John Adams is the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Adams written by historian David McCullough. It is a pretty magnificent book, meticulously researched and sourced through many primary sources, but primarily the letters written by John Adams and those in his social network throughout his life. While I am no historian, and it goes without saying that no historical account is without some bias, this book is an unvarnished look at the life of Adams and his numerous accomplishments that helped the United States survive and flourish as a new nation in the world.
McCullough writes in a very accessible way, and while the book is a hefty read, there wasn’t anything that left me confused or intimidated. By drawing so much from the primary sources of Adams’ own writing and the writing of those around him, both friends and enemies, he is able to paint an accurate picture of one of the chief Founding Fathers that illustrates exactly how integral Adams was in the birth of the United States.
I learned a great deal from this book, but there are a few key events or aspects of Adams’ life that I found particularly fascinating:
Man oh man was this book a learning experience. I had no idea how huge a role Adams played in the birth of the United States. I think that since George Washington was the first man voted into the presidency, I always associated him with the role of securing liberty from Great Britain, when in reality it was Adams who carried much of this struggle on his back, if not militarily (though Adams did originally nominated Washington for role of Commander-in-chief of the colonial army in 1775), then ideologically. There were few Americans who believed in independence from Great Britain so firmly and thoroughly as Adams did.
This is especially evident in McCullough’s narrative of the four days leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. As calls for the American Colonies’ independence from Great Britain had increased exponentially in the prior months, there were still many Colonists that were loyal to the British Crown, or at least thought that fighting a war to gain independence was futile. On July 1st, 1776, the last such argument was made to the Continental Congress by John Dickinson, who vocally recognized that his standing up against a war on Britain would be the final blow to his already diminished career but thought it necessary, as declaring independence would be “to brave the storm in a skiff made of paper.”*
Adams was the man who countered this argument. While no transcription of the speech was made, it was a powerful and moving speech, and McCullough counts it as the most important speech Adams would give in his lifetime. Even Thomas Jefferson, who would find himself at political odds with Adams multiple times throughout their lives, wrote that Adams was “not graceful nor elegant, nor remarkably fluent,” but spoke “with a power of thought and expression that moved us from our seats.”**
The congress voted and just narrowly missed unanimously voting to declare independence. After another day of deliberation (and some under-the-table negotiations and deals), on July 2nd, 12 of the 13 colonies voted for independence, and with no representatives from the 13th colony (New York) to cast a nay vote, the deed was done, and in no small part thanks to the leadership of John Adams.
Interestingly enough, Adams wrote to his wife that July 2nd would forever be commemorated through grand celebrations by Americans. He was only two days off.
As I said before, one of the reasons this book elicits such a clear picture of Adams is that it draws heavily from the archived letters between himself and his wife, Abigail. Mrs. Adams was an outstanding woman, and in an era where women couldn’t vote or own land and were generally relegated to child-bearing roles, Abigail held her own with the men of her time. She was very opinionated and wasn’t shy about her views, whether personal or political. And she was an amazing partner for John Adams. Adams was constantly nourished by the presence of his wife and treasured her as his closest confidant and friend throughout their entire marriage. He looked to her for support and advice during the many trying times he would see in his political career and she provided it. The book draws directly from their personal correspondence, and it illustrates why Adams was the man he was.
Past/current political atmosphere:
One thing that was a huge surprise to me was the amount of savage political attacks so early on in this country’s history. As a general rule, I am appalled by the current state of political discourse in this country. However, I always assumed it was a recent development; that only in the last few decades have we become so immature and entrenched in our political beliefs.
Rather than it being a recent trend, I think I just wasn’t aware of it as a kid. In reality, as long as the United States has existed, so has the current level of political discourse. While Washington started his first presidential term with the great majority of the nation’s support, that was quickly lost, as the Republican Party (then, it was ideologically more like our current Democratic Party) started to attack Washington for having monarchical sympathies. This attack was thrown even more strongly at Adams during the two elections in which he ran.
Aside from the insults and attacks from the opposing political party (which were to be expected), Adams dealt with opposition in his own party as well. While the Republicans accused him of being too Federalist, men like Alexander Hamilton were of the unwavering opinion that Adams wasn’t Federalist enough. Hamilton was so anti-Adams that during the election race of 1800, Adams was only narrowly defeated for a second term by Thomas Jefferson, and this defeat was attributed mainly to a scathing attack of Adams by Hamilton in the form of a 54-page letter that was leaked to the public. Hamilton wanted to go to war with France, while Adams was strategically making decisions as president to avoid such an outcome, and so Hamilton attacked, and Adams subsequently lost reelection.
It was disheartening to read about the opposition Adams faced his entire political career, from both his political enemies and colleagues. His unwavering goal was independence for the United States and establishing this nation as a strong, fiscally responsible and enduring member of the global community of nations. Yet he was consistently attacked by those close and far from him. It saddens me that the current state of modern, mud-slingin’ political discourse is not a new phenomenon.
You know that thing where the Founding Fathers signed a document declaring that all men were created equal and deserved freedom to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, yet a lot of those men were slaveowners? John Adams (and his wife) thought slavery was an abhorrent practice, and not only never owned slaves themselves, he never even hired slave labor from his neighbors to work his land (a common practice among men of the Revolutionary Era who didn’t own slaves. Like renting a workforce). He spent his life truly committed to the freedom of all men and women, regardless of ethnic background. It’s sad that he was the exception and not the rule, but it makes me respect him more for standing firm for these principles, even when it meant standing against the status quo of the society in which he lived.
There is so much more I could touch upon here, including Adams’ presidency, his personal family struggles, his many years as foreign ambassador to France, England, and Holland. Instead, I highly recommend this book. McCullough puts together an extensive and intriguing history lesson that really illustrates who Adams was as a man and as an American.
*pg.126 of the book
**pg. 127 of the book