JOHN ADAMS - David McCullough


By David McCullough
Pulitzer Prize-winnning author of Truman

Published by Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0684813637, 752 pages, hardcover.

Reviewed for Keeping APAce by CDR Byron D. Varner, USN (Ret).

Author David McCullough chronicles those American revolutionary times in a manner that keeps the reader turning pages in want of more, despite his heavily detailed research — or perhaps because of it. One gets a clear picture of the unbelievable odds against a successful breakaway from British rule — of a war between a woefully ragtag group of militia against an overpowering force of professional fighters — and of the workings of a Continental Congress whose members were divided in their sentiments about remaining loyal subjects of the crown or seeking independence as a separate nation. That the nation survived is miraculous.

Equally intriguing is his expert research on John Adams, the patriot — who, because of his common New England upbringing and lack of charisma and riches of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, et al, has been somewhat overshadowed in importance, and minimized by some historians of the past. However, this author shows that without John Adams' dogged determination, adherence to principle, and respect by most of his peers, the Declaration of Independence may not have happened at the propitious time that caused its effectiveness, if at all.

Adams had an unusual personality that affected people in different ways, too frequently in the negative, but the author presents him in what would seem a fair and reasonable light that differs from those of his detractors.

A continuing thread weaving throughout is the endearing love story of John and Abigail Adams despite “war, plague, and abject loneliness,” as she described her circumstances in one of her many letters to him during their long separations. Abigail, a patriot in her own right, was talented and proficient well beyond the typical New England wife of those early times. In many ways she was the forerunner of today's liberated women — yet one who would always put her beloved John first. She became politically adept and a steadying influence on her husband.

Next in prominence in the story was Thomas Jefferson and the friendship with him that blossomed early in the formation of the Declaration of Independence, grew during their days together in France, faded and almost died during and after Adams' presidency, then was regained in the latter stages of their lives through personal letters. Known as the “voice” and the “pen” of independence, both men died on the same day — July 4, 1826 — the 50th anniversary of the signing of that hallowed instrument.

An interesting sidelight, in addition to the everyday life of early America, were the benefits of European education and worldliness for son John Quincy Adams during his formative years, while accompanying his father during assignments in France, Holland, and England. This was before he followed in father's footsteps to attend Harvard, and eventually in those footsteps to become an ambassador, senator, secretary of state, and our sixth president.

John Adams, a collector of books and a voracious reader, strongly believed the future of the country rested in education. He wrote, “The education of a nation instead of being confined to a few schools and universities for the instruction of the few, must become the national care and expense for the information of the many.” He considered establishing the Library of Congress to be one of his greatest accomplishments as President. But he was equally proud of the effort he gave to establishing our Navy.

As bad as our modern day politicians and mainstream press can seem at times, they pale by comparison to those early day politicos and malicious writers who made life miserable for John Adams' presidency, with a no-holds-barred, vitriolic press, fed subtly by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and others, through jealousy, envy, and desire for power. This character assassination eventually led to the Seditions Act, which was later repealed.

In our own 21st Century upheaval, it is well to revisit those days of our nation's founding and grasp a better understanding of our history and the basic principles of our constitution. This book is one I heartily recommend as an ideal one to start such study.