American history, biographies, book reviews, John Adams, John Ferling, presidential biographies, Presidents
“John Adams: A Life” is the fifth of nearly a dozen books authored by John Ferling, who has written extensively on the revolutionary era and several of its most important figures. This biography was first published in 1992 and has received consistently high marks since, although its popularity has faded somewhat in recent years as several additional biographies of our second president have been published.
Ferling’s biography of John Adams is almost the perfect balance of detail versus brevity, of hard facts prudently dosed with the author’s opinions and conclusions. The author’s descriptive capability is on consistent display and set the context in most scenes magnificently. Much to my surprise, as this is the fourth book on Adams I’ve read thus far, Ferling provides relevant and interesting insights throughout the book that I do not recall encountering elsewhere.
In contrast to his more recent biography of George Washington, Ferling’s work on Adams is not only thorough and colorful, but also well-balanced and non-combative. His books of our first two presidents considered together, one senses Ferling’s disappointment that history has relegated Adams’ to the “near great” category of presidents (for a variety of reasons he well explains) while elevating Washington to more exalted status, in part on the basis of being a reluctant hero (a concept with which the author vigorously disagrees).
A bit of a bonus, “John Adams: A Life” incorporates several short sketches throughout the book on other important figures of the era, such as Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and Ben Franklin. These introductions added unique color, character and additional context, and laid the groundwork for analysis and conclusions to come later in the book.
Compared to the other biographies on Adams I’ve read, Ferling is the least friendly to Adams and his relationship with Abigail. McCullough, Smith and Ellis each show a warmer, more consistent relationship between the John and Abigail, but Ferling’s case seems well argued in any event. Having not read the source material for myself, I don’t have an informed view on which perspective is more accurate. As is often the case, the truth is probably not as romantic as some would like, but may not be as harsh as Ferling depicts.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of Ferling’s biography of Adams (other than its judicious use of the reader’s time without diminishing its ability to be both thorough and penetrating) is the set of analyses and conclusions left behind in the final pages. Ferling tackles the subject of Adams’ “greatness” (or lack thereof) and critically examines the role of Adams’ personality, his actions while president and luck (or misfortune), as well as the evolution of history’s perspective on the topic. Again, in contrast to his analysis of Washington which I found strident and one-sided, his approach to Adams is balanced and considered.
Overall, “John Adams: A Life” proves itself a fantastic biography of Adams. It serves not only as an excellent introduction to the second president, but also as quite a complete treatment of him as well. Ferling is not quite the storyteller of, say, McCullough, whose work on Adams proved a somewhat better story, but not a better biography. But in the end, while not quite perfect and admittedly somewhat aged, “John Adams: A Life” was nothing short of outstanding.
Overall rating: 4¾ stars
After reading your review, I will have to read this one.
Fantastic! It is probably my second favorite single-volume biography thus far (behind Chernow’s “Washington”), and my favorite so far on John Adams.
“Ferling is not quite the storyteller of, say, McCullough, whose work on Adams proved a somewhat better story, but not a better biography.”
True. Chapter 2 – “Shall I Creep or Fly?” seemed to be the most tedious. It seems to pick up steam during the Boston Massacre or what John Adams termed the Slaughter on King Street in Chapter 4 The Scene of Action.
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This is the one that I chose to read. I really liked this one overall. As you said, I thought as well that it was “well-balanced and non-combative.” I felt like I knew Adams and was not being overwhelmed with the author’s personal judgments about President Adams. I highly recommend this book as a first biography for Adams. The only negative I can think of is that I still know almost nothing of Adams’s views on religion. There was some treatment of that near the very end, but I would have appreciated a much more thorough examination. In addition, I checked one citation, concerning a statement that Adams made to Jay, and the citation was incorrect.
Cheyne E said:
My only complaint of this otherwise great biography were the more than occasional grammatical errors. I am surprised this didn’t bother you as well.
The University of Tennessee has made a PDF of the Ferling biography available here: https://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_early-american/1/