Saturday, July 28, 2007

John Adams, by David McCullough

John Adams, by David McCullough

I’ve always been interested in the early days of our country, but until now have read mostly historical views of the times such as The Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers and Witnesses at the Creation and not much about the lives of the people involved. Most of what I knew about Adams was vague snippets from high school history: a signer of the declaration, the first ambassador to the Court of St. James, and our second President. My wife and I recently saw a local performance of the musical 1776 and I realized how shallow my understanding was. I’d loved McCullough’s Truman, so I picked up his John Adams hoping for a similar experience. This is the second book for which McCullough has won a Pulitzer Prize and the second that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Much of the biography is told in the words of the subject: excerpts from letters written by Adams, his wife Abigail, or Thomas Jefferson appear on nearly every page. (To see how much insight we gain by looking at period correspondence is humbling; today email has clearly taken the place of hand-written letters and I suddenly think history will be poorer for it.) I was very surprised to see how integral Abigail was in John’s decision making process; I’ve always had the impression that the opinions of women at that time were considered trifling at best, but this union appears to be a true partnership, more like I’d expect to find today. McCullough clearly believes John Adams would never have achieved his success without the guidance of Abigail, and he makes an excellent case.

One frustrating thing for me was trying to keep all the players straight. I’m not sure if it was unique to the Adams family or simply the way it was done back then, but many people were given the same name as their father or mother. Three John Adamses, two John Quincy Adamses, and four Abigails in just four generations, and not a single Senior, Junior, or nickname in the bunch! The author does an admirable job of limiting the confusion, but at times it was hard to follow some of the passages. Overall, though, this is a minor quibble in what is otherwise a compelling read.

First Sentence:
In the cold, nearly colorless light of a New England winter, two men on horseback traveled the coast road below Boston, heading north.

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