Monday, July 2, 2012


A review of David McCullough’s John Adams (2001)

(Rating: 5 of 5)

It has been a few years since I first read John Adams.  I decided to re-read the book for the purpose of reviewing it.  McCullough’s work as an author is a testament that history does not have to be boring.  When one thinks of all the titans of this era, in some ways Mr. Adams comes up a little short.  Regulated to history as ‘number 2’ the one-term president who follows George Washington and who precedes Thomas Jefferson, John Adams is not typically thought of as the most interesting of the founders.  That was until 2001, when McCullough wrote this stunning book about a man whom without there may not have been a United States of America.
Young Abigail and John Adams

            McCullough traces John Adams time as a young lawyer who is a loyal subject of the British Empire.  After the abuses to what Adams believes are the rightful liberties of British subjects that the colonists are entitled, he would go to Congress and take up the cause of independence.  His performance at the Congress was second to none.  It was John Adams that nominated George Washington to command the continental army.  It was Adams, who with Jefferson and Franklin, would bring the Congress around to declaring the nation’s independence from the British crown.  McCullough also shows how it was not as neat in tidy as in the classic paintings.  In fact, the Founding Fathers themselves contributed to that misconception.
“In later years, Jefferson would entertain guests at Monticello with descriptions of black flies that so tormented the delegates, biting through their silk hose that they had hurried the signing along as swiftly as possible.  But at the time Jefferson wrote nothing of the occasion, not did John Adams.  In old age, trying to reconstruct events of that crowed summer, both men would stubbornly and incorrectly insist that the signing took place of July 4.” (p.138)
Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson

            After securing the nation’s independence Adams spends a great deal of time abroad in foreign courts trying to win over allies to the American cause.  In this he often becomes loggerheads with Ben Franklin.  Adams was one of the diplomats who help negotiate the Treaty of Paris (1783) where American independence was recognized by the British Empire.  He would be the first American to represent his country in the Court of St. James.  Adams found he rather liked King George III, all things considered, and McCullough points out the two men had a great deal in common.
“His Majesty the King of England and the new American minister to the Court of St. James’s were not without common interests and notable similarities.  Like John Adams, King George III was devoted to farming.  Seldom was His Majesty happier than when inspecting his farms, or talking crops and Merino sheep with his farm workers at Windsor.  Like Adams, the King had a passion for books.  The difference, as with the farming, was mainly a matter of scale.  His private library was one of the treasures of Britain.  During Adams’s earlier stay in London, the American painter Benjamin West had arranged a tour of the royal quarters at Buckingham House, and for Adams the high point had been seeing the King’s library.  He wished he could stay a week, Adams had said.” (p.333)
Mr. Adams meets the King

            A good deal of the book is dedicated to Adams relationship with his children, his daughter ‘Nabby’ (Young Abigail), his future president son John Quincy, and his other two useless sons, Charles and Thomas.  Most important however is the relationship with his life partner, Abigail.  America clearly has many Founding Fathers, if it were to have any Founding Mothers Abigail Adams would certainly be a strong candidate for the title.  In many ways she was her husband’s superior especially where money was concerned.  Jefferson pointed out the reason Adams was better off than he was financially, is because of Mrs. Adams running of their family finances.
“As she predicted, the bill for the Bank of the United States passed by a sizable majority, despite opposition from Madison and Jefferson, who urged the President to exercise a veto on constitutional grounds.  But Hamilton’s views carried greater weight with Washington, who signed the bill on February 25.
            Better versed on financial matters than her husband, Abigail wanted to invest immediately in government securities, but as she told Cotton Tufts, ‘Mr. Adams held to his faith in land as true wealth.’” (p.428)
            When Adams returned from Europe he was elected Vice President of the United States.  The first to hold this office, the record that Adams would set tie breaking votes he would cast as President of the Senate is a record that still stands to this day.  In 1796, he would go on to win the first contested presidential election in U.S. history.  As the first president ever to succeed a president he had no history to turn to.  He kept Washington’s entire cabinet that was loyal to Hamilton, instead of him, in office.  Adams would still manage to keep this country away from war with France and do so with America’s honor intact.  Yet he would lose the election of 1800.
“What was surprising—and would largely be forgotten as time went on—was how well Adams had done.  Despite the malicious attacks on him, the furor over the Alien and Sedition Acts, unpopular taxes, betrayals by his own cabinet, the disarray of the Federalists, and the final treachery of Hamilton, he had, in fact, come very close to winning in the electoral count.  With a difference of only 250 votes in New York City, Adams would have won with an electoral count of 71 to 61.  So another of the ironies of 1800 was that Jefferson, the apostle of agrarian America who loathed cities, owed his ultimate political triumph to New York.” (p.556)
            In his final public act he would choose John Marshall as Chief Justice of the United States.  As the famous scene played out Adams asked Marshall who he should appoint.  Marshall in response says he does not know.  Adams responds with ‘I think I will appoint you'.
“But it is probable that Adams knew exactly whom he would choose before Marshall even entered the room.  In many ways the nomination was inevitable.  Few men had so impressed Adams as Marshall, with his good sense and ability.  Nor had anyone shown greater loyalty.  He was Adams’s kind of Federalist and one who at forty-five—‘in the full vigor of middle age,’ as Adams said—could be expected to serve on the Court for years to come.  On January 31, 1801, at the President’s House, Adams signed Marshall’s commission as Chief Justice, which the Senate confirmed without delay.  In its far-reaching importance to the country, Adams appointment of Marshall was second only to his nomination of George Washington to command the Continental Army twenty-five years before.  Possibly the greatest Chief Justice in history, Marshall would serve on the Court for another thirty-four years.” (p.560)
John Adams is an incredible book about an incredible man.  McCullough writes in a manner that it is both readable and enjoyable.  The best part is you do not even have to study history on a regular basis to enjoy it.
{Scenes are taking from the HBO John Adams mini-series based on the book}

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