John Adams — David McCullough


Second in my list of presidential biographies is David McCullough’s Pulitzer-winning biography of John Adams. This book is frequently hailed as one of the finest biographies of its kind, and has been exceedingly well-received, averaging an impressive 4.7 stars out of five on Amazon at the time of writing (by way of comparison, Chernow’s Washington: A Life averages 4.6).

Of the Founding Father presidents, Adams is probably the second-most neglected one (I suspect Monroe is first) for reasons I can’t quite work out. His life is an excellent picture of the American Dream: born to a poor family, Adams educated himself and eventually earned a scholarship to Harvard; he became a lawyer and rose to prominence successfully defending the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre; he was one of the pre-eminent thinkers and debaters of the age and not only had a hand in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, but he led the arguments for it on the floor of the Continental Congress; he served as a diplomat in France, Holland and Britain before returning to the United States to serve as Vice President in Washington’s cabinet for two terms; and in 1797, Adams became the second president of the United States.

Adams’ presidency was a sound one. His biggest challenge was avoiding war with France and he expanded the army and navy to act as a deterrent. Although there were a few scuffles between French and American ships, by the end of his presidency, the countries were at peace. The one blemish on Adams’ record are the Alien and Sedition Acts. In essence, fear of the French led to measures making it harder for French immigrants to acquire citizenship, making it easier to deport French immigrants, and restricting free speech attacking the government. Many at the time were outraged and, although Adams defended these measures throughout his life as necessary at a time of near-war, they are a permanent blot on his career.

McCullough is a fine storyteller and creates an engaging and consistently fresh narrative in this book. His account of the Revolutionary War period was fascinating and provided an excellent contrast to what was shown by Chernow: my first book gave me the battles while this gave me the politics. McCullough is also able to cover a great deal of ground succinctly. Adams had a varied life involving many positions of responsibility in a number of countries and McCullough navigated these with sufficient depth to reveal the man but without getting bogged down in any one post. That said, while Adams’s time abroad was portrayed in excellent detail, I fear it was slightly at the expense of his presidency, which seemed to disappear rather too quickly. McCullough was particularly strong in his description of Adams’s personal relationships with Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson, drawing heavily on their correspondence and contextualising letters briefly and clearly. I found it thoroughly enjoyable to read and feel I have learned much about the man.

Having started my journey through these biographies with Chernow’s superb work on Washington, this paled somewhat in comparison. However, I do think this is a first-rate biography, but it suffers from two flaws which left me a little disappointed. The first is the writing style: McCullough uses the word “less” when “fewer” would be appropriate and has a tendency to use somewhat repetitive phrasing. For instance:

That Adams could be blunt, stubborn, opinionated, vain, and given to jealousy was understood. (p. 392)

That a new America was steadily taking form beyond the Appalachians was one of the clearest signs of the times. (p. 396)

That he always succeeded in conquering these doubts did not seem to matter. (p. 399)

These are minor quibbles but would also have been simple to alter. More fundamentally, McCullough is too forgiving of his subject, more so than Chernow at whom I also leveled this criticism. This is mitigated in part by how obviously partisan he is: I could take his opinions with a pinch of salt. But I would have preferred to be presented with a little more balance!

Neither of these criticisms should detract from the fact that this is an excellent biography. It also faced significant presidential muscle in 2002 with Carter’s An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood and Jean Edward Smith’s Grant both nominated alongside. While I cannot speak for either, I suspect John Adams was thoroughly deserving of the Pulitzer it won.

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