“John Adams: Party of One” is James Grant’s fifth of seven books, and one of two he has written on topics unrelated to his most well-known competency: finance. Grant is best known as founder and editor of the iconic Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, a financial journal widely-read on Wall Street. Published in 2005, Grant’s “John Adams” is one of the most recent biographies written about our second president.
As the last of several biographies I will read on John Adams, I expected Grant’s biography to be one of the easiest to read. After all, this was not my first John Adams rodeo and assuming I’m capable of retaining facts over a limited number of weeks, very little of Adams’ life should be unknown to me by now. I therefore assumed the only real effort in reading this biography would be to understand the author’s perspective on Adams as compared to those of previous authors.
Much to my surprise, I found this a difficult book to digest, but not because the author’s word choice was esoteric or abstruse. On the contrary, the book was written in straightforward language with less grandiloquent phraseology than many others. At times, in fact, the book actually bordered on being sterile and passionless, almost a matter-of-fact rendering of historical events. But what I found particularly frustrating at times was that the book often seemed a series of interesting mini-stories strung together in a fashion more aligned with a stream-of-consciousness than to the actual flow of history.
Within individual chapters the biography was much less a chronological examination of Adams’ life and more a hopscotch through the theme of that chapter, sometimes jumping forward a bit and skipping one or two important historical events (like Adams nominating Washington as commanding general of the army) but later backtracking to fill in the holes (on this occasion, only after spending several paragraphs describing the dysentery which swept through the Adams house several months after Washington’s selection to lead the Revolution).
What was sometimes lost to me in this lurch through history was a common thread, the author’s overarching sense of purpose. I enjoyed most of the numerous “short stories” but found it difficult to understand the sequencing. It was a bit like driving from Boston to DC, taking a series of interesting detours, but never being entirely sure which direction you were about to turn. As I was reading this biography, I often assumed I knew “what was coming next”. Invariably, though, I did not. Whatever I expected often had been referred to already (but not with the emphasis I expected), or had to wait another few pages before appearing in the text, seemingly out of order.
In an effort to really focus on Adams himself (which seems to be the author’s modus operandi), Grant often allows important historical events to receive little attention, as if their impact on Adams was not meaningful. For example, the Boston tea party only garners two sentences; the Battles of Lexington and Concord are mentioned as if they were not the first engagements of the American Revolution. Yet other items that seem trivial (if interesting) are more well-described. But it is not for lack of space that Grant rushes past several seminal events – his “John Adams” weighs in at the median length among the eight books on Adams I own.
But by no means was this biography entirely frustrating. While I do see the stakes as higher for the more recently published John Adams biographies (joining an already crowded field of worthy biographies), Grant’s “John Adams” was well-researched, pursued interesting issues that received less attention in other books (such as the hypothesis that Adams suffered from Graves Disease) and did a particularly nice job of fully describing the economic and monetary challenges Adams faced in his role as a quasi-financier in Europe.
Overall, however, I believe James Grant’s “John Adams: Party of One” finds itself in a tough position among the significant body of works on John Adams: it is neither a “history” book in the sense that many Washington and Adams biographies are (being comprehensive in their treatment of the main character as well as the times and the context), nor is it really a character analysis in the spirit of “Passionate Sage”. Strictly as a biography on our fascinating second president, Grant’s book is more than adequate. However, from my perspective, it is far from the best.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars