by David McCullough
I rarely read biographies and to say the least, I was quite intimidated when Gina recommended John Adams, a rather hefty tome and winner of the 2002 Pulitzer. As someone who hasn’t taken many humanities classes in college, I had the preconceived notion that this was going to be quite dry and, well, boring–Pulitzer or no. The only thing I knew about John Adams was from high school history and that musical, 1776, and I had a hard time imagining how much a biographer could flesh out someone who lived so long ago and now elevated to some historical and abstract icon.
To my surprise (and relief), John Adams read just like a novel and I learned quite a lot. The biographer was able to really get into Adams’ head because he had a vast number of resources available to him–particularly the extensive correspondence between Adams and everyone he came in contact with. The letters between John Adams and his wife Abigail show that not only were they deeply devoted to each other, but that Abigail was just as interested in politics and had a profound effect on Adams’ decisions.
Also surprisingly was the fact that Adams had been an extensive traveler. As one of the architects of the Declaration of Independence, he set out to Europe to procure allies and support for the Revolution as well as to serve as an ambassador to England after the war. When he came back, he became the first Vice President and then the second President–however, his term was plagued by the fracturing of the government into two parties (the Federalists and the Republicans), the machinations of the former Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton who had aspirations to positions of power, and the mudslinging press who derided him as an insane old man.
The most interesting relationship John Adams had was with Thomas Jefferson who was much more reserved yet was a seething mess of contradictions–contrary to New England farmer John Adams, Jefferson was an aristocratic Virginian although in theory for thriftiness and freedom of all people, still kept slaves and spent money recklessly. They were friends until political differences (primarily the breakup into the party system) halted communication between them. It was only after eleven years of silence did Adams resume his remarkable correspondence with Jefferson.
But despite the vindictive against Adams during his time as a public figure–he was fondly remembered when he and Jefferson passed away on July 4, fifty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.