“John Adams” is the 2001 narrative biography of our nation’s second president, written by author and historian David McCullough. Of the seven John Adams biographies in my library, McCullough’s “John Adams” is the most popular by an enormous margin, and is widely considered one of the best presidential biographies ever written. Among many other accolades, the book received a 2002 Pulitzer Prize.
As my journey through the best presidential biographies swept me from Washington to Adams, I looked forward to this book with great anticipation. Few books in my library have received as many outstanding reviews as this biography. With all but angels singing the book’s praises, I was only slightly worried about reports of the author’s overly-generous treatment of Adams. And in the back of my mind, I harbored some suspicion that Adams may not have supplied history much in the way of interesting raw material.
On the latter point, my worry was entirely unfounded. Adams proved a character of enormous interest and versatility – not only for his roles during the American Revolution (as a Founding Father and assistant in drafting the Declaration of Independence among other tasks), and as both Vice President and President, but also for his work in France, Holland and Great Britain on behalf of our fledgling country. Adams as a person is simply fascinating. His personality, less enigmatic and opaque than Washington’s, was no less complex. On the surface he was not infrequently a crusty New Englander, but his true temperament was far more complicated.
That McCullough is enormously sympathetic to John Adams cannot be seriously challenged. In fact, Adams himself could hardly be more delighted by his portrayal at the author’s hands. In nearly every instance of possible controversy, the facts of the moment are laid clear and McCullough finishes with a conclusory remark that is invariably favorable to Adams. But the reader is not unaware that the author’s observation is often analogous to a mother doting on her favorite child, when even disagreeable artwork brought home from school is worthy of a prized spot on the refrigerator door.
In hindsight, McCullough’s choice of presidents to profile in this case was fortunate in at least one respect: almost never before has a figure of such historical importance left behind so much evidence to posterity, and yet been so poorly known to modern society and unrecognized for his accomplishments (no offense to Smith, Ferling, Ellis and others who previously authored works on Adams). Unlike Martha Washington, who burned her correspondence with George upon his death, over 1,100 letters between John and Abigail Adams survive, along with countless letters they each wrote and received from other important figures of their day. Along with his frequent diary entries, John left behind a mountain of paper for history to digest.
But if McCullough’s appraisal was usually in favor of “whatever” Adams did (frequently to the detriment of Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson), his gifted storytelling was always in favor of the reader. His descriptive abilities are often second-to-none, and although you are not left with the feeling that you’ve encountered an exhaustive history of the times, you do believe you might have just read the diary of someone who was John Adams’ lifelong best friend and most astute observer.
Stated simply, “John Adams” is an extraordinary epic and a wonderfully told story of John Adams’ life. I can only wonder whether McCullough’s biographical talents could be similarly effective with the less riveting life of Calvin Coolidge. Or Gerald Ford. Or perhaps my “Heat and Thermodynamics” professor from college?
As a critical historical analysis of our nation’s earliest years and of the life of our second president, I found McCullough’s biography very good, but not great. It was at times unbalanced and described the cantankerous Adams like a glass perpetually half-full. Perhaps McCullough saw his generosity as redress for history’s past treatment of the man? However, as a narrative of adventure and adversity, of hard work and perseverance, and as a story of extraordinary devotion to his country and his family, “John Adams” was incontrovertibly excellent.
Overall rating: 4½ stars