Last night I finally finished reading David McCullough’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, John Adams. Never before have I read a non-fiction in which I so deeply identified with the main characters.
John Adams is known as one of the Founding Fathers and the one-term second President of the United States, but that’s just the surface. The man was contemplative and deliberative, determined to make the right choices even when they were politically unpopular. He began his career as a circuit-riding lawyer, and in his early years was often at court in Ipswich. When no one else would serve as defense for the British soldiers being tried for murder after the Boston Massacre, he agreed to take the case and won, because he believed so strongly in the judicial system. Yet after the British attacked the Colonists at Bunker Hill, Lexington and Concord, Adams became the strongest voice for independence at the Continental Congress.
Many people know that John and his wife Abigail wrote to each other frequently during his long absences as a lawyer, representative to Congress, and as an overseas diplomat before assuming the vice-presidency under Washington. She was the person he relied on for counsel, and the rock that held the family together. In times of crisis it was his conversations with Abigail that brought Adams to the moment of decision. She never fought in a battle or held political office, but Abigail Adams is also a hero of the American Revolution.
As I read McCullough’s book, I could feel the burden of being John Adams. Just as it is today, every action was scrutinized, everyone had an opinion, and emotions ran high. It was probably not Adams’ ambition to play so large a role on the political stage, but it was his inescapable destiny.
By the time he was elected President, Adams’ political enemies included leaders of both parties. After years of exhausting service to the new country that he helped found, Adams grew tired of bickering politicians and rowdy populists, and he had no patience for his fellow Federalists who advocated war with France. Although he saved the peace, Adams lost the election in 1801 to charismatic Thomas Jefferson. He left Washington in the early morning hours on the day of the inauguration for his long final journey back to Abigail and the family farm in Quincy. In 1818 he was devastated by her loss, but in his final eight years John Adams resumed his lost friendship with Jefferson, with whom he exchanged a tremendous volume of letters that provide a rich history of the Revolution and the new nation. In a remarkable coincidence, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Helen Breen added the following comment:
“Thanks for your excellent review of McCullough’s John Adams. Agreed: “… he was a man contemplative and deliberate, determined to make the right choices even when they were politically unpopular.” Indeed, Adams and all his kinsmen were their own most demanding critics. I recall attending a talk by David McCullough years ago at MHS when he first published the book. Originally he had intended to write about Jefferson, but he became enamored with the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society and changed his subject to Adams. The family left tons of papers, diaries, correspondence etc to the Society, some of which was sealed until 50 years after the death of the 4th generation I believe. A worthy follow up would be Descent from Glory by Paul Nagel, the bittersweet story of the four generations of the family including Brooks and Henry Adams. An fun day trip for those interested in the clan would be to visit the “Old House” in Quincy where John Adams breathed his last on July 4, 1826.” Truly a remarkable family.