John Adams by David McCullough
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’m in the minority here, I know, but I was quite underwhelmed by McCullough’s biography of John Adams. Now maybe it was the audio version, but I had trouble getting through it. I’ve listened to Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton biographies and they all captured the spirit, intensity, and drama of the age far more than McCullough’s book. McCullough seemed much more intent on capturing the daily ebb and flow of Adams’ day-to-day life. There were tedious sections of back and forth correspondence, filled with the likes of the minutiae of his daily walks or the shopping necessary to outfit the house in France. Some of this is to good end: his relationship with Abigail, for example, comes out in their correspondence quite clearly.
When McCullough does get to the more historical elements, the book picks up pace and can be quite good. McCullough shows the reader the tremendously important impact that Adams had on the birth of this nation: his role in the early revolution, the drafting of the Declaration, the securing of financing for the revolution, and his presidency (which was not nearly as successful as the former items).
McCullough does a good job of balancing the pros and cons of Adams’ character. His pride and vanity is clear as day, but so too is his honesty and integrity. He could be overbearing and pedantic, but he is a man of deep principle and commitment to the liberty of the republic and it citizens.
One of the interesting things about reading the biographies of the Founders is getting the different points of view of the other Founders. In McCullough’s Adams, the main antagonist, so to speak, is Jefferson. Jefferson comes off, as he does in other places, as incredibly intelligent but hypocritical. His relationship with Adams is complex and helps to draw out the character of each man. Hamilton makes some brief appearances and predictably is dismissed as a dangerous power-hunger intriguer. Washington is distant: his presence is felt, but he doesn’t seem to be much of a direct player here.
Adams is an important figure who helped shape his age and ours, largely for the better. It is worth knowing more about him and I’m glad I slogged my way through until the end. McCullough’s style might be more suited to the eye than the eye, so this might have been a book I should have read, rather than listened to.
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