Steve Sckenda's Reviews > John Adams

John Adams by David McCullough
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Feb 13, 13

bookshelves: history-united-states, presidents, biography, pulitzer-prize, pulitzer-prize-author, revolutionary-war-american
Recommended for: Those Inspired by People of Bedrock Integrity
Read in June, 2001 — I own a copy, read count: 1

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.

Of Factions
“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.

Steve's Conclusion
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.

Washington
http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...

John Adams
http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...

Theodore Roosevelt
http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...

Franklin Roosevelt
http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...

Harry Truman (Also by David McCullough and another winner of the Pulitzer Prize)
http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...
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Comments (showing 1-42 of 42) (42 new)

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message 1: by Diane (new)

Diane Barnes Another great review. I read this a few years ago. It never ceases to amaze me at how much our forefathers managed to accomplish over their lifetimes. They read widely, traveled widely, maintained their moral compasses, raised families, and changed history. All during a time of limited communication and difficult living conditions. Maybe there's something to be said for a low tech life.


message 2: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich I'm running out of awesome words to praise you with, each review is better than the last and more and more packed with information and insight!


Steve Sckenda Diane wrote: "Another great review. I read this a few years ago. It never ceases to amaze me at how much our forefathers managed to accomplish over their lifetimes. They read widely, traveled widely, maintai..."

Diane, I have thought the same thing. Do you think we were just lucky to have them or do you think that the people willing to assume the burden of public life were of a higher quality?


Steve Sckenda s.penkevich wrote: "I'm running out of awesome words to praise you with, each review is better than the last and more and more packed with information and insight!"

Thank you, Spen. You are a joy to me.


message 5: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike At each excerpt I was amazed at how small our "great men" of today have become when compared to this man and his contemporaries. Great review Steve. How many more treasures do you have hidden away in your notes, hmmm?


Steve Sckenda Mike wrote: "At each excerpt I was amazed at how small our "great men" of today have become when compared to this man and his contemporaries. Great review Steve. How many more treasures do you have hidden away ..."

Mike, thank you. You better run. I've got hundreds. I just never thought I would have a forum to share them. The good news, it really does take me quite a while to clean them up and reorganize them in a logical manner. It's harder than it looks. :)


message 7: by Steve (last edited Feb 07, 2013 06:42PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Steve Sckenda Oh and Mike regarding the apparent lack of great people today, I understand where you are coming from. I can't imagine the founding fathers wanting to debase themselves by chasing campaign contributions 40 hours a week, so I think our current system just sickens a lot of potentially great people. However, it is interesting to see that Adams (and Truman) were vilified by their peers. Point is, they weren't necessarily thought great at the time. It will be interesting if 100 years from now any future reader of history might look back on someone in our time as being a great person.


message 8: by Kris (new) - added it

Kris It's such fun to revisit your favorites with you, Steve. I need to read this sometime soon -- it's been sitting here on my shelf, patiently waiting to be read, along with a collection of John and Abigail Adams' letters to each other....


Steve Sckenda Kris wrote: "It's such fun to revisit your favorites with you, Steve. I need to read this sometime soon -- it's been sitting here on my shelf, patiently waiting to be read, along with a collection of John and A..."

Hi, Kris. Thank you. Yes, Abigail, too--as she would say, "Let's not forget the ladies." They had a fascinating marriage. We have so many letters (good for us) because they were so often (sadly for them) separated.


message 10: by Steve (last edited Apr 13, 2013 12:26PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Steve Sckenda Richard wrote: "Excellent review, Counselor, and an apt appreciation of your fellow law-talker.

"


Thank you for calling my review excellent Richard. Speaking of bars (legal and metrics), you set the bar so high for excellence that I am humbled. Thank you.


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways I'm glad you're pleased, of course, and pleased you got my Cincinnatus joke!

sending hugs


message 12: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike Steve wrote: "You better run. I've got hundreds. I just never thought I would have a forum to share them. The good news, it really does take me quite a while to clean them up and reorganize them in a logical manner. It's harder than it looks. :)..."

Steve, the only place I will run is to the site to await your next review. That is the miracle of GR for me. I am exposed to ideas, people, books that I would never have run across in my normal circles. Awaiting the next gem from the "Steve Archives".


Steve Sckenda Mike wrote: "Steve wrote: "You better run. I've got hundreds. I just never thought I would have a forum to share them. The good news, it really does take me quite a while to clean them up and reorganize them in..."

Thanks, Mike. I really appreciate your encouragement and kind words.


message 14: by Steve (new)

Steve s.penkevich wrote: "I'm running out of awesome words to praise you with, each review is better than the last and more and more packed with information and insight!"

I'm in the same boat. How can I not sound like a broken record when all your reviews are so good?

McCullough seemed to almost single-handedly put Adams in the forefather Hall of Fame. As a schoolboy I don't remember learning much of anything about the man, and then all of a sudden he was in a mini-series married to Laura Linney.

Sounds like the accolades are well-deserved, though. As are your own, Steve, for giving us these great, informative reviews.


Steve Sckenda Steve wrote: "s.penkevich wrote: "I'm running out of awesome words to praise you with, each review is better than the last and more and more packed with information and insight!"

I'm in the same boat. How can ..."


Steve, thank you so much. I had the same experience with Adams in school. I only remembered him as the lesser-founding father who was forever marred by the Alien and Sedition Acts. McCullough and also Joseph Ellis around the same time both rehabilitated Adams' reputation. Steve, really I need and appreciate the encouragement. Thank you.


message 16: by Jeanette (new)

Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist" You are such an ambitious reader, Steve. I was glad to see this is one you read long ago. It would have shamed me to think you'd blown through this recently!


Steve Sckenda Jeanette wrote: "You are such an ambitious reader, Steve. I was glad to see this is one you read long ago. It would have shamed me to think you'd blown through this recently!"

Jeanette, thank you so much for commenting. It helps to know that there is somebody out there reading and commenting. I love to read, but I have a poor memory. For years, I have been trying different strategies to retain more of what I have read. I have tried dozens of different systems that I try for a while and then abandon. It's a shame for all that effort to go to waste, so I am trying to figure out ways to share all this labor. This review was a experiment. Thank you again for taking time from your life to read and comment.


message 18: by Jeanette (new)

Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist" Steve wrote: " I love to read, but I have a poor memory. For years, I have been trying different strategies to retain more of what I have read."

I know the feeling. I have an excellent short-term memory, so I did well in school, but once the test was over, it was gone from my brain. I'm too impatient to take notes when I read, and too lazy to write lovely detailed reviews like yours. Part of the problem is that I'm so eager to move on to the next book. Then I run across books I've added to GR with only a rating, and I regret not posting my thoughts immediately after reading.


Steve Sckenda Jeanette wrote: Part of the problem is that I'm so eager to move on to the next book.."."

I have the same exact tension. I am always struggling between conflicting desires to consolidate and to keep moving. I do believe that writing a review helps me to make the book a part of me.


message 20: by Elizabeth (last edited Feb 13, 2013 12:24PM) (new)

Elizabeth Steve! Seriously, my to-read shelf! My. Tooo. Reeeaaad. Shelllf.


message 21: by Chance (new)

Chance Maree Steve, I believe I'm receiving an education just through reading your reviews. Gracias.


Steve Sckenda Elizabeth wrote: "Steve! Seriously, my to-read shelf! My. Tooo. Reeeaaad. Shelllf."

Seriously, Elizabeth. If you like history, McCullough is is an excellent writer who genuinely loves his subjects. His enthusiasm is contagious.


message 23: by Scribble (last edited Feb 13, 2013 06:08PM) (new)

Scribble Orca Chance wrote: "Steve, I believe I'm receiving an education just through reading your reviews. Gracias."

^^^^^+1


Steve Sckenda Chance wrote: "Steve, I believe I'm receiving an education just through reading your reviews. Gracias."

Thank you, Chance. You reward me with such a kind comment.


message 25: by Steve (last edited Feb 13, 2013 06:05PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Steve Sckenda Scribble wrote: "^^^^^ +1"

Thank you, Scribble, you who have been disenfranchised. :)


message 26: by Scribble (new)

Scribble Orca Steve, I sympathise deeply with the points you have made wrt Adams' thoughts and philosophy. Glad to read your review all over again as it provides me with insight into something about which I'm mulling wrt a different writer.


Steve Sckenda Scribble wrote: "Steve, I sympathise deeply with the points you have made wrt Adams' thoughts and philosophy. Glad to read your review all over again as it provides me with insight into something about which I'm m..."

oh sorry scribble you did appear earlier. Sorry to have lost track. I just remembered your comment before that GR kept you from liking a review and I was thinking of that. Best of wishes as you mull. Some of my best moments happen when perplexed. :)


message 28: by Ian (new)

Ian Klappenskoff Excellent review, Steve.

I only compromise when I'm wrong, and a fast compromise is a good compromise. I didn't hesitate on either occasion.


Steve Sckenda Ian wrote: "Excellent review, Steve.

I only compromise when I'm wrong, and a fast compromise is a good compromise. I didn't hesitate on either occasion."


Ian, if I were a savvy consumer of GR, I would take that pithy and clever comment of yours and turn it into an official quotation, and give it its first like before sending it into the ether. Thank you. You have actually given me the idea of the next time I do one of these note- based reviews to use the writing feature like you did for Secret History of Love. I cut out 90% of my notes for space constraints here, but next time I might try to add them as a supplement to a review. If you ever see that happen, you will know that it was you who gave me the idea.


message 30: by Ian (last edited Feb 13, 2013 06:40PM) (new)

Ian Klappenskoff Steve wrote: "Ian, if I were a savvy consumer of GR, I would take that pithy and clever comment of yours and turn it into an official quotation, and give it its first like before sending it into the ether."

Thanks, Steve. Would you like the link to my t-shirt and greeting card business?

The jury is still out on whether to use updates or My Writings for notes.

Updates are more interactive, but they're limited in characters, unless you post extra stuff in the comments thread.

Updates also hang like a "dag" between your review and the thread.

Of course, there is also the view that reviews should be shorter.

But how will you know how smart I am, unless you see what I think?


message 31: by Evan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Evan Leach This is definitely one of the best biographies I've ever read. I thought it was amazing that Adams (a founding father!) represented the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre - and apparently did it on principle (everyone deserves a fair day in court). Such an interesting relationship with his wife, too. Great review!


Steve Sckenda Evan wrote: "This is definitely one of the best biographies I've ever read. I thought it was amazing that Adams (a founding father!) represented the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre - and appare..."

Thank you, Evan. As a lawyer, I was fascinated with his representation of the British soldiers. His taking on an unpopular cause like that made him a colonial Atticus Finch of sorts. Also, I love his relationship with Abigail, but it was sad that they were parted so often, for the sake of the country. Truly, a great man and a great book; so glad you enjoyed the book, too.


message 33: by Mark (new)

Mark Excellent review and fascinating for an englishman to read about another of the 'founding fathers'.

And also fascinating to see your note-taking in action. Excellent.


Steve Sckenda Mark wrote: "Excellent review and fascinating for an englishman to read about another of the 'founding fathers'.

And also fascinating to see your note-taking in action. Excellent."


THanks Mark. Adams preferred the British to the French.


message 35: by Mark (new)

Mark Steve wrote: "Mark wrote: "Excellent review and fascinating for an englishman to read about another of the 'founding fathers'.

And also fascinating to see your note-taking in action. Excellent."

THanks Mark. A..."

I shall resist making any comment.....no really I will.


Steve Sckenda Hi mark. Just assume I'm in on every inside joke. I'm smarter than I look or sound. LOL.


message 37: by Laima (new) - added it

Laima I love your review, Steve. I've always enjoyed learning American history and you summarized a great president so well.


message 38: by Laima (new) - added it

Laima Btw, I'm a Canadian. I've visited Washington and loved it! Especially the Smithsonian museums.


Steve Sckenda Laima wrote: "I love your review, Steve. I've always enjoyed learning American history and you summarized a great president so well."

Laima:
Thank you so much for your kind comment. I love the Smithsonian too. One thing I love about GR is that it is so international. Having an international group of friends forces me to rethink the way I approach history.


message 40: by Henry (last edited Nov 22, 2013 01:58AM) (new) - added it

Henry Avila As always, great and thorough review,Steve.Enjoyed reading this book myself.John Adams, is not appreciated very much today.A shame.


Steve Sckenda Henry wrote: "As always, great and thorough review,Steve.Enjoyed reading this book myself.John Adams, is not appreciated very much today.A shame."

Thanks Henry. Adams' stock has gone way up since this book and the excellent HBO miniseries devoted to him.


message 42: by John (new) - rated it 5 stars

John Franklin How I feel everyday...


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