Top critical review
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Grippingly written, but the lack of perspective is frustrating
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.