Thanks to God that he gave me stubbornness when I know I am right.
” (John Adams)
David McCullough transports 21st Century readers to the 18th Century and introduces us to the magnificent character of John Adams in this Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography. My review emphasizes personal details about Adams and his philosophy and will assume that you know that Adams was a founding father of the American Revolution and the second President of the United States. Therefore, I will not attempt to restate what you can easily find on Wikipedia.
I read this book in 2001, and I reconstruct this review from my notes, which I now rearrange by topic. The words below, except for the subheadings and conclusion, are either Adams’ or McCullough’s, though it is possible that I paraphrased or edited McCullough’s.
John Adams’ Character
“He knew that happiness did not come from fame and fortune, but from a habitual contempt of them.
He prized the Roman ideal of honor. Adams was both a devout Christian and an independent thinker, and he saw no conflict in that. Integrity should be preserved in all events, as essential to happiness.
The first maxim should be to put honor out of reach of all men. In order to do this he must make it a rule never to become dependent on public employments for subsistence. “Morality only is eternal. All the rest is balloon and bubble from the cradle to the grave.”
“Popularity was never my mistress,
nor was I ever nor shall I ever be a popular man. A man must be sensible of the errors of the people, and upon his guard against them and must run the risk of their displeasure sometimes, or he will never do them any good in the long run.
If the way to do good for my country were to render myself popular, I could easily do it. But extravagant popularity is not the road to public advantage.” (John Adams)
“He never learned to flatter. He was a stranger to dissimulation. Politics did not come easily to him. He was too independent by nature.”
“Daughter! Get you an honest man for a husband, and keep him honest. No matter whether he is rich, provided he be independent. Regard the honor and moral character of the man more than all other circumstances. Think of no greatness but the soul, no other riches but those of the heart. Labor to do good rather than to be rich.
(John Adams to his daughter, Nabby.)
John Adams Loved Books and Study
“He was fired by an inexhaustible love of books and scholarly reflection. He read Cicero, Tacitus, and others of his Roman heroes in Latin, and Plato and Thucydides in original Greek. In his need to fathom the labyrinth of human nature, he was drawn to Shakespeare and Swift, and Cervantes, and English Poetry.”
“He recorded extensive notes about people and their mannerisms in an attempt to understand human nature. He also copied long extracts into his literary commonplace book. “You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.” In retirement he read Shakespeare twice trough in 1805 and continued in his devotion to Cicero and the Bible. Adam’s library numbered 3,200 books. Adams marked his books in margins with comments.”
“You will ever remember that all the end of study is to make you a good man and a useful citizen.” (John Adams )
John Adams Loved Simple Pleasures
“Adams loved to talk. His pleasures were his family, his farm, his books, his writing table, his pipe and a glass of good Madeira, and a glass of hard cider in the morning. He relished long walks and time alone on horseback. He loved the open meadows of home, rock ledges, and breezes from the sea. He was grateful for all of God’s gifts, especially the gift of an inquiring mind.”
John Adams was Individualistic but Engaged
“It was almost as if he had to go against the current lest anyone doubt his independence.
At a time when party politics were becoming pervasive and potent, he would not, could not, be a party man. He was becoming more and more a man apart.”
“I am convinced that our own happiness requires that we should continue to mix with the world, and to keep pace with it. I felt enough of the effect of withdrawing from the world to see that it led to an anti-social and misanthropic state of mind, which severely punishes him who gives in to it;
and it will be a lesson I never shall forget as to myself. (John Adam)
Adams was Tough
“I suppose they want him to cringe, but he is made of oak instead of willow. He may be torn up by the roots, or break, but he will never bend.”
(Abigail of John Adams)
“These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues.
When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman. (Abigail Adams)
John Adams Sacrifices for Country
“Duty caused him to be away from home for long stretches of time. He dearly missed his beloved wife, Abigail. It was the paradox of their lives that, as much as his public role kept them apart, he always needed to be with Abigail and she with him. He sorely missed the comforts of home. While other attorneys stayed behind with their families and made a fortune, Adams’ law practice dried up. The farm was neglected also. He was forced to live off of his savings and deplete his treasure. He desperately wanted to go home but was called to serve as a commissioner to France.”
“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study paintings, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” (John Adams)
“Children must not be forgotten in the midst of public duties. The question of how two of his sons, Charles and Thomas, could have so sadly fallen by the wayside, while John Quincy Adams so conspicuously excelled could only have weighed heavily on Adams’s mind. But of this, for all that he wrote on nearly everything else, he wrote nothing. The closest he seems to have come in blaming himself was in a letter to John Quincy admonishing him that ‘Children must not be wholly forgotten in the midst of public duties.” (John Adams)
John Adams’ Political Philosophy
On the Role of Government
The happiness of the people was the role of government. Happiness comes from virtue. Virtuous governments produce happy citizens.
The common good is founded upon social compact. The survival of liberty depended upon the spread of education and wisdom. The fundamental maxim of government is to never trust the lamb to the wolf. “Mankind will in time discover that unbridled majorities are as tyrannical and cruel as unlimited despots.”
On the Balance of Power
Republican government is built on a foundation of checks and balances. Reliance on a single legislature was a recipe for disaster for the same reason that reliance on a single executive was bound to bring ruin and despotism. As the planets were held in their orbits by centripetal and centrifugal forces, instead of rushing to the sun or flying off in tangents among the stars, there must be a balance of forces. Balance, counterpoise, and equilibrium were ideals that he turned to repeatedly.
“Like Washington, Adams despised factions and political parties. ‘How few aim at the good of the whole, without aiming too much at the prosperity of parts’”
Comparison of Adams to Jefferson
“Jefferson was never blunt or assertive like Adams, but subtle, serene, polite, soft-spoken and diplomatic. ‘Never contradict anybody.’ Jefferson abhorred dispute and confrontation. ‘Shall I become Don Quixote, to bring all men by force of argument to one opinion? Be a listener only, keep within yourself the habit of silence.’ Like Adams, Jefferson was devoted to home. Jefferson removed to a mountaintop; he removed from contact with everyday life and cultivated fastidious tastes. Adams by contrast cultivated simplicity and had neither debts nor slaves.”
John Adams Suffered From Self-Doubt
“At the start of every new venture in his life, John Adams was invariably assailed by grave doubts. It was a life pattern as distinct as any. Part of this was stage fright, part the consequence of honest reckoning of his own inadequacies. Mainly it was the burden of an inordinate ability to perceive things as they were: he was apprehensive because he saw clearly how much there was to be apprehensive about.”
John Adams as a Lawyer
He saw every side of life and learned to see things as they were. He handled every kind of case– land transfers, trespass, admiralty, marine insurance, murder, adultery, rape, bastardy, buggery, assault and battery, tarring and feathering. He defended poor debtors, horse thieves, and smugglers. [SK: As a lawyer, I appreciated McCullough demonstrating that the practice of law[despite the uninformed scorn of the public] instills pragmatism and is an ideal training ground for the most successful politicians.
John Adams on God and Mystery
“His faith in God and the hereafter remained unshaken. His fundamental creed, he had reduced to a single sentence: ‘He who loves the Workman and his work, and does what he can to preserve and improve it, shall be accepted of Him.’”
“I believe in God and in his wisdom and benevolence, and I cannot conceive that such a Being could make such a species as the human merely to live and die on this earth. If I did not believe in a future state, I should believe in no God. This universe, this all, this totality would appear with all its swelling pomp, a boyish firework.” (John Adams)
“The simplest, most ordinary things, that in other times had seemed incidentals, could lift his heart and set his mind soaring. (Like the winter scape of ice that had ruined his trees.) The philosophy that with sufficient knowledge all could be explained held no appeal. All could not be explained, Adams had come to understand. Mystery was essential. Admire and adore the Author of the telescopic universe, love and esteem the work, do all in your power to lessen ill, and increase good, but never assume to comprehend.
President John Adams coped with a divided country and a divided party. He avoided war with France when that would have been the popular and politically advantageous move in the short run. As a result the country was spared what would almost certainly have been a disastrous mistake. He was subjected to some of the most malicious attacks ever endured by a president. He was beset by personal betrayal; he suffered death in his family; and he was tormented by physical ailments. Yet, he endured. His bedrock integrity, his spirit of independence, his devotion to country, his marriage, his humor, and a great underlying love of life were all present until the end.
It is well known that he died on July 4, 1826-- the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the same day as the death of President Thomas Jefferson—however, I think it more notable that Adams died a grateful and happy man.
Here are links to my reviews of other presidential biographies.
Harry Truman (Also by David McCullough and another winner of the Pulitzer Prize)http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...