John Adams
by David McCullough

Overview - Editor's Choice:

Pulitzer prize winning author David McCullough has outdone himself with John Adams. This is a fascinating book that is rich in historical detail yet reads with the ease of a well paced novel. Adams personal diary and correspondence with wife Abigail and others form the basis of this wonderful biography of one of our greatest patriots.  Read more...

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More About John Adams by David McCullough
Editor's Choice:

Pulitzer prize winning author David McCullough has outdone himself with John Adams. This is a fascinating book that is rich in historical detail yet reads with the ease of a well paced novel. Adams personal diary and correspondence with wife Abigail and others form the basis of this wonderful biography of one of our greatest patriots. This is a well-researched and written account of an incredible man. Don’t limit this amazing book to history buffs when so many others will enjoy it.

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 -- "the colossus of independence," as Thomas Jefferson called him -- 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.

Like his masterly, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Truman, David McCullough's John Adams has the sweep and vitality of a great novel. It is both a riveting portrait of an abundantly human man and a vivid evocation of his time, much of it drawn from an outstanding collection of Adams family letters and diaries. In particular, the more than one thousand surviving letters between John and Abigail Adams, nearly half of which have never been published, provide extraordinary access to their private lives and make it possible to know John Adams as no other major American of his founding era.

As he has with stunning effect in his previous books, McCullough tells the story from within -- from the point of view of the amazing eighteenth century and of those who, caught up in events, had no sure way of knowing how things would turn out. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, the British spy Edward Bancroft, Madame Lafayette and Jefferson's Paris "interest" Maria Cosway, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, the scandalmonger James Callender, Sally Hemings, John Marshall, Talleyrand, and Aaron Burr all figure in this panoramic chronicle, as does, importantly, John Quincy Adams, the adored son whom Adams would live to see become President.

Crucial to the story, as it was to history, is the relationship between Adams and Jefferson, born opposites -- one a Massachusetts farmer's son, the other a Virginia aristocrat and slaveholder, one short and stout, the other tall and spare. Adams embraced conflict; Jefferson avoided it. Adams had great humor; Jefferson, very little. But they were alike in their devotion to their country.

At first they were ardent co-revolutionaries, then fellow diplomats and close friends. With the advent of the two political parties, they became archrivals, even enemies, in the intense struggle for the presidency in 1800, perhaps the most vicious election in history. Then, amazingly, they became friends again, and ultimately, incredibly, they died on the same day -- their day of days -- July 4, in the year 1826.

Much about John Adams's life will come as a surprise to many readers. His courageous voyage on the frigate Boston in the winter of 1778 and his later trek over the Pyrenees are exploits that few would have dared and that few readers will ever forget.

It is a life encompassing a huge arc -- Adams lived longer than any president. The story ranges from the Boston Massacre to Philadelphia in 1776 to the Versailles of Louis XVI, from Spain to Amsterdam, from the Court of St. James's, where Adams was the first American to stand before King George III as a representative of the new nation, to the raw, half-finished Capital by the Potomac, where Adams was the first President to occupy the White House.

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. "A lucid and compelling work." --The New York Times

  • ISBN-13: 9780684813639
  • ISBN-10: 0684813637
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publish Date: May 2001
  • Page Count: 752
  • Dimensions: 9.46 x 6.62 x 1.66 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.67 pounds

Related Categories

Books > Biography & Autobiography > Presidents & Heads of State
Books > History > United States - Revolutionary Period (1775-1800)
Books > History > United States - 19th Century

BookPage Reviews

The extraordinary talents and outstanding accomplishments of John Adams tend to be overshadowed by the illustrious and colorful careers of his contemporaries George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Adams himself thought his own major attributes were "candor, probity, and decision," and those qualities were crucial as he shared in the leadership of a revolutionary people who made the difficult transition to a stable, responsible, representative government. David McCullough, who has received National Book Awards for both history and biography and whose Truman received the Pulitzer Prize, superbly captures the life and times of this remarkable figure in his compelling new book, John Adams.

In 1787, after completing a book that he thought would make him unpopular, Adams wrote to a friend, "Popularity was never my mistress, nor was I ever, or shall I ever be a popular man. But one thing I know, a man must be sensible of the errors of the people, and upon his guard against them, and must run the risk of their displeasure sometimes, or he will never do them any good in the long run." That quote, McCullough says, is "about as concise a synopsis of Adams' course through public life as could be found."

Certainly Adams made mistakes in judgment. But when one surveys the range of his thought and actions during his entire public career, it is remarkable how astute he was in both the long and short terms. For example, Adams chaired the committee that asked Jefferson to draft a Declaration of Independence. But, after much revision, it was Adams whose speech to the Continental Congress convinced the delegates to pass it. As a delegate from New Jersey remembered: "[Adams was] the man to whom the country is most indebted for the great measure of independency. . . . It was he who sustained the debate, and by the force of reasoning demonstrated not only the justice, but the expediency of the measure."

In February 1778, when Adams was appointed to serve as one of three men to negotiate an alliance with France, "It marked," for Adams, "the beginning of what would become a singular odyssey, in which he would journey farther in all, both by sea and land, than any other leader of the American cause." He would help negotiate the peace treaty that ended the war with Great Britain in 1783 and become our first ambassador to that country in 1785. His most important service abroad, however, may have been negotiating for bank loans. "With his success obtaining Dutch loans at the critical hour of the Revolution," McCullough says, "he felt, as did others, that he had truly saved his country."

As the second U.S. president, he presided over a divided country and a divided party. Despite these disadvantages, under his leadership the Navy was greatly strengthened and proved decisive in keeping the young country out of war with France. As Adams wrote to a friend: "I desire no other inscription over my gravestone than: 'Here lies John Adams, who took upon himself the responsibility of peace with France in the year 1800.' "

McCullough skillfully interweaves accounts of his subject's private and public lives, focusing in particular on Adams' marriage to Abigail Smith, who was "in all respects his equal." The author's insight into the relationship and, at times, rivalry between Adams and Thomas Jefferson is also of particular interest. Their unique correspondence after both were out of office remains one of the most important literary treasures from the Founding Fathers. "The level and range of their discourse were always above and beyond the ordinary," McCullough writes. "At times memory failed; often hyperbole entered in . . . they were two of the leading statesmen of their time, but also two of the finest writers, and they were showing what they could do."

This exceptional biography should be enjoyed by anyone who wants to explore in some detail the complexity of the Revolutionary and Early American eras as experienced by one who was a crucial mover and shaker.

Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.

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