John Adams

By David McCullough

Like most Americans, I've known that John Adams was our second President since I was in grade school. And, as I'd imagine is also true of most Americans, that was more or less the extent of my knowledge of the man. The first glimpse I got into Adams as more than just that one fact came in 2003, when I read Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage. Ambrose, who clearly idolized Thomas Jefferson, didn't hold Adams in the same high regard. Indeed, I came away from that book thinking of Adams as an ambitious man, bent on consolidating power to himself, possibly even wishing to become an American emperor. A man who, fortunately, was defeated in his second election by Jefferson, before he could do any more damage.

The second impression I got of Adams--and of Jefferson, for that matter--came three years later when I read Joseph Ellis' biography of George Washington. Quite unlike the tyrant that Ambrose portrayed, Ellis described Adams as a man of integrity, while Jefferson, no longer quite the noble farmer-scholar, came off as a schemer, practically a villain. To Ellis, Adams was a patriot and a loyal Vice President, though not as effective a President as he might have hoped.

I started seeing copies of this book around the same time, but despite being interested to learn more about Adams as well as being attracted to a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, my reading list had gotten quite long by then and I put it off. It wasn't until HBO started airing its miniseries adaptation that I finally resolved to read it. It took me over two months to finish, but I now wish that I hadn't waited--this was an excellent read.

McCullough has a real gift for taking facts and sources and weaving them into a compelling narrative. It helps, of course, that Adams' life was so amazing. Here was a man who was involved in nearly every part of the American Revolution, indeed, nearly all of the important events of his era. But it's not merely the great events that make this book so wonderful to read. Because just as important are Adams' friendships, his relationship with his family, and, most of all, his marriage--indeed, the latter is one of the great love stories in American history.

This is the brilliance of McCullough's book, that it presents such a colossal figure in our nation's history in such human terms. By the time I was halfway through this book, I felt I knew Adams, certainly in a more personal way than any other man I've read about. In fact, by the end of the book I felt an attachment to him that rivaled anything I've felt from reading a novel--I lingered over his death scene for a long time, having a very real feeling of loss.

Simply put, John Adams, is the best biography I've ever read. It's balanced, nuanced, and just a pleasure to consume. Adams, himself, had his flaws, to be sure, but reading about a man of such integrity and passion and intellect, such warmth, wit, and good humor, I can't help but wish I'd been able to meet him, myself.

Started: 6/23/2009 | Finished: 9/2/2009

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