I wanted to share my thoughts in review form on the recent tome (600 pages) I just finished, because I thought it was so exceptional.
I confess, my larger introduction to John Adams was through the 1970s musical “1776”. I became aware of David McCullough after purchasing his (unrelated) book, also called “1776”. When I saw “John Adams” on a bookstore shelf, I cracked it open and was immediately intrigued.
McCullough keeps the story moving, without dismissing details that help fill in a sense of time, place and person. The generous inclusion of personal correspondence, and not just that of the Adamses, was very beneficial in conveying and even authenticating the motives and perspectives of the people involved. Adams was not perfect, and neither he nor McCullough ever comes close to describing him as such. However, he was the essence of a good, principled man who, unlike Thomas Jefferson, did not advocate standards he himself did not live by. I have no antipathy and actually some regard for Jefferson, but there is no getting around the disconnect between his words and deeds, and some glaring inconsistencies in his character. By contrast, Adams did not shift loyalties nor positions for political or personal convenience. His integrity, industry and intellect are well-conveyed in this book, and it is obvious that he is to be admired for his life beyond the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Beyond Adams’ story, I found it fascinating how vicious politics could be very early in this country’s history, and the role of the press who apparently had free rein in circulating the most libelous personal attacks to serve the ends of their preferred party. There appears to have been no provision at the time for litigation of libel, etc. (This was part of what led to the Sedition Act, which was neither conceived of nor desired by Adams. While a dark spot of his presidency, the Act must have seemed a prudent measure to him, given the untoward influence of the press in elections and appointments.) The nature of unlikely alliances, cloak-and-dagger scheming, and betrayal of ideals and people might seem a phenomenon of modern political times, especially in the recent campaign season, but the book shows how such a mood prevailed when the country was still in its infancy. In fact, it could have destroyed the nation’s viability. Somehow, I would’ve guessed at more nobility and idealism within a generation of the founding fathers.
Another role model emerges in the person of Abigail Adams. Physically, she was less robust and healthy than John, but her clarity of thought and intuition matched and often exceeded his, and she upheld their shared ideals with great valor. They truly were soulmates in the highest sense of the word; one cannot imagine a couple more perfectly matched for one another.
For a study in personal courage and idealism, set in the richness of history, this book could take its place near the top.