David McCullough’s John Adams is a step above the typical biographical writing. Granted, I don’t read many biographies, so my judgement may be skewed by a statistically small sample set, but I believe that if more biographies were like McCullough’s John Adams that I would find myself drawn to biographical writing more often. What makes this book notable is McCullough’s consistent and candid reliance upon letters written by Adams the man as well as letters and periodicals written by both his supporters and contemporary critics that provides a very balanced view of Adams. Prior to this reading my knowledge of Adams was limited, but McCullough’s biography provides a vivid and believable back-story about the revolutionary forefather that was at first unpopular and then later respected for defending the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, was the voice behind Jefferson’s pen for the Declaration of Independence, was an ineffective and frustrated foreign diplomat during the revolutionary war, was the sole author of the Massachusetts Constitution, and of course was our first Vice President and our second President.
It goes without saying that Adams lived in the exciting and dynamically formative times of our nation’s birth but it seems impossible that he managed to be involved in every possible step of the nation’s formation (with the exception of battle). Despite his prolific political involvement, his letters and diaries show that his involvement was driven less from ambition and more from a profound sense of duty and dedication to his country and people. It seems that Adams was ready to retire from political involvement as soon as the Declaration of Independence was ratified, yet as he was soon called to travel across the Atlantic to serve as a diplomat to France and later Britain (with a side jaunt to Holland to secure loans for the new republic) Adams reluctantly accepted each calling despite his heart’s desire to decline. Despite his great sense of service and duty, Adams was a prideful man as noted when the first elections were held for president: although Adams reluctantly ran for office at the urging of his supporters he wrote that he would accept no less than the office of Vice President (for which he was granted).
The delicate balance of humble acceptance towards the call to service and self-aware pride in satisfying his duties displays the complexity and admiralty that made Adams the person of historical significance that he was. He was a deep thinker and well read (collecting a library over the years that would reach the 10,000 range in volumes) and always striving to improve his effectiveness in the political and social arena. Through his years his staunch and stubborn ways did cause him to develop enemies and even great friends like Franklin and Jefferson drifted from his influence. Adams was able to rekindle lost friendships and save face because he was always a noble statesmen in public life, always presenting an amenable and peaceful demeanor towards his enemies no matter how much animosity he have for another as secretly revealed through his diary entries. It was interesting to learn that Franklin and Adams were deeply rooted political partners during the establishment of the Declaration of Independence, but while in France Franklin appeared to back-stab Adams by limiting his influence as a diplomat. Jefferson and Adams had an off-and-on friendship that was at first closely tied during the Declaration, then distant due to issues revolving around slavery, then close again as Jefferson joined Adams in France, then they were nearly enemies when Jefferson served as Adams’ vice president, and finally as elder retired statesmen they once again mended their friendship through a prolific period of letters shared between them. Interestingly, Adams and Jefferson both died the same day on July 4th, 1826, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence marking their bound authorship of that important document.
As I’ve noted, McCullough’s book is engaging through the author’s reliance on the many letters penned by Adams and his contemporaries. The most influential of all of Adams’ contemporaries was Abigail, his wife. Through all of the great works that Adams accomplished he struggled with loneliness and desperation when he was separated from his closest friend and life time partner and when they were together Adams was filled with zeal and determination. McCullough’s biography adeptly portrays the importance of the partnership of Abigail and John throughout all of Adams life in a touching and heartfelt way. When they lost their young children to disease and when their second son, Charles Adams, died of alcoholic cirrhosis the desperation of spirit was forever entombed in John and Abigail’s letters to each other. When their eldest and greatest son, John Quincy Adams, succeeded as a foreign diplomat, a senator, then Secretary of State, and ultimately won the race to become the 6th president, both John and Abigail rejoiced as forever witnessed in their shared letters. McCullough’s book is engaging not simply as a revelation of John Adams as a significant historical figure, but as a revelation of a unique and inspiring man that continues to live on through the many letters he shared with all whom he had influence.