Michael's Reviews > John Adams

John Adams by David McCullough
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really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction, biography, history, massachusetts, france, england, american-revolution

A solid and satisfying biography of a key leader in the birth of the American Republic. This book helps make him my favorite of the bunch because of his paradoxical mix of humility and ambition, idealism and pragmatism. Unlike Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton, he didn’t have aristocratic bearings and valued honesty, sincerity, and free thinking as the highest virtues. He appreciated the simple things in small town life and farming and liked doing his own physical tasks like chopping wood. I also admire his 50-plus years of devotion to his wife Abigail and his family. By contrast, Franklin effectively abandoned his family for 17 years in Europe and was allured by the high life and ladies in France.

The book is at its best in explicating Adams’ character. He came from a 100-year line of farmers and common Puritan folk in Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston now part of Quincy. His father was devout, a deacon of his Protestant church, and expected John to become a minister. Instead he chose law after graduating from Harvard College and a boring stint as a schoolteacher. He wanted to accomplish something of lasting significance and law was a more likely path. On the one hand he criticized himself for the sins of vanity and selfish ambition, while on the other was always driven to fulfill the image and succeeded like few others. Taking Abigail for his wife kept him down to earth, as she was his sounding board and most significant advisor through the rest of his active life. The letters between them are the main window to Adams thinking and personality, and McCullough harnesses them well to reveal his steady good humor, love of people in general, and overall moral optimism

Soon his cases began radicalizing him against the powers exerted by the colonial government, like customs searches without a warrant and the imposition of import taxes without representation. I liked his courage in acting on his belief in a fair trial to the point of defending the British soldiers who killed several colonists who were protesting the Stamp Act in 1770 in a dangerously rowdy manner. He learned the arts of public speaking, of applying logic to negotiation, and of reading people’s motivations and likely actions. His ability to inspire trust and his reputation for honest dealings contributed to his becoming a leader among the Patriot crowd. His effective service as a Massachusetts provincial legislator led to his being included in their delegation to the Continental Congress. And the rest is history, as they say.

After the violence of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, Adams could readily lead efforts to build-up the local militias into an integrated Continental Army and was responsible for nominating the Virginian Washington for command. One last hurrah of the Loyalists had to play out with a failed petition to King George to relent before the majority was ready to assert independence. Compared to Adams, Franklin and Jefferson were surprisingly restrained and inarticulate in terms of pushing their ideas in debate. When it came to drafting the Declaration of Independence with them and two others on the committee, it fell to Jefferson to compose most of the writing, but Adams was its chief advocate and most responsible for its passage.

When the British response was cutting off trade and blockade, the key to success and survival as a nation became recognition of American independence by counties like France, including a source of naval muscle to assert rights of free trade. Adams was sent with the delegation to France to help pull this off. The dangerous trip, accompanied by his young son John Quincy, in a stormy February crossing was nicely covered in the book. Success in Paris came slow, and he only had a junior role. Upon return, he took up the task of drafting a constitution for Massachusetts, which was one of his accomplishments he was most proud of. In 1779 he was sent back to head up negotiations for a peace treaty with Britain. This time he took Abigail and their daughter along. McCullough is especially engaging in probing for the changing reactions of their plebian family to the fashionable and decadent lifestyles of Parisian society and the state of filth and misery of the lower classes.

The book seems to lose energy after this point. His languishing as the first vice president and tenure as president have few high points. The dissension between his Federalist Party and the Republican Party of his vice president Jefferson is given short shrift. When the French began seizing American merchant ships doing trade with Britain, Adams broke with his cabinet advisors (and Abigail) in refusing to join Britain in their war against Napolean’s forces. The libelous press became a target with the Sedition Act, which he felt violated the First Amendment, and did not support aggressive prosecutions as even Abigail wished. Life winds down for Adams after losing the next election to Jefferson. The high point in this book for the long succeeding decades of private life was his ten-year correspondence with Jefferson starting in 1812 through the encouragement of mutual friend Benjamin Rush to put aside their differences. I wish McCullough had done even more than pulling out a few choice sections on their play of ideas.

In the end, I felt the book was great for conveying a sense of the man in his times, but t was missing the elements of critical analysis and perspectives that provided a better balance in his biographies of Truman and Teddy Roosevelt. For example, in Isaacson’s biography of Franklin Adams comes off a bit as a drudge and moralistic party pooper in his time with Franklin in Paris. And the Wiki summary on Adams reveals unclear or contradictory positions of Adams on slavery and heredity legislators like Britain’s House of Lords. For readers interested in the American Revolution, McCullough’s “1776” is a better resource for the drama and broader understanding of how it was that ordinary rural people in a diverse set of colonies came together to form an independent nation. I loved Philbrick’s “Bunker Hill” even more. These relative judgments are subject to the caveat that I did this “read” as an abridged audiobook. I am only aware of missing sections that cover what his reactions and activities were during the period of British blockage of Boston and early battles of revolt, the course of his contentious relations with Jefferson and with Hamilton, and much of Adams; time as an ambassador to England.
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Reading Progress

August 15, 2015 – Started Reading
August 15, 2015 – Shelved
August 19, 2015 – Shelved as: non-fiction
August 19, 2015 – Shelved as: biography
August 19, 2015 – Shelved as: history
August 19, 2015 – Shelved as: massachusetts
August 19, 2015 – Shelved as: france
August 19, 2015 – Shelved as: england
August 19, 2015 – Shelved as: american-revolution
August 19, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-23 of 23 (23 new)

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message 1: by Howard (last edited Aug 24, 2015 06:30AM) (new) - added it

Howard Very good, Michael. Your point that Adams' major contributions were made before his presidency is an important one. It is no accident that he and his son, John Quincy, were the first two presidents to fail to win re-election.

This occurred partly because while they were great statesmen, they were not great -- or even good -- politicians. John Quincy, as secretary of state, was also responsible for significant contributions to the development of the nation prior to his election to the presidency. He also did the same as a member of the House of Representatives after his presidential term ended.

They were also the only two northerners to be elected to the presidency in the early years and, thus, the only two non-aristocratic, non-slaveholding, non-southerners among the first seven men to hold the office.

Even though they do not rank among the greatest presidents, both accomplished a great deal in their public lives and there is much to admire about them.


Michael Howard wrote: "Very good, Michael. Your point that Adams' major contributions were made before his presidency is an important one. It is no accident that he and his son, John Quincy, were the first two president to fail to win re-election...."

Thanks for the insights of your deep knowledge. With this book my history reading brings me up the early 19th century. But then I have such a gap up to precursors to the Civil War. The hole in my knowldege extends from the time of Lewis and Clark ("Undaunted Courage") to the Mexican War (a Shaara novelization and part of Hampton Sides biography of Kit Carson). Reading suggestions for that gap are welcome.


message 3: by Howard (new) - added it

Howard Michael wrote: "Howard wrote: "Very good, Michael. Your point that Adams' major contributions were made before his presidency is an important one. It is no accident that he and his son, John Quincy, were the firs..."

Sounds to me as though you are looking for something written on the Jacksonian period of our history. I'll give it some thought and get back to you.


message 4: by Steve (new)

Steve This is great, Michael. It's obvious that you're very well read in American history, and your enthusiasm for the subject is contagious. Looks like from what you said, reading 1776 is my best course of action, for its broader coverage.


Michael Steve wrote: "... It's obvious that you're very well read in American history, and your enthusiasm for the subject is contagious. Looks like from what you said, reading 1776 is my best course..."

I went for decades without cracking biography or history books and got so little coverage in college as a biology major. It was easy to come to the conclusion that lives of more than 100 years ago might as well be tales about aliens, as they must have been so different from us. But people like McCullough and Philbrick make their narrative so much like a story of people like we know today. With their character development and drama I can get the same pleasures as a novel. We are lucky on GR to have reals historians like Howard around.

With whole centuries of ignorance, it's nice to fill in some gaps. But not nearly enough to warrant a feeling of being well-read. And then having no capacity to discriminate original thinking vs. popular or simplified historical synthesis. I felt I gained a lot of understanding of the first 100 years of colonialism with the misnamed "Mayflower", a time of great peace with the Indians. Then a good dose of the revolt of Mass. with "Bunker Hill", but it took a lot more activity all over the colonies to get them all on board with war.

And now I am wondering how Canada did so well without having to make war with Britain.


message 6: by Steve (new)

Steve I need to overcome poor schooling in history, too. You're a good inspiration, Michael, that it can be done.


message 7: by Howard (last edited Aug 26, 2015 06:52AM) (new) - added it

Howard Howard wrote: "Michael wrote: "Howard wrote: "Very good, Michael. Your point that Adams' major contributions were made before his presidency is an important one. It is no accident that he and his son, John Quinc..."

Michael,

I think I know the book that would close that gap you mentioned. It is "What Hath God Wrought" by Daniel Walker Howe. The subtitle is "The Transformation of America, 1815-1848," which means that it is bookended by two wars: The War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War.

It was awarded a Pulitzer and here on Goodreads it has been reviewed 265 times and rated over 4000 times, with an average rating of 4.09.

Howe is more of an academic than McCullough or Philbrick and his writing reflects that. However, this is a thorough documentation of that period and while it covers the Jacksonian era it provides a broader sweep than a Jackson biography would.


Cek  virabey ha,ha,ha,ha you like the book


message 9: by Ron (new)

Ron Roesener I felt like he was constantly building rock walls at the farm. What an amazing family and so much like those of today with siblings that become addicted to drink.


Alasdair Johnson Hmm. Wouldn't it be better to audiobook the unabridged version?


Michael Alasdair wrote: "Hmm. Wouldn't it be better to audiobook the unabridged version?"

Absolutely. Luck of the draw on what the state library system had.
And even more down the level is a cable TV series version supposedly based on the book. It was actually quite good with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney as Abigail.


message 12: by Jeanette (new)

Jeanette I did view that series, and it was of good quality.

This is an excellent review. I've read others of his and at one point read part of this one. He in many ways was the "odd man out" and not just in Founding Fathers' circles.


Michael Jeanette wrote: "I did view that series, and it was of good quality.
This is an excellent review. .. He in many ways was the "odd man out" and not just in Founding Fathers' circles."


Thanks for your kind words and insights. I love the way McCullough tells the story of his subjects. God knows what real historians think of his efforts. There was a time when it seemed all the popular hostory authors were accused of plagiaristic practices. I can see how it could happen by accident when making notes.


message 14: by Jeanette (new)

Jeanette His Wright Brothers was good.

Historians, if they don't interpret the history within their own politico slant, theory or personal cognition- have a hard task. Because then they have to state what was fact (research) or they have to quote.

And there are only so many ways to word those facts known and documented. People often have the same thoughts or reaction. Many plagiary claims (similar words) are due to unintended context, IMHO,

It's absolutely harder and harder to get "straight" history. Often, you are better reading 1st source materials and determining their "eyes" when the figure or reporter wrote it.


message 15: by Greg (new) - rated it 5 stars

Greg Micheal, ahem...Hamilton was an orphan at 14, came to America as an immigrant and had absolutely nothing. So, Hamilton is the one with NO aristocratic bearings yet wrote most of the constitution and developed the most sophisticated financial system in the world...till a republican killed him. Just sayin...


Michael Greg wrote: "Micheal, ahem...Hamilton was an orphan at 14, came to America as an immigrant and had absolutely nothing. So, Hamilton is the one with NO aristocratic bearings yet wrote most of the constitution ..."

Well spoken in your helpful correction. I learned of my mistake from that background for Hamilton in my reading later of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Ellis.


message 17: by Howard (new) - added it

Howard Michael wrote: "Greg wrote: "Micheal, ahem...Hamilton was an orphan at 14, came to America as an immigrant and had absolutely nothing. So, Hamilton is the one with NO aristocratic bearings yet wrote most of the co..."

However, even though Hamilton was a man of ideas, because of his uncompromising nature, he did not play a major role in the writing of the Constitution. It was James Madison who exerted the greatest influence and who has justifiably earned the nickname "Father of the U.S. Constitution."

Hamilton, as one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, did play a major role in explaining the Constitution and winning its ratification.

And as the first Secretary of the Treasury his impact on the new government under the Constitution was immense and far-reaching. It was in that role that he was most influential.

BTW, two individuals who no doubt would have played leading roles at the convention, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, were not in the country at the time. They were serving abroad as ambassadors to France and Great Britain, respectively.


Michael Howard wrote: "...However, even though Hamilton was a man of ideas, because of his uncompromising nature, he did not play a major role in the writing of the Constitution. It was James Madison ..."

Thanks for the distillation, Howard. From this Adams bio we mostly get his antipathies to Hamilton's contribution to the birth of political parties and empowerment of a profiteering elite in finance. I got another dose of antipathy through Vidal's satirical "Burr." It took the Ellis book to get me a more sympathetic portrayal and appreciation of his accomplishments.

The different contributions of Founding Fathers to the development of systems and ideals is fascinating. Madison is another figure of neglect I should address with further reading (whetted by Ellis's broad strokes).


message 19: by Greg (new) - rated it 5 stars

Greg Michael wrote: "Greg wrote: "Micheal, ahem...Hamilton was an orphan at 14, came to America as an immigrant and had absolutely nothing. So, Hamilton is the one with NO aristocratic bearings yet wrote most of the co..."

Michael, I'm so surprised at how much I don't know about the Founding Fathers. I was certainly awake during years and years of grade school history, but it seems Hamilton was hardly taught. And, I know that one source is ONE source, and that one has to read multiple sources, put the pieces together in one's head, and come to one's own conclusions. I admit I'm approaching this book with a negative perspective of Adams: I don't like that his Massachussetts constitution did not guarantee freedom of religion, but "affirmed the duty of all people to worship." But later in the same constitution his support of all forms of education, especially reading, is beautifully written. And I like that he believed all men were NOT created equal, but were created with equal rights, which I recall was a pivotal moment in Spielberg's film, Lincoln (but I forget if it was Lincoln or another character who made the declaration.) But whatever my thoughts might be, it's astonishing that "the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachussetts is the oldest functioning written constitution in the world".(!!!). And Adams was especially opposed of slavery, another plus for Adams certainly.


message 20: by Greg (new) - rated it 5 stars

Greg Howard wrote: "Michael wrote: "Greg wrote: "Micheal, ahem...Hamilton was an orphan at 14, came to America as an immigrant and had absolutely nothing. So, Hamilton is the one with NO aristocratic bearings yet wrot..."

Hi Howard, thanks for your reply. It's interesting to note that one source says Hamilton wrote, on his own, most of the constitution, but another source says no, that's not true. And stunningly, America's Declaration of Independence, as noted here in this book, was signed by all on August 2, 1776, yet there is no record anywhere of that happening, no one wrote about it, nothing. Wonder why? I'm at the part of the book where Adams and two sons make a second trip to France, wind up in Spain, then basically take mules into Paris. This segment would make a GREAT screenplay on its own. And does the Comte de Vergenes ultimately outwit Adams and Franklin? I don't recall, don't know, at this point. One thing I don't like about "nonfiction" is that many authors do indeed "suppose" things where information is lacking, which is close to fiction. But I've always thought, from a learning perspective, there is a fine line between what is labeled as 'fiction' and 'nonfiction' (truthiness?) especially in a case like Vidal's 'Burr'.


message 21: by Greg (new) - rated it 5 stars

Greg Jeanette wrote: "His Wright Brothers was good.

Historians, if they don't interpret the history within their own politico slant, theory or personal cognition- have a hard task. Because then they have to state what..."


Jeanette, great points. One has to read and read multiple sources, then think, then put together the pieces in one's own head. Of course all of us have a bias (different that prejudice, natch) and that's how we navigate through the world and all the chaos: we can't know it all, but we can know some of it and try to understand, for example, historical events.


Michael Greg wrote: ",,,Jeanette, great points. One has to read and read multiple sources, then think, then put together the pieces in one's own head...."

Bravo for capturing in words the value of pursuing knowledge with humility. Trying to gather in the lives and world of seminal figures from our not-so-distant past should be an ongoing dynamic effort of interpretation and not imbibing of some dead truths and facts.


message 23: by Greg (new) - rated it 5 stars

Greg Michael wrote: "Greg wrote: ",,,Jeanette, great points. One has to read and read multiple sources, then think, then put together the pieces in one's own head...."

Bravo for capturing in words the value of pursuin..."


It's a real shame, here in America, we don't much know what happened only 200 years ago. I just learned that never, originally, was there a concept of political parties. But it only took America to absolutely split in half and go to war 90 years after the Declaration of Independence. And now, today, we are heavily armed and perhaps split further apart than ever. And we made so much progress in the first 15 years of this century! That's pretty much gone...gone with the wind...


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