J.'s Reviews > First Family: Abigail and John Adams

First Family by Joseph J. Ellis
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Jul 09, 14

bookshelves: american-revolution, biography-memoir
Read in November, 2010

Joseph Ellis has an amazing talent for introducing readers to the great figures of the American Revolution. He makes you feel as though you've lived in their homes, eaten family dinners with them, and become close friends. And perhaps none of his books do that so well as First Family: Abigail and John Adams.

In contrast to the reserved and aloof George and Martha Washington, John and Abigail Adams left a small mountain of correspondence that bridge not only the time they spent apart but an ocean as well. In their frequent and highly personal letters we get a narrative of America as it fights for independence and struggles to remain so. But we also get an intimate portrait of one of the most central families in the early years of the new nation, with the struggles they also faced as husband and wife and parents as well. And while Ellis has acknowledged that Adams is his favorite of the Founding Fathers, he doesn't shy away from revealing his immense vanity and hyperactive ambition. Instead he personalizes the man and his highly intelligent and capable wife, who provided an appropriate counterbalance in his life.

Joseph Ellis' books aren't as much straightforward biographies and histories as they are character studies of what their subject's personalities were like and what they were thinking and what made them tick. Readers who want to read David McCullough's excellent John Adams but are put off by the size and length might want to consider starting with Ellis first. He eases you into the history in a way that makes it easier to later dive into the others. This is not to say that there's little substance to this book; on the contrary, I found myself constantly reaching for a pen to underline and mark sections that I thought were so insightful and important that I'd want to reference them again (not something I often do). You come away with a better feeling for the issues and challenges they faced, and the nuances behind the actions and accomplishments. Highly recommended!
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