American history, biographies, book reviews, David McCullough, John Adams, presidential biographies, Presidents
“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
Malcolm Greenhill said:
Good review. I loved this biography.
Thanks! Reading this biography made me wish McCullough could (and would) take up the challenge of writing on many more presidents, particularly those who are underserved by equally capable authors…
Rick Bretz said:
Excellent review Steve. I thought this book was a great read but I also thought that the author was trying to balance the scales for Adams in comparison to the other Founding Fathers. I also thought after reading this book that behind every great man is an even better woman.
I appreciate the feedback, and very fair points. I’m far from finished, but the book I’m currently reading provides even more evidence of Abigail’s strengths. As gifted as Adams turns out to have been, he clearly married well.
Pingback: The Colossus of Independence: John Adams | Rash Elvis Chants
I began this book a couple weeks ago. I’ve heard great things about it and look forward to finding out whether they are true.
A.J. Caldwell said:
I chose this biography for Adams mostly because I have never read anything by McCullough but have always heard great things about him. The reputation for McCullough is definitely warranted. He is an extremely gifted storyteller and felt at times as if I were reading a novel. His lack of footnotes was odd, but perhaps that is what makes the book read so well. I would honestly say that so far I prefer the writing style like those of Isaacson (Benjamin Franklin) and Chernow (George Washington), but nevertheless I will definitely read more of McCullough’s works in the future, if not all of them.
After reading your reviews I would definitely want to look at Ferling’s work on John Adams in the future, but in the meantime, on to Jefferson.
Thanks for your feedback, and let me know once you’ve gotten through Jefferson! I think I’ve got two more McCullough biographies to go, and I’m looking forward to them both. I’ve also got four of Isaacson’s non-presidential biographies on my longer-term to-read list (on Franklin, Einstein, Jobs and Kissinger). But those will have to wait a couple years, I’m afraid, unless I slip one or two of them in between presidents somewhere along the way.
Based on recommendations like yours, this is the biography of Adams I chose to read and I really enjoyed it. I followed this with Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power — their stories are so intertwined that reading about both of them gave me a much fuller view of each and the early years of the country.
I’m still plodding along on my blog! After 8 entries on Washington, it’s time to move onto Adams. I greatly admire your prolificacy and reviews!
Glad you liked McCullough’s book (though I haven’t met many who didn’t so it was a pretty safe bet). And I really enjoyed your recent post on the Top 10 things George Washington loved – it was a hoot!
If you were looking for someone who didn’t like McCullough’s book, read the Harper’s article “The Adams Tyranny” by Richard N. Rosenfeld. I wouldn’t say that I buy Rosenfeld’s negative assessment of Adams, but it’s quite the counterweight to McCullough’s sometimes overly rosy depictions of Adams, especially in regards to his presidential actions on the Alien and Sedition Acts and his intentions surrounding the Quasi War.
I’m always interested in reading opinions / views I don’t agree with or haven’t been exposed to so I’m looking forward to reading the article you mentioned!
I enjoyed this one as well; powering through the last 200 pages over my holiday weekend (causing my wife to laugh as I sequestered myself in our closet because it was the quietest part of the house).
I was amazed at how little I knew of John Adams, and I agree that McCullough is sympathetic to how “mistreated” Adams was in certain situations.
A couple of things that fascinated me;
1) Benjamin Franklin was a bit of a free-loader, riding on his earlier successes and reaping the spoils of those earlier successes while not quite contributing his full effort and intellect to any issue that could have used it
2) Abigail Adams may be one of the most fascinating female historical figures I’ve read about. I would love to read more about her specifically, once I’ve made it through the remainder of the presidents.
3) Alexander Hamilton was a “snake in the grass” and his duplicitous nature is almost mind blowing, from what I gathered. Always had a hustle and a back-stabbing agenda.
4) Thomas Jefferson, as well, is a fascinating figure who I look forward to learning more about in the next book I get into.
I’m reading “The Souls of Black Folk” by WEB Dubois in between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and still need to track down a James Madison bio to immediately follow Jefferson.
Your observations on Franklin, Abigail, etc. are so well-put! Of the four you noted, Thomas Jefferson is the one who was the most frustrating to try to “figure out” since he was so complex, confusing and often contradictory. I think that made the biographer’s job both easier (so much to work with) and much more difficult (there is no single answer to uncover – he was just that complex).
The body of James Madison literature is more narrow than I would have suspected given his importance but there are certainly a couple of good bios to choose from (and of course he appears frequently in many biographies of other presidents since he is so important to the history of the times).
Howard Dorre said:
I found Abigail Adams fascinating as well — even more so after reading John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul Nagel. As much as JQA loved her, it sounds like she was a very tough mother (and mother-in-law.) Reading about her from that perspective made her a much more complex character than the supportive, love-letter writing woman in McCullough’s JA bio.
Todd Michael Carlsen said:
McCullough’s glossing over of the abominable Alien and Sedition Acts was unacceptable. This biography of Adams was a hagiography. It is easy to read but way too light on other things happening at the time and Adams’s shortcomings, such as his rambling into unimportant classical discourse.
It is great storytelling by a master storyteller for the masses, but it should be supplemented with a good history of the era or a Thomas Jefferson biography that skewers Adams for the Alien and Sedition Acts and an Adams presidency that fell short.
Adams was a huge figure during the Revolution, but less so in what was to become the Jeffersonian Revolution after the establishment of the new government.
In my experience one thing is certain: the most engaging biographies are generally less historically penetrating, insightful and rigorous than they ought to be. And the most historically valuable biographies tend to be dry and difficult.
And in all cases, I’ve concluded it is far easier to read and critique than it is to write…!
Tim Harding said:
Reblogged this on The Logical Place.
We might think his classical discourse unimportant but there is an important to it in understanding him. Also this book is not unfair to anyone in history. I’ve noticed that many biographers don’t always make much of certain flaws that the person whose story they are telling. But biographies of contemporaries do. Jefferson biographies make light of his duplicitiousness and John Adams biographies make light of his crankiness and envious side. Benjamin Franklin biographies are also often lacking in showing how spiteful Benjamin Franklin could be. So lets not be too hard on McCollough.