May 2024
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John Adams, David McCullough

David McCullough breathes new life into one of America’s foremost patriots with this excellent biography.  It does everything a biography should do – it covers every detail of Adams’ life, his family, his interactions, and his immense influence on early American government, and more importantly, it makes him feel like a real, fully fleshed out person.  He and his wife Abigail jump out from the page in numerous excerpts from their letters to each other, with the situations elaborated upon by McCullough in strong, clear writing, which is never boring as he manages to make tedious issues of government understandable and even interesting.

What struck me is how little about Adams I had learned previously.  The great patriots seem to always be Washington and Jefferson.  Both are included in this biography, especially Jefferson, but are shaded in a different light.  We objectively know that no one is perfect, but somehow the founding fathers escape our scrutiny.  McCullough does not spare them, but neither does he spare Adams – he is merely showing us the men as they were.  This makes them feel far truer than any high school history class that simply extols their virtues has ever done.  Adams’ contributions to American independence are given full weight and consideration here and it is hard to understand just why we don’t admire him the same way we admire the other patriots.  Perhaps because he was a stubborn man whose enemies attacked him to an extent no longer allowed in American politics?  Perhaps because he occasionally lost his temper and made some attacks of his own?  I don’t know, but I certainly admire him all the more after this refreshing biography.  It’s clear he was a brilliant man, and McCullough displays this equally alongside his faults.

Would I recommend this biography?  Yes!  I think it’s essential reading for every American.  Especially now, when we are embroiled in a frustrating war, it’s important for us to realize that it was not always this way and that men did fight for peace when it counted, like Adams did even though it lost him the presidency.  This man should be given more credit than he is now – McCullough has convinced me.  He should be up there with Jefferson and Washington for his contributions.  This is a brilliant work of history and it most certainly deserves that Pulitzer.


3 comments to John Adams, David McCullough

  • I’ve heard such great things about this book–but I’ve also heard it is a little idealistic (a book I had to read for grad school called Revolution and the Word talked a bit about the portrayal of Adams in McCullough’s biography). I think I’ll have to check this one out–I read His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph Ellis last year, so this would be a great follow up.

  • Meghan

    It is probably a little idealistic, but I do think that McCullough presented a lot of the bad with the good. I haven’t read much about American history since high school, but he does make a compelling case that agrees with my memory – Adams does tend to get the short end of the stick, and while he had his problems, he also had his triumphs. I’m also used to early American history presented in that idealistic tone, and it was nice that he brought them down to real-people status. Overall, for history that is marketed to the masses, of which I don’t tend to expect that much even when it wins awards, I was really impressed, as you can tell.

  • Hmm now that I think about it, I don’t know much about Adams…. I should prob check this book out, since you rec it so highly :)