Synopses & Reviews
In this powerful, epic biography, David McCullough unfolds the adventurous life-journey of John Adams, the brilliant, fiercely independent, often irascible, always honest Yankee patriot -- "the colossus of independence," as Thomas Jefferson called him -- who spared nothing in his zeal for the American Revolution; who rose to become the second President of the United States and saved the country from blundering into an unnecessary war; who was learned beyond all but a few and regarded by some as "out of his senses"; and whose marriage to the wise and valiant Abigail Adams is one of the moving love stories in American history.
Like his masterly, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Truman, David McCullough's John Adams has the sweep and vitality of a great novel. It is both a riveting portrait of an abundantly human man and a vivid evocation of his time, much of it drawn from an outstanding collection of Adams family letters and diaries. In particular, the more than one thousand surviving letters between John and Abigail Adams, nearly half of which have never been published, provide extraordinary access to their private lives and make it possible to know John Adams as no other major American of his founding era.
As he has with stunning effect in his previous books, McCullough tells the story from within -- from the point of view of the amazing eighteenth century and of those who, caught up in events, had no sure way of knowing how things would turn out. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, the British spy Edward Bancroft, Madame Lafayette and Jefferson's Paris "interest" Maria Cosway, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, the scandalmonger James Callender, Sally Hemings, John Marshall, Talleyrand, and Aaron Burr all figure in this panoramic chronicle, as does, importantly, John Quincy Adams, the adored son whom Adams would live to see become President.
Crucial to the story, as it was to history, is the relationship between Adams and Jefferson, born opposites -- one a Massachusetts farmer's son, the other a Virginia aristocrat and slaveholder, one short and stout, the other tall and spare. Adams embraced conflict; Jefferson avoided it. Adams had great humor; Jefferson, very little. But they were alike in their devotion to their country.
At first they were ardent co-revolutionaries, then fellow diplomats and close friends. With the advent of the two political parties, they became archrivals, even enemies, in the intense struggle for the presidency in 1800, perhaps the most vicious election in history. Then, amazingly, they became friends again, and ultimately, incredibly, they died on the same day -- their day of days -- July 4, in the year 1826.
Much about John Adams's life will come as a surprise to many readers. His courageous voyage on the frigate Boston in the winter of 1778 and his later trek over the Pyrenees are exploits that few would have dared and that few readers will ever forget.
It is a life encompassing a huge arc -- Adams lived longer than any president. The story ranges from the Boston Massacre to Philadelphia in 1776 to the Versailles of Louis XVI, from Spain to Amsterdam, from the Court of St. James's, where Adams was the first American to stand before King George III as a representative of the new nation, to the raw, half-finished Capital by the Potomac, where Adams was the first President to occupy the White House.
This is history on a grand scale -- a book about politics and war and social issues, but also about human nature, love, religious faith, virtue, ambition, friendship and betrayal, and the far-reaching consequences of noble ideas. Above all, John Adams is an enthralling, often surprising story of one of the most important and fascinating Americans who ever lived.
Gordon S. Wood andlt;Iandgt;The New York Review of Booksandlt;/Iandgt; By far the best biography of Adams ever written...McCullough's special gift as an artist is his ability to re-create past human beings in all their fullness and all their humanity. In John and Abigail he has found characters worthy of his talent.
Marie Arana andlt;Iandgt;The Washington Postandlt;/Iandgt; McCullough is one of our most gifted living writers.
Michiko Kakutani andlt;Iandgt;The New York Timesandlt;/Iandgt; Lucid and compelling...[Written] in a fluent narrative style that combines a novelist's sense of drama with a scholar's meticulous attention to the historical record.
Walter Isaacson Time A masterwork of storytelling.
Walter Isaacson andlt;Iandgt;Timeandlt;/Iandgt; A masterwork of storytelling.
In this powerful, epic biography, David McCullough unfolds the adventurous life journey of John Adams, the brilliant, fiercely independent, often irascible, always honest Yankee patriot who spared nothing in his zeal for the American Revolution; who rose to become the second president of the United States and saved the country from blundering into an unnecessary war; who was learned beyond all but a few and regarded by some as "out of his senses"; and whose marriage to the wise and valiant Abigail Adams is one of the most moving love stories in American history. andlt;BRandgt; andlt;BRandgt; This is history on a grand scale -- a book about politics and war and social issues, but also about human nature, love, religious faith, virtue, ambition, friendship, and betrayal, and the far-reaching consequences of noble ideas. Above all, andlt;iandgt;John Adamsandlt;/iandgt; is an enthralling, often surprising story of one of the most important and fascinating Americans who ever lived.
About the Author
David McCullough has been widely acclaimed as a and#8220;master of the art of narrative historyand#8221; and and#8220;a matchless writer.and#8221; He is twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize, twice winner of the National Book Award, and has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nationand#8217;s highest civilian award.andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Mr. McCulloughand#8217;s most recent book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, the #1 New York Times bestseller, has been called and#8220;dazzling,and#8221; and#8220;an epic of ideasand#8230;history to be savored.and#8221; His previous work, 1776, has been acclaimed and#8220;a classic,and#8221; while John Adams, published in 2001, remains one of the most praised and widely read American biographies of all time. More than three million copies are in print and it is presently in its eighty-second printing.andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;In the words of the citation accompanying his honorary degree from Yale, and#8220;As an historian, he paints with words, giving us pictures of the American people that live, breathe, and above all, confront the fundamental issues of courage, achievement, and moral character.and#8221;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Mr. McCulloughand#8217;s other books include The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge, The Path between the Seas, Mornings on Horseback, Brave Companions, and Truman. His work has been published in ten languages and, in all, more than 9,500,000 copies are in print. As may be said of few writers, none of his books has ever been out of print.andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Mr. McCullough is also twice winner of the prestigious Francis Parkman Prize, and for his work overall, he has been honored by the National Book Foundation Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award and the National Humanities Medal. He has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has received forty-seven honorary degrees.andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;In a crowded, productive career, he has been an editor, essayist, teacher, lecturer, and familiar presence on public televisionand#8212;as host of Smithsonian World, The American Experience, and narrator of numerous documentaries, including Ken Burnsand#8217;s The Civil War. His is also the narratorand#8217;s voice in the movie Seabiscuit.andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;John Adams, the seven-part mini-series on HBO, produced by Tom Hanks and starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, was one of the most acclaimed and talked about television events of recent years.andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;A gifted speaker, Mr. McCullough has lectured in all parts of the country and abroad, as well as at the White House. He is also one of the few private citizens to speak before a joint session of Congress.andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Born in Pittsburgh in 1933, Mr. McCullough was educated there and at Yale, where he graduated with honors in English literature. He is an avid reader and traveler, and has enjoyed a lifelong interest in art and architecture. He is a devoted painter as well. Mr. McCullough and his wife, Rosalee Barnes McCullough, have five children and eighteen grandchildren.
Table of Contents
andlt;Bandgt;Contentsandlt;/Bandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;Bandgt;Part I: Revolutionandlt;/Bandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;CHAPTER ONE: The Road to Philadelphiaandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;CHAPTER TWO: True Blueandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;CHAPTER THREE: Colossus of Independenceandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;Bandgt;Part II: Distant Shoresandlt;/Bandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;CHAPTER FOUR: Appointment to Franceandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;CHAPTER FIVE: Unalterably Determinedandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;CHAPTER SIX: Abigail in Parisandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;CHAPTER SEVEN: Londonandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;Bandgt;Part III: Independence Foreverandlt;/Bandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;CHAPTER EIGHT: Heir Apparentandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;CHAPTER NINE: Old Oakandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;CHAPTER TEN: Statesmanandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;CHAPTER ELEVEN: Rejoice Ever Moreandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;CHAPTER TWELVE: Journey's Endandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;ACKNOWLEDGMENTSandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;SOURCE NOTESandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;BIBLIOGRAPHYandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;INDEXandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;
Reading Group Guide
1. Adams's preoccupation with his own shortcomings and a desire to make his mark on the world plagued him for much of his political life. What did he determine to be his major "failings"? How did he seek to best redress these failings? Provide examples of how these failings were exploited by others. Did Adams make peace with his perceived shortcomings? If yes, how was that accomplished? If not, why not?
2. Compare and contrast the portraits of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson that emerged from the text. To what does McCullough suggest they owe much of their differences in character, temperament, and perspectives? How do their distinctions presage the evolution of political parties in early U.S. politics? With whom did you find yourself most aligned? Why?
3. What was the impact of Thomas Paine's Common Sense on the colonies and their respective delegates at the second Continental Congress? How did Adams characterize the position espoused in Common Sense? What were his objections to the pamphlet's primary claims? What arguments did he offer in rebuttal in his pamphlet, Thoughts on Government?
4. How did delegates seek to tackle the slavery question in the debates about the Declaration of Independence? How does McCullough portray the nature of slavery and its perception by the delegates? Whom does he identify as its chief opponents and proponents in the Congress of 1776? How was the question of slavery conceived and understood by Adams? How was the slavery question resolved during America's founding?
5. Much of John and Abigail's relationship is revealed through their detailed letters to each other during John's long absences. How would you characterize their relationship with each other? To what extent do you believe their relationship was exceptional for the time in which they lived? What do their letters reveal about John Adams's character versus the public perception of him? What is similar? What is dissimilar?
6. What does Abigail reveal about the nature and preoccupations of the female spheres of influence in that era? How were Abigail's and John's perceptions of French female culture reflective of their respective gender and/or personal character?
7. Delineate the specific purposes and outcomes of Adams's two trips to France. How did Benjamin Franklin jointly support and hinder Adams's effectiveness in negotiating with the French government? How did French perceptions of Franklin versus Adams parallel the changing dynamic of America as a colony versus an independent nation?
8. Identify how the political climate and the actions taken by both Adams and his opponents informed public perception of Adams as a monarchist and villain of liberty. Do you agree with Adams's own assessment that he was consistently misunderstood and misrepresented? Why or why not? How would you encapsulate the political views of Adams?
9. What were some of the major ironies of the highly contested election of 1800 between Jefferson and Adams? How did this election differ from the 1796 election? To what do you ascribe these differences?
10. What do you believe Adams meant when he described the voyage on the Boston as symbolic of his whole life? Do you concur with McCullough's own reading of this metaphor? What events or circumstances of Adams's life do you believe definitively capture the tenor of his character and the way he lived his life?
Enhancement to Your Book Club
1. Go to http://www.let.rug.nl/~usa/index.htm, and find copies of the following documents:
-- Common Sense by Thomas Paine
-- Thoughts on Government by John Adams
Distribute copies of each text to members of your book club so that they may review firsthand accounts of these influential documents. Have each member identify the most and least compelling arguments from each and bring their responses to your meetings. During a break, discuss each text:
-- Do you agree with Adams's analysis of Paine's work? Why or why not?
-- What arguments of Paine's work do you believe most inspired the colonists?
-- What are your major criticisms of both works?
-- What element of each has been most enduring?
2. Visit http://www.let.rug.nl/~usa/index.htm and explore the City Tavern Restaurant where John Adams and many of his contemporaries ate their meals during both Continental Congresses. Review its history. If you are able, find a new or used copy of its signature cookbook and prepare one of the dishes for your book club meeting.
3. Visit http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/aea/letter/ and read a sampling of the courtship letters between John and Abigail Adams (Letters during courtship and early legal career, 1762-1774 ). Provide the following scenario: Your significant other will be away from you for a month. You are unable to communicate with him or her via phone or e-mail. Half of the group must write a letter to their significant other as they would today, detailing the information they would like to communicate. The other half must write a letter using John and Abigail's letters as a guide. At the reading group meeting, ask each group to read portions of their letters. Discuss the following:
-- How challenging was it to craft a letter within the present?
-- What were the challenges of writing a letter using John and Abigail's format?
-- What differences do you notice about the tone of the letters? Was one more formal than the other?
-- How does the content of information differ?
-- What elements remain the same in both types of letters?