Book Review: John Adams – by David McCullough

John Adams

Every now and then I read a book that changes my life, meaning I read different books from that point forward, or I change my views, or I take up new activities. McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, John Adams, is such a book. A tour de force in storytelling, McCullough starts unfolding the life of John Adams on January 24, 1776:

In the cold, nearly colorless light of a New England winter, two men on horseback traveled the coast road below Boston, heading north. A foot or more of snow covered the landscape, the remnants of a Christmas storm that had blanketed Massachusetts from one end of the province to the other. Beneath the snow, after weeks of severe cold, the ground was frozen solid to a depth of two feet. Packed ice in the road, ruts as hard as iron, made the going hazardous, and the riders, mindful of the horses, kept at a walk.

This very first paragraph in the bookstore roped in my attention and the book never let go of me.

Since it’s a fairly big and thick paperback, I put it aside a few times when I picked up other books more suitable to put into my briefcase for travels, finishing those, and then coming back to it later. So it took longer to read than some other books. I just finished the book yesterday before going to sleep, and I found my dreams thrashing between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

It tells the story of John and his wife Abigail, an American revolutionary family and a love story quite unlike any in history. I got to know and love the man and the times, and often driving down the road or sitting in an airliner I found myself wishing I could sit next to John Adams and show him the world and the country that he helped create.

As I am writing about this I am literally overwhelmed by how much I have to say, to share, to elaborate on, just to talk about this one book, and I realize that I cannot do what I want to do simply because it would take another 700 pages, another book, and that’s just not my place.

To give you a feeling of what reading John Adams did to my thinking, I will share thought vignettes and hopefully you get the gist. I will publish those in a series of posts following this one, each titled “American Revolution Vignette” and focusing on a different subject, contrasting our time to the days of the founding of our country. Take it as a miniseries of book review posts. That’s the best I can do.

Besides the story of John Adams, I also got to learn much more about Thomas Jefferson, who was Adams’ contemporary, albeit seven years younger. Only 32 years old at the time, Jefferson was the “pen” of the Declaration of Independence, while Adams was the “voice.” They shared a lifelong friendship, which was at its peak while they were together as envoys in Paris and London in the years between 1780 and 1785. From friendship they transitioned to seeming arch enemies while they were both presidents, first Adams, then Jefferson. After many years of little or no contact, they resumed their correspondence after retirement. For another 20 years, even though they never saw each other again, they corresponded frequently and intensely for the rest of their lives.

On July 4th 1826, 50 years to the day of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson died at 1:00pm at his home in Monticello, Virginia, and Adams died a little after 6:00pm in Quincy, Massachusetts. Neither man knew about the other’s death. Jefferson was 83, Adams 90. An epoch in American history ended that day.

And now that I am done reading the book, I am allowing myself to order the HBO miniseries based on this work, and that will be another  review.

Let me say that reading David McCullough’s John Adams has me interested in reading biographies of all presidents, and having read one of Teddy Roosevelt and with another book on Franklin D. Roosevelt on my nightstand, I have about 41 to go.

Inspired am I?

5 thoughts on “Book Review: John Adams – by David McCullough

  1. zerrissen

    I was also really struck by this book – in fact, I finished it yesterday and blogged a review of it this morning. I really found it exceptional and like you, I felt a bit inspired to read more presidential biographies. I was considering “American Sphinx” by Joseph Ellis. Not sure if I want to dive right back into another bio, but the temptation to do so while this is all still fresh is pretty big.

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