American history, biographies, book reviews, John Adams, Page Smith, presidential biographies, Presidents
“John Adams” by Page Smith was the first comprehensive biography of Adams written once the second president’s personal papers became widely available. Published in 1962, this epic biography consists of two volumes spanning nearly 1,200 pages. This biography was the winner of a 1963 Bancroft Prize (awarded to outstanding books on the history of the Americas) and has long been recognized as one of the earliest, most thorough, treatments of John Adams’ life.
In a manner reminiscent of Flexner’s nearly contemporaneous multi-volume work on Washington, this biography meticulously chronicles John Adams’ life from his earliest days as a youth in what is now Quincy, MA to his final days in that same town, at the age of 90. What transpired in the 45 years between his graduation from Harvard to the end of his presidency was a surprisingly interesting tale of dogmatic focus on self-improvement, a pursuit and embrace of significant political opportunities, extraordinary opportunities to work and live abroad, and an unusually strong devotion to his family and friends.
Although this was the second biography of John Adams I read (following the excellent book by David McCullough), the journey was undiminished by my previous venture through Adams’ life. Because McCullough’s biography was nearly 40% shorter, by necessity it hustled past a number of interesting sojourns which Smith allows us to enjoy. While little of the incremental detail is necessary in order to understand the broad themes of Adams’ life, we almost feel as though we roamed the English countryside with Adams and Jefferson in the spring of 1786, and it seems all but certain we must have been John’s and Abigail’s therapists at some point, having been privy to the witty banter and touching emotional exchanges they shared through their frequent letters.
Where a thorough biography of George Washington seems at its core a primer on the American Revolution and a treatise of the first years of the American presidency, Page Smith’s excellent biography of John Adams frequently seems a behind-the-scenes eyewitness account of the birth of a nation, a revolutionary-era Fodor’s Guide to Europe and a treatise of the first years of the US Senate. And despite heavy involvement by each in the evolution of the United States, Adams’ and Washington’s lives intersected so infrequently that both of these men need to be carefully studied in order to fully appreciate the political and social climate of the earliest days of our country and the treacherous currents which very nearly ripped the new country apart.
Smith as an author is not as elegant or efficient as Chernow or McCullough, but still manages to leave the reader feeling refreshed and gratefully enlightened. However, I suspect my experience with this biography would have been slightly less enjoyable had it been my first journey through Adams’ life, owing to the possibility that the level of detail would have sometimes prevented me from seeing the “big picture”. My appreciation for the frequent granularity Smith provided was undoubtedly made more robust by my having already mapped the notable terrain of Adams’ life through McCullough’s book.
Although Smith is clearly a fan of John Adams, his biography does not suffer from excessive fawning or idolatry, nor does Smith present his positive case for Adams too defensively. Only Smith’s rationalization of Adams’ role in the Alien and Sedition Acts seems a bit out of touch with modern judgment. But despite its age (the series was first published just over 50 years ago), the biography does not seem to have lost its relevance and I am unaware of fresh insights into Adams which would cast doubts on Smith’s work. In fact, Smith’s conclusions on Adams and his presidency may be the highlight of the book and seem remarkably insightful given the limited time the former president’s papers were available to Smith prior to publication of this biography.
Given its age, it is not surprising (but certainly regrettable) that Smith’s biography of Adams is not well-read these days, nor frequently reviewed. Thankfully, it remains readily available for purchase by prospective readers and at a reasonable cost. To my surprise, I managed to obtain a very affordable, nearly mint condition copy of the series “still in the box” as it must have arrived at someone’s house a half-century ago as part of a Book-of-the-Month Club (yes, seriously…according to the dust jacket).
Although Page Smith’s “John Adams” has lost its youth, it has not lost its vigor or power of persuasion, entertainment or education. As an initial foray into the life of John Adams by a serious student of history, I recommend this biography very highly. For a John Adams “enthusiast,” Page Smith’s biography serves either as a thorough and interesting introduction to our second president (for a reader with time to devote) or as a great follow-up for someone whose first experience with Adams came through one of the shorter, more recently published biographies of Adams.
Overall rating: 4½ stars
This is one of my favorite biographies of all. I also suspect that Mr. McCullough, despite his homey stories of discovering documents from the Adams Family collections, lifted a heavy dose of it. In my view, this one is far better, and more balanced, than McCullough’s.
Just about to start on the page smith 2 volume set. The McCullough Adams was the very first presidential bio I had ever read. and you are correct it is a fine place to start. Question for you a bit off topic in this thread: Have you considered as a follow up of sorts or as a branch off, reading a complete history of the United States? I ask this because I have that on my reading plate so to speak. I have a one volume book by paul Johnson and I have also been gathering the Oxford history of the US series. It has not been completed yet but several of the volumes are well reviewed and awarded. The James Mcpherson battle cry of freedom being perhaps the most well known of the series. I would be interested in your thoughts
It’s interesting you ask that question because just before I started assembling a collection of presidential biographies, I started collecting books covering American history as well as the Oxford series. I was frustrated the series wasn’t complete (why start something I can’t finish?) and I found Paul Johnson’s and Hugh Brogan’s books on US history fine – they just didn’t bring things to life for me. But as I was reading about the American revolution I wondered why I shouldn’t just read a biography of George Washington and see things through his eyes. Thus began my own reading revolution.
And because I live in between Washington DC and Richmond – the epicenter of much of the Civil War – I’ve been tempted to read almost anything and everything by McPherson – I just haven’t gotten there yet 🙂 But several of the Ulysses Grant biographies brought the period to life for me (including the battles that took place outside my front door) though I recognize there’s much more to learn about those years. As always, far too much to read and far too little free time!