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Book Review – John Adams by David McCullough

Alien and Sedition Acts, American Independence, David Mccullough, John Adams

I consider David McCullough to be the finest American historian and biographer alive today. McCullough, the author of several superb works of history and biography (most notably, Mornings on Horseback, The Path Between the Seas, and 1776), has penned two Presidential biographies, both of which have won the Pulitzer Prize: Truman, written in 1992, and John Adams, a magisterial account of the life of the second President of the United States, written in 2001.

John Adams is a wonderfully well-rounded picture of a man to whom every American owes a tremendous debt of gratitude. John Adams’ many contributions to establishing this great Nation of ours, and the freedoms we cherish, are incalculable. He was indeed, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, the “colossus of American independence.

John Adams is literate, elegant in tone, entertaining, and, above all, highly informative. It’s not, however, your typical Presidential biography. In this masterful book, there’s much less emphasis on the political career of its subject, and more weight given to Adams’ personal life. And it was indeed an extraordinary life!

In 1735 John Adams is born into a middle class family in Quincy, Massachusetts. During his childhood and youth, his father decides upon a career in the ministry for his son; but John has other plans. He wants to become a lawyer. After attending Harvard, he practices law intermittently until the outbreak of the American Revolution.

During the years before the Revolution, he meets and marries the great love of his life, Abigail Smith Adams. Throughout their long lives together, this extraordinary woman remains a tremendously positive influence on every aspect of his life.

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Adams is one of the earliest to realize the inevitability of American independence from Britain. His arguments in favor of independence are always lucid, logical and easy to understand, and have broad popular appeal. Adams’ service to America continues throughout the Revolutionary War years and beyond. He serves as an American delegate to the Paris Peace conference, and, after the war, as an American minister in Europe. In 1788, Adams is recalled to the United States, after faithfully serving his country in the courts of Europe for nearly eight years, three of them separated from his beloved Abigail and their children.

Later in 1788, he is elected Vice President of the United States, an office he holds for the next eight years. Finally, in 1796, he is elected President of the United States. It is the first contested election in American history.

Adams’ Presidency is marked by two notable achievements, one of them positive and the other negative. In what Adams considered his greatest accomplishment, he prevents a war with France over the issue of French privateers attacking American ships. His most negative achievement is the signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts, a set of laws that gave the President the legal right to expel any foreigner he considered dangerous, and made writing against the government, Congress, or President… crimes punishable by fines and imprisonment.

Adams’ four years as Chief Executive are also marked by political wrangling unknown in America up to that time. Throughout his term, he is hounded by his political enemies. Foremost among them is Thomas Jefferson, a former friend and the leader of the newly created Republican Party. Jefferson accuses the Federalist Adams of having monarchical tendencies; of advocating a pro-British foreign policy; and of attempting to destroy the republic by concentrating power in a strong central government. Adams is unable to fight back effectively against these charges. In 1800, he loses his bid for re-election to Jefferson.

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The last quarter-century of Adams’ life is spent in relative obscurity in Quincy. During this period, he experiences tremendous sadness and joy. His son Thomas dies prematurely from alcoholism, and daughter Nabby dies from cancer at age 49. His beloved Abigail follows their children to the grave a few years later, leaving Adams alone after over 50 years of marriage. Adams is consoled by a renewed friendship with his old nemesis, Thomas Jefferson. They will carry on a decade-long correspondence that heals old wounds.

In 1824, John Adams experiences perhaps the greatest moment of pride in his nearly nine decades-long life: he sees his son, John Quincy Adams, become President of the United States.

In one of the great historical ironies of all time, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – the last surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence – will die on the same day: July 4, 1826. It is the 50th anniversary of the adoption of that immortal document that both labored so hard to help create.

When I picked up John Adams for the first time, I hadn’t really paid much attention to the historical figure who became the second President of the United States. After all, the career of this short, stocky, seemingly colorless man, whose one term as President was marked by controversy, political wrangling, and an apparent lack of great accomplishment, was nowhere as interesting as the careers of our more famous and charismatic Founding Fathers.

John Adams filled in many gaps in my knowledge of this great man. From this magnificent and highly informative book, I learned not only many facts about Adams’ life that I didn’t know before, but I also learned about the kind of man Adams was. McCullough goes to great lengths to give readers a glimpse of the true character of this extraordinary man.

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As with all books authored by David McCullough, John Adams is brilliantly written with McCullough’s trademark mellifluous, elegant prose. John Adams reads more like a well crafted historical novel than a straight biography. Readers will find it lively and entertaining on every page.

John Adams is the finest biography of America’s second President available today. Scholarly yet not stuffy, well researched, brilliantly organized, and eloquently written, it brings to life the man who rightfully belongs in the pantheon of the greatest Americans of all time. Read and enjoy!