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Excuse the pun but I don't think you could be blamed for not knowing who John Adams was unless you have done a course on political history recently - I certainly didn't, until I read this excellent, well researched and balanced biography. John Adams is quite clearly the unsung hero of the time that led to American independence.
David McCullough draws extensively on correspondence, some of which is quoted in the book and this gives an interesting picture of not only the development of what is now known as the United States of America but also of how he, his family as well as the major political players (Jefferson et al) felt about the developments before, during and after the revolution.
- Not only did Adams partake in the drafting of the American constitution, he also served as Ambassador in Paris and London and finally as the nation's second president (and was the father of John Quincey Adams - 6th US president).
The mix of first person accounts (especially the correspondence between John Adams and his wife Abigail) set against historical fact and weaved together by well thought out narrative adds humanity to a time which otherwise is too easily and too often summed up as a dry list of dates and events.
This is biographical craftmanship at its best.
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Until I read this book, I knew very little about John Adams (October 30, 1735 - July 4, 1826), the man who was the second President of the United States (1797-1801). I knew, vaguely, that he was one of the Founding Fathers, and that John Quincy Adams (the sixth President of the United States) was his son. Reading this book filled in many of the gaps in my knowledge. As well, by drawing on their copious correspondence, Mr McCullough's biography brought John Adams and his wife Abigail to life. It may have been unfortunate for Abigail and John that they had to spend so much time apart, but historians have benefitted as a consequence. We'd know a lot less about John and Abigail Adams without their letters.

This is a biography of a man who may have been a reluctant politician but proved himself to be a loyal and tenacious patriot. The life and career of John Adams makes for fascinating reading: his marriage to Abigail Smith and his relationship with Thomas Jefferson are central to this biography, but it's the wealth of information about people and places that provides context for the events of the 18th and 19th century as experienced by John Adams during his long life, and which shaped the formation of the fledgling republic.

It seems entirely fitting, really, that both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on 4 July 1826: their long relationship brought to a close fifty years after the United States Declaration of Independence which John Adams assisted Thomas Jefferson in drafting.

I found this book to be an engrossing read: I learned a lot about John Adams and his family; about the establishment of the American republic; and about European politics of the time as well.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 4 February 2007
"John Adams" by David McCullough is talented rendition of a unique story. Despite being remembered as the pigmy sandwiched between two giants, Washington and Jefferson, McCullough portrays Adams as an immensely important and interesting character in his own right. Adams is shown as being at the heart of many crucial events of our revolutionary and early national history. It was Adams of the Continental Congress who was the prime promoter of Independence and the nominator of George Washington for the post of commander of the Continental Army. He then carried out a series of diplomatic assignments in Europe, in which he was the intimate collaborator with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Among his unique diplomatic accomplishments were the negotiation of a Dutch loan at a crucial stage of the Revolution and participation in the negotiation of the peace treaty ending the Revolution. Upon his return to America he wrote the constitution of Massachusetts before serving eight years as Washington's loyal vice-president.

Adams was one of those rare figures whose greatest for whom the presidency was not the office in which he rendered his greatest service. His mistake of retaining Washington's cabinet compounded his misfortune of having his prime political rival as vice-president and a deadly enemy, Alexander Hamilton as a leader of his won party. This left him leading an administration rife with sabotage. These factors handicapped him as he confronted issues of peace or war abroad and subversion at home. Having to function more as a sole actor than a leader of men, his administration is generally regarded as a failure. His term was influential, largely in the maintenance of peace and appointment of John Marshall to the Supreme Court.

Through much of this book the reader is treated to an interwoven mini-biography of Thomas Jefferson. Through this dual biography the reader comes to understand the dichotomy of these two friends, but rivals, collaborators and opponents and, ultimately, correspondents. Their timely demises on the Fiftieth Independence Day are seen as nothing less than providential.

As the readers of my reviews are aware, I have read very many biographies. Few match "John Adams" for quality.
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on 13 August 2004
There are so many great things about Mr. McCullough's latest work that it would be hard to list them all. The very best thing about this book is Mr. McCullough's writing style. He has, I understand, received some bad reviews from some so called "professional" historians. I have an advanced degree in history and have read some of these "professional" works. Even I find these books and articles are often dry and hard to read. Most readers simply don't even try to read these works. What good does a well researched work do if it lays on the shelf and gathers dust? Mr. McCullough does the research and then writes in a way that often makes it very hard to put the book down.
Another fine point about this book is that one almost gets four stories for the price of one. Not only does one get the story of John Adams but also his wonderful wife. A remarkable person in her own right. The reader also gets a great deal of information about Thomas Jefferson and the early life of John Q. Adams.
In my opinion there are two real tests of a biography beyond the obvious need for facts. First; does the book shed new light on its subject? This book rises to that test with flying colors. When I read Mr. McCullough's "Truman" I started out with a very positive impression of its subject. I had rather negative feelings for Adams before reading this book. I now find that John Adams has often been faulted for many things beyond his control. I also find that my feelings about Adams have changed a great deal.
The second test is a more personal one. If the book has made me feel like I really know someone, like a close neighbor or friend I will feel a sense of loss when I read of the subject's death. At the end of this book I felt the loss deeply. It was as if I had known John Adams for years. Thank you David McCullough. You have given me a new friend.
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on 3 November 2009
I too bought David McCullough's biography of John Adams because of the TV series. However, in my own case I haven't watched the TV series yet; I bought it, but my wife and I are still making our way through the fifth season of 'House', so 'John Adams' is sitting on a side table waiting to get watched. In the meantime, I like a good biography so I thought I'd read the original book, to give myself some background on Adams - arguably the least glamorous Founding Father.

Never having read a book by David McCullough before, I wasn't sure what to expect. The guy can definitely write a gripping tale. In the special features of the TV series (which I snuck a peek at), he talks about how he wanted to write a work of 'literature'. Well, that I suppose is what 'John Adams' is. I'm just not convinced that it's what I expect of a biography.

How much you enjoy the book will depend very much on the extent to which you're prepared to put up with McCullough's gushing admiration for his hero. This is the opposite of a critical biography. McCullough is hard on Adams only when the overwhelming consensus is that Adams was wrong, such as the occasion in 1798 when, as President, he allowed the Alien and Sedition Acts to be passed. Even then, McCullough is keen to take Adams' side and make the passing of the acts seem acceptable; what he doesn't do is assess whether or not the acts did more harm than good. In general, McCullough likes and admires Adams too much to want to make anything approaching a critical estimation of Adams' performance. To be fair to Adams, he achieved much: he was an eloquent and influential member of the Continental Congress; he was the first US Ambassador to any foreign country (the Netherlands); he helped to broker the Paris Treaty that ended the Revolutionary War; as President, he built up the US Navy and skilfully steered America out of war with France; he was a loving husband and proud father and he seems to have had a sort of gruff likability, such that even the British ended up quite liking him after his not very distinguished spell as Ambassador to the Court of George III. He was an immensely hard worker. But how effective was he? How many of his plans and dreams did he manage to realise? This is the ultimate test of a politician, but McCullough is not interested in analysing Adams' performance, only in celebrating it.

This is a highly readable book (I started it a few days ago and am already on p. 534, although I am a fast reader) but it lacks insight. Doris Kearns Goodwin's 'Team of Rivals', a group biography of Lincoln's cabinet, was a model of political biography because she didn't just repeat historical pieties, she made us look at Lincoln in a new way. McCullough's book is touching and pacy, but it's also monumentally platitudinous. A biography written entirely from the perspective of its subject abdicates the responsibility of the biographer, which is to take a larger view of the consequences of Adams' actions. This book ends with Adams' death. I would have liked a little more about his afterlife.
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on 1 February 2011
If, like me, you have a passing knowledge of the American War of Independence but want to know more of the characters behind it, this warts and all biography of a man who was at its very core will bring it alive in a fresh new way - Anyone who thinks political manouevring and machinations are a modern invention should read this - Southern vote-ringing, briefing against the president by the supposedly loyal vice-president, libellous and scurrilous newspaper articles and in the midst of it a man who, for all his own faults, was essentially honest and unshakeable in his beliefs - brilliantly written and researched.
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on 3 August 2001
David McCullough has written a highly elegant and descriptive book about a man whose name , John Adams , should be as well known as some of his contemporaries such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson . If only more historians wrote with the same highly readable prose as McCullough then I feel that many more people would have studied history at school . The book uses much source material by way of Adams' and his wife's letters and is incorporated into the text in a natural way by the author . Many historical events that were influenced by Adams are described in interesting detail , such as the negiotiations with the European powers during the United States' struggle for independance . The book is so sympathetic to both Adams and also to his very notable wife that one can be forgiven for wondering whether the individuals described were really so special . It seems again however that there is ample evidence for this . One confusing element remains Jefferson , who does come over as being a much lesser character than his reputation might suggest . In conclusion I enjoyed the book for its history and read it like a novel .
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on 25 July 2012
John Adams is perhaps one of the forgotten Founding Fathers of the USA; he doesn't seem to carry the stature of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. However, David McCullough's biography attempts to rectify that. McCullough is certainly an admirer of Adams, but it is clear that Adams was an extraordinary man. From defending the British soldiers of the Boston Massacre through to being one of the most vocal supporters of independence and the first Vice-President and second President, Adams was a key player in the early history of the USA. McCullough plays heavily on two relationships in Adams' life - his marriage to Abigail who was a valued confidant, and his stormy political relationship with Thomas Jefferson. Although a long biography at some 650 pages, the story keeps going at a decent pace, never getting bogged down in detail but giving a clear account of Adams' life. McCullough has done a good job in reminding us of the important role that John Adams played in the turbulent last days of colonial America and early days of the USA.
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John Adams as a subject and David McCullough as a biographer were made for one another. Adams was a prolific letter writer and essayist whose wife, family, and friends also wrote a great deal. With so much raw material from and about Adams to choose from, McCullough could emphasize his obvious talent for creating a smooth narration through simply connecting the most pertinent written materials authored by the key figures.
Most people who read this book will gain three important lessons:
(1) even the most successful people look to their personal lives for their real satisfaction;
(2) exploring deep relationships with remarkable people is far more rewarding than knowing lots of people; and
(3) serious mistakes and antagonisms will dog even the most successful person, so you have to take yourself with a large grain of salt.
John Adams is eclipsed in most histories of the Revolutionary period by the story line of building the new republic, and the lives of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. As a result, your perception of John Adams probably is limited to his role in defending the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre, encouraging the break with Britain, his ambassadorships, and the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts during his presidency. From that, you will have a perception of a man who saw his best days in 1776 and may wonder vaguely how his son became the 6th president.
If you are like me, this book will totally change that perspective. His best days were clearly those after he left the presidency when he could enjoy private life as a farmer. His son was raised from a small boy for public life, accompanying his father to France for diplomatic service during the Revolution. John Adams also had a talent for making tough decisions that showed up well in his encouragement of George Washington to become commander-in-chief, his advocacy for the Revolution, selecting Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence, his steadfastness in finding allies in Europe regardless of protocol, his steady focus on getting sea power for the United States, and his attempts to avoid war with France while president.
On the other hand, his style made him frequently misunderstood. He believed so passionately in his ideas that he often offended people by the vigor of his pursuit of them. From those extreme actions, people assumed that he had secret, extreme views in favor of authority and monarchy . . . which was probably not the case. Mr. McCullough is probably a little too gentle in forgiving Adams for his sometimes offensive ways because of the purity of his intentions.
His life also helps anyone better understand American history because he was bedeviled by communications and travels delays more than any other American of his day. Decisions about politics normally had to be made in light of limited and out-of-date information. So the man on the spot had to use his best judgment. Many interesting examples of this are well covered in the book.
In many ways, this book is almost a triple biography of Adams, his wife Abigail, and Thomas Jefferson. The interactions of the three are the most interesting parts of the book. Clearly they were among the very most talented of their age, and you get to see how the relationships formed, were put under pressure by public life and politics, and reasserted themselves with leisure and retirement.
My main complaint about the book is that Mr. McCullough could have included a lot more about the implications of what Adams believed and did. For example, although Adams was like Washington and wanted there to be no political parties, his presidency saw that unhappy event occur. How could Adams have helped maintain the consensus that there should be no parties? Clearly, he would have had to have been more active in cleansing his own Federalist supporters . . . which would have required a break with Washington's choices. Adams also kept us out of a war with France. However, would such a war have likely been very serious for the United States? France was well occupied at the time fending off every monarchy in Europe. So, although the book raises many delicious subjects like that, you will have to think them through on your own. That's a good way to learn to think independently, so this is a blessing in disguise.
Another limitation of the book is that Adams is forgiven too easily for the Federalists passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which clearly could have destroyed our civil liberties. How could someone who had fought for liberty do anything other than oppose such legislation with every ounce of his strength?
After you finish reading this fine history, I suggest that you think about how you could learn from the example of John Adams. What did he do well that you need to do better? What virtues do you have that he lacked?
Even in the midst of crisis, be sure to notice and enjoy the wonder of life all around you!
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on 31 March 2009
This book is a hugely entertaining biography of the great John Adams; a man who was the cornerstone of America yet is somewhat in the shadows of other giants such as Washington and Jefferson.

The passion for the subject is as clear as the amount of research that has been done, but the particular talent of Mr McCullough is that he writes with such easy clarity that those looking for a light read or serious study can enjoy this book. Writers of dreary academic pieces have a lot to learn from Mr McCullough.

The pace is particularly good, as this lengthy read never drags, yet provides such a good insight into the man that you finish the book feeling like you know him - which is what I ask of a biography. I must say that I hope Mr McCullough does FDR!
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