrat, suspected of having an affair, who died in debt. Adams the enemy of slavery; Jefferson the owner of slaves. And when he died, those slaves had to be sold because of his debts.
It is never stated, but there is no doubt which man the author - with good reason - admires more.
Like all David McCullough's books, this one doesn't disappoint. It's the story of John Adams, America's second, and underappreciated, President. It's a biography and not an in depth look at the historical and political issues surrounding his life, so you'll have to have a good working knowledge of the events surrounding the American Revolution. But it will surprise you too. The 4th of July is the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, a day every school child in America knows. But it was actually 2 July when Americans declared their independence and the day Adams thought would be the "most memorable epocha in the history of America." And I was equally surprised to know that Adams represented the British(!) in the trial of the Boston Massacre, that famous moment of British tyranny before the Revolution. As a child, learning about the Revolution in school, it seemed almost inevitable to me that the Americans would win. Until I read this book, I never appreciated how close America came to losing and how many promiment colonial men supported the Tory cause! It's an amazing book, well written, and brings to life one of America's greatest statesmen. It's also a bit irreverant when it comes to that other great statesman, Thomas Jefferson! Adams has always taken second place behind those prominent and celebrated leaders (Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, among others), but McCullough shows us that Adams was much more than he has been remembered for. I would highly recommend it (as I would any of his other books). Five stars is not enough.
I read this book having watched the John Adams serial on Sky Atlantic. The series closely followed the book and gave a fascinating insight into the lives of the Founding fathers of USA with all the politics. A very personal account of the relationships of friends and foes and at home and abroad. It filled in a big gap in my knowledge of this time. Very readable, thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend to anyone interested in American Independence
Of all the founding fathers, John Adams is the one I admire the most. Untainted by the slave ownership that blighted the reputations of Washington and Jefferson, Adams preached liberty, not just liberty for white, middle class, Boston merchants, but a liberty for all.
Stubborn, irascible, a man of letters, and a workaholic for the American cause, Adams was tailor made for historical biography. In McCullough, we have one of the few biographers who can do such a titan, justice.
Historiography has long been fraught with perils and pitfalls, and what a biographer includes is just as important as what they omit. Given that Adams wrote reams of correspondence over his lifetime, its too McCullough's credit that he has presented a coherent, powerful narrative, that reads more like a historical thriller, rather than a dry, academic text.
But then again, the best historians are usually great novelists, and this biography is a worthy addition to the canon of historical biography.
John Adams’ reputation has suffered because his single term as president was sandwiched between Washington, the unanimous choice for first president, and Jefferson, the founder of Democratic Party. As Jefferson's reputation has recently declined, so Adams’ has revived. David McCullough’s book follows this trend and is more about Adams’ character than his political theories and writings, which Adams thought were his most important work. He initially intended a joint biography of Adams and Jefferson and says much about their contrasts; Adams stocky, hard-working, combative and frank; Jefferson tall, retiring, hating disputes and devious. They had much in common politically, and were originally friends but became opponents in the 1790s before resuming relations in old age
McCullough presents Adams as essentially honest and a good man, true to his origins and very talented. He was also suspicious, pessimistic and stubborn with a knack for making himself unpopular. He had a fiery temper and his enemies claimed he became insane with rage; McCullough tends to play down his outbursts, but even his family and friends admitted Adams was very irritable. Except for a short time in 1798 during the XYZ affair he was an unpopular president, and in 1800 many in his own party opposed his re-election. McCullough understates his flaws and fails to explore the central paradox of Adams’ political career. Although his political writings and work in the Continental Congress greatly promoted independence, and although he assisted Washington to establish constitutional government in the United States, he had become almost irrelevant by 1800 and left no legacy guiding later political developments.
Perhaps Adams’ most productive periods were in the Continental Congress, where Jefferson called him ''the colossus of independence'' in 1776, and his time as a diplomat in Europe in the 1780s where he defended United States’ political and economic interests. During his eight years as vice-President, Washington rarely sought his advice and, although he frequently used his Senate casting vote to support Washington’s administration, he was frustrated by the limited influence of the vice-presidency.
His presidency was turbulent, but McCullough devotes only two chapters to it. He claims Adams was right in seeking a settlement with Britain, his antipathy to the French Revolution and supporting an American Navy, and his opponents including Jefferson were wrong but says little about the results of the Alien and Sedition Acts which are a blot on Adams’ his reputation. These included the imprisonments of opponents after unfair trials and the flight of French citizens from the anti-foreigner hysteria these Acts produced.
Overall, this is a rather cosy portrait of Adams with some blemishes, but also the originality of his political thought, removed. He did much to establish the United States and its government, but had some unattractive personal traits and made political mistakes and influential enemies in his presidency. Although he deserves recognition and some rehabilitation, Adams’ presidential career hardly compares with those of his predecessor or successor.
Rarely have I read a book where, as I come to the end I am saddened that I must leave the character(s) and read of them no more. This is no dry historical record. McCullough has written as if he had been present at the time. I enjoyed this book from cover to cover.
I had no prior knowledge of John Adams, having first encountered him when I was enthralled by the HBO mini-series with Paul Giamatta as Mr. Adams.
The size of the book when it arrived was somewhat daunting. However the easy style of writing and the layout made for a fascinating insight into one of the chief movers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as Washington, Jefferson and Franklin.
From birth to death we follow John Adams in his single-minded approach to life, which didn't always assist him in his endeavours. We can be thankful that he and his wife, Abigail were prolific, detailed and eloquent letter writers as the author had a treasure trove of material from which to gain an insight into their personalities, relationships and the times they lived in. The horror of his daughter Nabby undergoing a mastectomy without anesthetic is an example of the tough times people endured without our modern inventions.
Adams, perhaps like no other President in the history of America travelled extensively BEFORE he became president, established the first American mission in The Hague, secured funding for the new born republic, was ambassador to the Court of St. James, vice-president and then President. It was remarkable to learn that on the day of his departure from the White House, he caught the public stagecoach at 4am for Baltimore. Can we imagine Obama catching the 4am bus as he leaves the White House? Fascinating insight after fascinating insight.
I cannot rate this book highly enough. The 18th century truly was a time of tumultuous changes in America and Europe and that so many 'famous' Americans lived in that period and were players in the times they lived in is truly remarkable. Buy the book. Take your time. Enjoy the eloquence of the letter writing. Read of a life lived to the full and to the end!
Brilliant history, well written, lovely subject. I couldn't put it down, and wished there was more of it when I finished. John Adams has become one of my heros, even though, or perhaps because, I am English.
A brilliant and expertly researched book from a writer who makes you feel that you’re walking every step of the life of the great man John Adams. Whereas there is occasionally too much detail on the lives and actions of his family and fellow politicians there is no doubt this is a real classic political biography that describes the amazing and brave lives these USA forefathers led.