Why this book: My literature reading group decided to select a topic rather than a book, and the topic for this session was John Adams. We selected him in part because we were approaching the 4th of July, and in part because several of the women in our group wanted to read more about Abigail Adams. McCullough’s bio of John Adams has a great (well deserved) reputation and had been on my shelf un-read for years. So I finally decided to read it. So glad I did.
Summary in 3 sentences: It is a biography – about John Adams’ life – from birth until his death, at age 90 – but focuses largely on his efforts leading up to and during the American Revolution, the forming of the Republic afterwards, his time as Washington’s Vice President and then as President. The final 20 percent of the book is about his life after the Presidency, his mentoring of his son John Quincy, and most notably his relationship with his political rival Thomas Jefferson.
My Impressions: It’s a long and very worthwhile read. McCullough is a great storyteller and his story of Adams was a great immersion experience into 18th century New England – leading up to, through, and after the revolutionary war. McCullough is clearly a great admirer of Adams; that comes out in how he describes his integrity and character. But he doesn’t refrain from being critical when he felt that Adams was occasionally overly principled and inflexible, and at other times when he allowed himself to be cajoled, for example when he signed the infamous Alien and Sedition act.
This is probably the most widely read and popular biography of Adams, and served as the basis of the HBO seven part part series staring Paul Giamatti which I highly recommend. I saw the series before reading the book, and look forward to watching it again. But the two go well together.
Here are a few of the things that most surprised and impressed me reading about Adams’ life and that period of time in our nation’s history:
- The Depredations of Disease. Though we all know that disease and infection were a much greater scourge to society two centuries ago than they are today, that message is brought home when we read about SO many people dying of typhoid, malaria and other diseases. Every summer in Philadelphia, hundreds and sometimes thousands of people died of typhoid fever, so many that those who could and had the resources to do so, left the city – including the Continental Congress. Those without the means to leave, and especially the very young and the older, died in the hundreds and sometimes the thousands. Also during this period, we are reminded that almost every family lost one or more children in childhood – an almost routine, heart wrenching tragedy.
- I was stunned by the viciousness of the politics – actually making what we currently deplore in the ad hominem attacks between political competitors, look tame. There were fewer news sources then, so a brutal attack in a newspaper or magazine could have a huge impact.
- Adams tempered his responses. Though he had a well known capacity for anger – the dark side of his positive passion – Adams was unusual in that he refused to get into the mud with those who attacked him, as vicious as those attacks often were. He never attacked an opponent’s person or character in public, though he did in some of his private correspondence.
- There were many times when Adams stood on principle against popular opinion of his colleagues and often of the public. As a young attorney he successfully defended some of the English soldiers engaged in the infamous Boston Massacre the he felt were being unfairly railroaded because of the anti-English sentiment in Boston. Later as President, he stood fast against the widespread desire to go to war against France, which may have cost him his reelection. Though history shows that to have been the right decision, a better politician – one more attuned to public opinion – certainly could have achieved the same result while still placating the public animosity toward France. Though very principled, his unwillingness to bend and play the political game, gave his enemies much ammunition, and often cost him in outcomes.
- His focus on duty has seldom been equaled in a political leader. At great cost to himself and at great risk, he accepted direction to cross the Atlantic to France twice. Without question. He did whatever his country asked. He seemed to have little ambition for personal glory. In fact, for much of his life he would have preferred to stay at home on his farm in Braintree Massachusetts.
- I had hard a lot about Abigail Adams. McCullough – as do all biographers of John Adams – emphasizes the very strong and positive role she played in John Adams’ life. She supported him through thick and thin, and the strength of their relationship, and her equally principled and strong will transferred to and supported his own unusually strong and principled stances. They spent extensive time apart – sometimes years, when Adams was assigned overseas. Most of the time he spent in Philadelphia writing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, they were apart, but he always claimed that she was a main source of his strength and conviction. They wrote to each other constantly – and most of these letters survive.
- Jefferson and Hamilton actively undermined Adams during his presidency, and McCullough was unsparing in his recounting their uncompromising opposition to Adams and efforts to undermine his policies and decisions while he was President. But at least Hamilton was fairly open in his opposition to Adams, whereas Jefferson worked primarily through surrogates, and his opposition was subtle and insidious.
- Adams reached out to reestablish a warm relationship with Jefferson after they had both been presidents,. This spoke highly of Adams’ character, since he was very aware of much of Jefferson’s treachery, which he did not reciprocate while Jefferson was President. After all of that, one can’t help but be amazed and impressed that he initiated the reconciliation, which resulted in a long and close friendship, and one of the most extensive collections of (post) presidential letters in history.
- I was impressed at how Adams grew old. He was a happy, expansive, and very engaged older gentleman – an excellent model for an ex-President. Even after he lost his beloved Abigail, one of his sons, and many of his closest friends, he remained grateful and happy, and shared the joy he saw in life – in things large and small. He was a highly respected and admired elder statesman and projected the best in American and human values.
McCullough concludes the book with the following paragraph describing Adams’ approach to life in his later years:
“…Nor did he love life any the less for its pain and terrible uncertainties. He remained as he had been, clear-eyed about the paradoxes of life and in his own nature. Once, in a letter to his old friend Francis van der Kemp, he had written, ‘Griefs upon griefs! Disappointments upon disappointments. What then? This is a gay, merry world notwithstanding.’
It could have been his epitaph.”