The extraordinary talents and outstanding accomplishments of John Adams tend to be overshadowed by the illustrious and colorful careers of his contemporaries George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Adams himself thought his own major attributes were "candor, probity, and decision," and those qualities were crucial as he shared in the leadership of a revolutionary people who made the difficult transition to a stable, responsible, representative government. David McCullough, who has received National Book Awards for both history and biography and whose Truman received the Pulitzer Prize, superbly captures the life and times of this remarkable figure in his compelling new book, John Adams.
In 1787, after completing a book that he thought would make him unpopular, Adams wrote to a friend, "Popularity was never my mistress, nor was I ever, or shall I ever be a popular man. But one thing I know, a man must be sensible of the errors of the people, and upon his guard against them, and must run the risk of their displeasure sometimes, or he will never do them any good in the long run." That quote, McCullough says, is "about as concise a synopsis of Adams' course through public life as could be found."
Certainly Adams made mistakes in judgment. But when one surveys the range of his thought and actions during his entire public career, it is remarkable how astute he was in both the long and short terms. For example, Adams chaired the committee that asked Jefferson to draft a Declaration of Independence. But, after much revision, it was Adams whose speech to the Continental Congress convinced the delegates to pass it. As a delegate from New Jersey remembered: "[Adams was] the man to whom the country is most indebted for the great measure of independency. . . . It was he who sustained the debate, and by the force of reasoning demonstrated not only the justice, but the expediency of the measure."
In February 1778, when Adams was appointed to serve as one of three men to negotiate an alliance with France, "It marked," for Adams, "the beginning of what would become a singular odyssey, in which he would journey farther in all, both by sea and land, than any other leader of the American cause." He would help negotiate the peace treaty that ended the war with Great Britain in 1783 and become our first ambassador to that country in 1785. His most important service abroad, however, may have been negotiating for bank loans. "With his success obtaining Dutch loans at the critical hour of the Revolution," McCullough says, "he felt, as did others, that he had truly saved his country."
As the second U.S. president, he presided over a divided country and a divided party. Despite these disadvantages, under his leadership the Navy was greatly strengthened and proved decisive in keeping the young country out of war with France. As Adams wrote to a friend: "I desire no other inscription over my gravestone than: 'Here lies John Adams, who took upon himself the responsibility of peace with France in the year 1800.' "
McCullough skillfully interweaves accounts of his subject's private and public lives, focusing in particular on Adams' marriage to Abigail Smith, who was "in all respects his equal." The author's insight into the relationship and, at times, rivalry between Adams and Thomas Jefferson is also of particular interest. Their unique correspondence after both were out of office remains one of the most important literary treasures from the Founding Fathers. "The level and range of their discourse were always above and beyond the ordinary," McCullough writes. "At times memory failed; often hyperbole entered in . . . they were two of the leading statesmen of their time, but also two of the finest writers, and they were showing what they could do."
This exceptional biography should be enjoyed by anyone who wants to explore in some detail the complexity of the Revolutionary and Early American eras as experienced by one who was a crucial mover and shaker.
Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.