Book Review: John Adams

Published On:
January 8, 2018

I recently finished reading John Adams, by David McCullough. If you are a fan of American history you will enjoy this book and appreciate McCullough’s attention to detail, and his generous use of quotation from abundant primary sources. He tells a vivid story about an extraordinary man in an extraordinary time in our history. John Adams stands out as an ambitious, industrious, intelligent, loving, and patriotic American even among several equally brilliant, or in Adams’ own view, greater men.

Many readers are likely familiar with Adams’s most prominent political accomplishments, including being the first Vice President and second President, but McCullough educates us on the people and stories behind those and other feats of public service. We see the toll on Adams’ physical and emotional health, his happiness, and his family. We also learn of the immense emotional and political importance of the presence and counsel of his lifelong love –  the equally devoted, Abigail Adams.

Amidst all the illuminating details of his life, I was struck by Adams’ brilliance, persistence, and patriotism. Adams’s sense of duty started at a young age, and as a well-read, Harvard educated attorney, it was publicly manifested through his determination to uphold the law. With an acknowledged career-threatening act, Adams chose to defend the British soldiers accused of murder during the Boston Massacre, as no other attorney volunteered to provide a competent defense. Although this act likely started a lifelong misconception (by some) that he was pro-British and a monarchist, it set the tone for many righteous acts to come.

He left his law practice, family, and farm to become a member of the First Continental Congress, where he argued for the appointment of George Washington to lead the Continental Army. He advocated for a Declaration of Independence, and after it was written, used his oratory and reasoning skills to persuade Congress to approve the document. His letter of response to the North Carolina’s provincial congress, Thoughts on Government, laid out the foundation for our nation’s three branches of government and bicameral legislature; principles which trickled down into the structure of state governments as well.

Though his accomplishments were outstanding, I think that the title of Patriot comes with the addition of personal sacrifice – and Adams endured plenty. The author allows us to relive harrowing trips across the Atlantic Ocean, in poor conditions and under siege by British ships. We follow Adams on a life-threatening trek on horseback across snow covered mountains to hasten his arrival for European diplomatic duties. We empathize with Adams who lived nearly a decade abroad, mostly without family, in meager accommodations –  barely able to pay for basic expenses on his Congressional salary. He endured public attacks on his character at home and abroad, and often went unrecognized or was undermined by members of Congress while away on diplomatic assignments.

McCullough also reminds us that John Adams was like every other man, facing bouts of depression, self-doubt, and feelings of longing for his family and farm. His nearly continual correspondence with his wife, children, colleagues, and friends, sheds light on the innermost feelings, reservations, and joy that anyone can relate to.

I encourage you to learn about the life, sacrifices, and accomplishments of John Adams. Allow yourself to imagine your own place in a wholly different time in history. Feel the passion, excitement, and challenges of Revolutionary moments. You will be rewarded with a well-rounded picture of Mr. Adams – a true patriot.

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