John Adams, by David McCullough

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I’ve been trying to get through this book for most of the three years since it was published — as always, I was having some trouble getting through the bits about Adams’ boyhood life (see my post about Ulysses S. Grant). I finally made it through that part — the first 100 pages or so — and the next 500 pages were really worth the effort. I’m a sucker for presidential history in any event, and bits about the American Revolution in particular, and this is just a really interesting book.

I’ve always been interested in John Adams — it’s been interesting to me that he is always talked about in comparison to Thomas Jefferson, and generally not that favorably. I think it has to do with the fact that the two were such good friends, such good collaborators, and eventually such bitter rivals — but really more to the point that they were our first two presidents who weren’t George Washington. These two men (plus Alexander Hamilton, whose biography I’m looking to read shortly) really established party politics in America — while GW stood above all of that.

When you look at the two men (Adams & Jefferson), the contrasts are stark: Jefferson was from the South, Adams from the North; Jefferson was tall & attractive, Adams short & not; Jefferson able to write lyrically — almost hymns to freedom, Adams a very functional writer; Jefferson full of contradictions, Adams very straightforward (for the most part). Jefferson has always gotten the most attention, because he gave voice to the dreams of the American Republic — lyrics that resound even today. Adams has always looked more like a guy who came to work every day and did the work.

I have to say, though, that I think that’s not a fair view. What’s very clear as you read about John Adams is that he just did an incredible amount of the deep thinking and heavy lifting that made the Revolution and resulting Republic work. He did a lot of the unglamorous diplomacy when other countries didn’t even really want to talk with us, he pushed through a lot of the important clauses in the early US documents, and I think he put into place a lot of the work that would ultimately result in Abolition.

This book is fascinating because we know a lot about Adams’ thoughts — because of the incredibly extensive letters that he wrote continuously — many to his wife Abigail, who seems to have been a first rate partner in every sense of the word. In these letters we get to see a bit of the person — with high hopes & accomplishments, but also petty envies, perceived slights, and self-doubts.

One of the things that I learned in this book is that in contrast to Adams, Jefferson burned all of his correspondence with his wife Martha after she died (relatively early in life). So we’re unable to get quite the insight into Jefferson the human being — which, ironically, seems to have made his legend even greater. We mostly know Jefferson through his public writing — that Declaration he wrote wasn’t too bad, the Kentucky Resolutions, other things like that — and some of his (mostly) public discourse with folks like Adams. And as such, we’re not privy to any of the more unflattering human elements that we see in Adams.

Reading this book, I’m struck that John Adams was a legitmately great man (and his wife Abigail was equally amazing), and ended up doing a lot of the grungy, needed-to-get done work of starting the country. This isn’t quite the right analogy I know, but in some ways Jefferson/Adams seems a little bit like Jobs/Wozniak to me: Promoter/Worker.

Great, great book.

2 Replies to “John Adams, by David McCullough”

  1. I first heard about the book in an interview with David McCullough on CSPAN. He was very excited about writing the book and I decided that I would definitely eventually read it. Some months later, I was shocked to find it in the tiny local library.This book was one of the most fascinating bios I have ever read…usually when you read a bio, you already know much about the person and are seldom surprised. Like you, I knew little about Adams and really learned much about him. Like you, I have decided that he was the true driving force behind independence.

  2. I first heard about the book in an interview with David McCullough on CSPAN. He was very excited about writing the book and I decided that I would definitely eventually read it. Some months later, I was shocked to find it in the tiny local library.

    This book was one of the most fascinating bios I have ever read…usually when you read a bio, you already know much about the person and are seldom surprised. Like you, I knew little about Adams and really learned much about him. Like you, I have decided that he was the true driving force behind independence.

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