American history, best biographies, book reviews, David McCullough, James Grant, John Adams, John Ferling, Joseph Ellis, Page Smith, presidential biographies, Presidents
The journey through the John Adams presidency involved nearly five weeks and over 3,400 pages of reading. It included four biographies (five counting “Passionate Sage” which arguably falls into its own hybrid biography/character analysis category) and two “ancillary” books on Adams: one centered on his unsuccessful campaign in 1800 against Thomas Jefferson, and one focused on his relationship with his extraordinary wife Abigail.
It might be reasonable to ask whether John Adams was worth the investment. The answer (particularly since the commitment was just 100 pages/day) is a resounding “yes.” He proved an exceptionally interesting subject and in many ways seemed even more fascinating than other, more revered members of the founding generation. What made John Adams so interesting, and why have so many esteemed authors written about him?
A thorough explanation would require its own book, but John Adams was an unusual, gifted and alluringly complex figure. He was a cantankerous and self-righteous New Englander, a well-educated and extremely well-read intellectual. He was passionate about his interests, often self-absorbed, haughty and somewhat arrogant. Curiously, for a politician, he hated small talk. He “knew” he was always right (except when he was wrong and Abigail was right), often seemed paranoid (seldom without cause), and feared posterity would forget his efforts (no worries there!)
He felt bitter when slighted, and could hold a grudge like few others. But he could also – with time and the right spark – forgive and become fast friends again. Adams was extremely studious, an exceptionally gifted speaker, and extremely prescient – even where others were blind – on matters of history’s future flow. Despite a less successful and popular presidency than he would have liked, history judges that he almost universally chose to do what was “right” rather than what was politically expedient (his signing the Alien and Sedition Acts being a notable exception). There are few others in history so interestingly enigmatic as John Adams.
* Page Smith’s two-volume series “John Adams” was first published in 1962 and continues to set the standard for biographies on our second president. Smith’s epic work was the first comprehensive biography written of Adams following the release of many of Adams’s personal papers. Although significant time has elapsed since its publication (and a great many books on Adams have been published since) Smith’s work remains timeless and in many ways unmatched.
Despite its lack of popularity, particularly in comparison to McCullough’s exceedingly popular narrative, I highly recommend this two-volume work. If I could only possess one biography on John Adams, this would have to be the survivor. Many other Adams biographies are more entertaining, and nearly all are more modern, but Smith’s is simply a classic. (Full review here)
* David McCullough’s “John Adams,” published in 2001, was the Adams biography I most looked forward to reading and is by far the most widely-read and well-reviewed (in terms of sheer numbers as well as magnitude of the praise). McCullough did not let me down; his narrative of Adams is riveting and gives me feeling I’ve just finished an entertaining conversation about Adams with one of his closest friends.
This Pulitzer Prize winner is less a history book (as some other John Adams biographies have tended to be) and more a “Swiss Family Robinson” style tale of adventure. Though imperfect, and almost more a “story” than a biographical analysis of Adams, it is nonetheless excellent. (Full review here)
* Of all the biographies of Adams I read, “John Adams: A Life” by John Ferling is the best biography (if just by a hair). It provides the perfect balance of pure insight and analysis, readability, length, and hard fact versus colorful interpretation. This biography also appeals by providing the ideal combination of historical perspective interlaced with interesting character sketches and helpful political and social context.
Although Ferling’s view of the Abigail/John relationship is a bit less “generous” than that of other biographers, on the whole his perspective seems both reasonable and thoughtful. If I could take just a single biography of John Adams with me on a vacation…this book would quickly end up in my carry-on bag. (Full review here)
* “John Adams: Party of One” by James Grant was my least favorite biography of the group. Although it is relatively easy to read, it is also more difficult to enjoy than the other Adams biographies. The author’s habit of hopscotching from one time and place to another, with little obvious motive, proved frustrating.
And while the overall flow of the book is chronological, Grant’s approach within chapters is more “thematic” than I could happily tolerate. Fortunately, there is little else to detract from this book and the author’s focus on the pressing economic and monetary issues of the era far exceeds that which is offered by other authors. (Full review here)
“Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams” by Joseph Ellis is one of three John Adams-related books I read that fall somewhat outside the category of “biography.” This 1993 work is more a character analysis than pure biographical work. Unfortunately, it eventually becomes more a philosophical treatise than a character analysis.
The casual reader will find it often quite dry and excessively academic, though it does provide an interesting series of analyses and conclusions along the way. But as an introduction to John Adams, or a general-purpose biography of his life, this book is clearly less suitable than others. (Full review here)
* The two “least biographical” books on Adams are “Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800” by John Ferling and “First Family: Abilgail & John Adams” by Joseph Ellis. Each book intends to provide a modest diversion from the standard biographical format.
For the most part, however, “Adams vs. Jefferson” often seems more a regular-way biography of Adams’ life (beginning with his vice presidency) than an in-depth analysis of the campaign and election of 1800. Meritorious though it is in most every respect, by the end I concluded Ferling must have been searching for a rationale for providing the world yet another book on Adams…and the election of 1800 (fully described in just two chapters) seemed provide such a purpose. (Full review here)
“First Family” also seems at times more a biography than not (albeit one with a slightly overweighted focus on the couple’s relationship); in this case taking the form of a fast-paced biography of John and Abigail beginning in 1759 when they first met. Ironically, “First Family” seems to excel best as a short but fairly complete summary of John Adams’ life (other than the period of his youth); it left me yearning for more insight into the John/Abigail relationship itself. (Full review here)
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Best John Adams Biography: “John Adams: A Life” by John Ferling
Honorable Mention: “John Adams” by Page Smith
Honorable Mention: “John Adams” by David McCullough
Not surprised Joe Ellis was further down your list. He tends to get wordy…
Liz Parrott said:
I’m headed to our most excellent used bookstore this afternoon and I’ll take this most excellent list with me. This is exactly the kind of thing I find really helpful and it’s why I’m glad you introduced me to your blog!
So happy to find your blog! I too am trying to read at least 1 biography of each President. I have started with ‘His Excellency’ and am doing research to find my next book to purchase on John Adams. Your blog is going to be so helpful !
Terrific! I wish you well on your journey – and can’t wait to hear how you like what you’re reading.
I am wondering if you had a chance to read over Adams’s autobiography, and/or how does it hold up under the scrutiny of modern biographers?
I’ve not read Adams’s autobiography (nor that of any of the other presidents so far, including Grant whose biographies I’ve just begun to read). However, as part of my follow-up reading (once I get through Bush/[Obama]) I would like to read autobiographies and memoirs and will probably include Adams in that study. If you have read it, I would love to know what you think…
I am writing my dissertation on John Adams’s life before he served in the First Continental Congress (to understand why he shifted from loyal subject to radical revolutionary). These and several other biographies are worth the read.
I will say that Adams in his own words (aka-diary and autobiography) is the richest experience by far. He emerges raw and unfiltered as he faces the growing tyranny of his day and age. Very instructive and full of reading recommendations. His diary can run a bit slow from time to time, but has brilliant flashes of insight and realization – it’s like having an “a-ha” moment within someone else’s exposed mind…
I’m glad to see this interest in America’s chief intellectual architect – from my reading of everything by and about him that I can lay my hands on (several hundred books and personal interaction with his own physical and digitally remastered library). He is an important mentor for any age, but especially for those who truly love Liberty in times of emerging tyranny.
Sounds like a fascinating dissertation! (I never thought I’d ever have occasion to actually type that…) In my next round of reading I’m going to attempt to get to each president’s memoirs / autobiography. Adams is fascinating enough with his story told by others; I imagine his autobiography must be truly engrossing.
Scott La Mar said:
I enjoyed the review of your books on John Adams and finally found someone who agrees with me that the John Adams book by John Ferling was much better than the John Adams book by David McCough. Although I throughly enjoyed both books I never understood why David McCough received a Pulitzer Prize for his book over John Ferlings book. Steve, you have read more adeptly and are more articulate in the arts of the English language than I am but you explained why this came about with Davids ability of a great story teller which David McCough does so well.
Thank you so much for your reviews, the time you spend and allow others to review your research.
Scott La Mar
Alec Rogers said:
From the description it sounds like you preferred Smith to Ferling. Perhaps Smith is best bio and Ferling best single volume bio?
I choose Page Smith’s biography for Adams, based on this and a couple other reviews. I was able to find a set in decent shape for a good price on abebooks. I thought the biography was excellent, covering Adams, family, politics, and his times.
Terry Delaney said:
What is the difference between the 1992 and 2010 edition of the Ferling bio? I’m looking to read through one presidential bio for each president in my spare time and am particular about having them in hardback if at all possible. Thank you for your contributions on the presidential biographies.
Personally, I would get the 1992 original hardcover version if possible. I believe the 2010 edition is the most recent paperback edition. But I would read either one if it was that or nothing at all!
Terry Delaney said:
Excellent! I was hoping the only difference was the cover. Thank you again.
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You’ve missed a great biography on John Adams by Professor Gilbert Chinard.
It’s called Honest John Adams. Have you ever come across this book? It’s fascinating. I would love to hear your thoughts if you decide to read it!
I’ve generally limited my scope to biographies that are easily available and relatively widely read (or at least quite well known). This one is a bit more…exotic. But I think I know where I can get my hands on one to thumb through and see what I think 🙂
William Delancey said:
I haven’t recently looked at your ‘To-Read’ list but I thought I’d suggest two relating to John.
Friends Divided by Gordon S. Wood is a great addition to Adams/Jefferson. It works almost as a mini biography of both men and goes into the split in the friendship, why it happened, and the reconciliation. (As a man who holds John Adams as a person hero, it’s tough to ever think highly of Jefferson but Wood at least has me thinking).
The other is recent, I believe it just came out last fall, First Principles by Thomas E. Ricks. It covers the first four presidents and looks at the classical learning/reading they’d done (or in Washington’s case, had not done) and how it informed the forming of the country and their presidencies. I really enjoyed it.