After it had sat on my shelf for what must be a few years, I finally tackled David McCullough’s John Adams. I have quite a few biographies of presidents and historical figures, mostly given or recommended to me by my father, but also because its something I really enjoy learning more about. But it’s hard to casually pick up a 675-page book; you have to be ready to commit to it. And, of course, I’m glad I did.
McCullough writes a straight biography, so that you don’t see ‘conversation’ between major historical characters, but rather a journalistic approach to events and how they played out. Still, it manages to still read much like a novel, and is far from a slow academic tome.
Reading a book like this makes you realize how little you knew about the subject matter beforehand. For instance, just about all I knew about Adams was that he was the second president, and that he therefore probably had something to do with the Revolution, etc. I admit it, it’s a paucity of information, but hey – blame not only the California public school system but the fact that I have a terrible long-term memory. I’m sure I was taught more, but…well, I had forgotten everything but the aforementioned basic facts. I had no idea, for instance, that Adams spent a lot of time over in Europe trying to negotiate loans, treaties and serving as an ambassador for the fledgling country. His relationship with his wife Abigail was particularly romantic for the times, and the fact that they wrote letters to each other almost daily served as a huge basis for the book. Of additional interest is the relationship between Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, let alone Alexander Hamilton and John Quincy Adams. The only other man here who is portrayed as well as Adams, if not better, is his son John Quincy. Jefferson comes across as an effete elitist with an inability to control his own finances and a decidedly aloof approach to slavery (that’s a generous way to put it). Franklin isn’t discussed as much but doesn’t come across so well. I’m sure if I read – scratch that, when I read a Jefferson biography that Adams will come across as arrogant, etc.
I really did enjoy this and feel like I have a better sense of the struggle for our country and the passion that the founding fathers had. I think that someone like John Adams would be thrilled to know that the country has lasted so long – and appalled at the current state of politics and policy. But that’s a discussion for people smarter than me, I suppose. In any case, it’s well worth reading and highly recommended.
A nice quote from him about priorities:
I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study paintings, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.
Go read it.