David McCullough knows how to tell a good story. I say this not just because I
loved John Adams and not just because I loved
Truman but also because I loved these lengthy
books despite my ineptitude with studying history.
You might argue that Adams makes it easy; his story is almost inherently good.
I’ll skip the book report and instead substantiate that with a short list.
a lawyer who defended the British (“facts are stubborn things”)
a husband who cherished an authentic partnership with his wife (“The times
are critical and dangerous, and I must have you here to assist me,”)
a diplomat who secured loans for the revolution (“a new scene for which I
fear I am very ill qualified”)
a parent who instilled values of education and public service (“the end of
study is to make you a good man and a useful citizen”)
a scholar who wrote the one of the world’s oldest constitutions (“a sub-sub
committee of one”)
a Vice President who supported his President ("[Washington] seeks information
from all quarters and judges more independently than any man I ever saw")
a President who campaigned for peace (“Always disposed and ready to embrace
every plausible appearance of probability of preserving or restoring
a father who raised a President (“with a character so perfectly fair and a
good humor so universally acknowledged, it is impossible for you to fail.”)
a farmer who provided for his family (“This day my new barn was raised near
the spot where… my father… raised his new barn in 1737”)
It’s hard for me to read those quotes without imagining them spoken in a
trailer for a historical drama. Adams’ work and relationships were so
high-stakes and emotionally saturated that his story borders on fairytale. His
observations and those of his contemporaries can be genuinely laugh-out-loud
funny1. I think the objective facts are compelling enough to make even the
man’s Wikipedia page read something
like a novel, so I’d probably recommend any coherent biography.
McCullough’s account isn’t just coherent, though; it’s inspired.
That said, McCullough’s contagious empathy will make you feel like you’re
breathing this air, wherever you live. The writer undeniably feels for the
Adamses. He revels in John’s successes and laments at his failures. True to his
responsibilities as a historian, he chides the man for his faults (however
gently2). He doesn’t just recognize Abigail’s importance to John3; he
cherishes the woman on her own terms4. He chronicles John Quincy’s
development from an adorable little boy5 to a powerful writer and
Tellingly, this empathy has its limits. Thomas Jefferson is a infamously
inscrutable figure, and McCullough is content to simply highlight his various
hypocrisies7, generally leaving readers to make their own judgements.
Otherwise, McCullough’s empathy very much extends to his audience, for whom he
works very hard to elucidate context. From the growth of Philadelphia8 to
the size of Jefferson’s estate9, McCullough regularly offers subtle
observations which put events in perspective. These bits of exposition give
such a cinematic quality to the writing that they can feel like a storyboard
with jump cuts10. In a similar vein, McCullough occasionally suspends the
narrative to describe events’ significance retrospectively11. It’s in some
ways the opposite of foreshadowing (which the author also employs in good
measure12), but to the extent that it reduces suspense, it enhances the
gravity so much more.
All this belies the fact that McCullough wrote this book hundreds of years
removed from its subjects. It of course helps that the entire family
documented their life like no
other, but John Adams isn’t
simply a review of letters. McCullough directs your attention so successfully
that the edges of his knowledge recede to the periphery, not unlike when a
gifted actress makes you forget that you’re sitting in a theater. It’s only in
retrospect that you’re forced to wonder: how do they do it? I like to imagine
McCullough constructing a byzantine mixed-media note-taking system (à la A
Beautiful Mind), but however he organized his research, he inarguably
preserved its depth when projecting it into prose.
Adams had come to believe that [John] Dickinson’s real struggle was with
his mother and his wife, both devout Quakers who bedeviled him with their
pacifist views. “If I had such a mother and such a wife,” Adams would
reflect years later, recalling Dickinson’s predicament, “I believe I
should have shot myself.”
It was the paradox of their lives that, as much as his public role kept
them apart, he always needed to be with Abigail and she with him. They
would never become accustomed to being separated. “I can do nothing
without you,” he was to tell her one way or another, time and again, and
always from the heart. She would have him no other way than he was; she
believed fervently in what he was doing, encouraged him in the role, and
wished no other for him; she wanted him to be where he was doing his
utmost for the country. And still she desperately wanted him with her.
Each worried incessantly about the other’s health and well-being, at
times to the point of making themselves ill.
I also love how McCullough is able to condense his research, here sharing
an observation about Abigail that you’d only get from hours of reading:
[Abigail], too, was an avid reader and attributed her “taste for letters”
to Richard Cranch, who, she later wrote, “taught me to love the poets and
put into my hands, Milton, Pope, and Thompson, and Shakespeare.” She
could quote poetry more readily than could John Adams, and over a
lifetime would quote her favorites again and again in correspondence,
often making small, inconsequential mistakes, an indication that rather
than looking passages up, she was quoting from memory.
To get his bearings he was out and about, walking the canals, studying
the buildings, circumventing the entire city by foot, meeting people,
glad to return to useful work. Through all his life Adams would be
happiest when there was clear purpose to his days.
“Papa went out”; “Papa went out to dinner”; “Papa went out to take a
walk,” recorded John Quincy.
“Gracious God! Support my father in this deep and irreparable
affliction!” [John Quincy] wrote in his diary.
My mother… was a minister of blessing to all human beings within her
sphere of action…. She had no feelings but of kindness and
beneficence. Yet her mind was as firm as her temper was mild and
gentle. She… has been to me more than a mother. She has been a spirit
from above watching over me for good, and contributing by my mere
consciousness of her existence, to the comfort of my life…. Never
have I known another human being, the perpetual object of whose life,
was so unremittingly to do good.
McCullough almost seems to delight in documenting Jefferson’s relentless
Of London, [Jefferson] thought only the shops worthy of attention, and
devoted ample time to them, spending lavishly on shoes, boots, a
flintlock rifle, a reading lamp, plated harness and stirrups, and a set
of chessmen. His major, most costly purchases were British-made
scientific instruments, which, he conceded, were the finest available.
Possibly at the urging of Abigail, he also paid a shilling to see the
Because of Pennsylvania’s reputation for religious tolerance, and an
abundance of good land available to the west, Philadelphia was the
principal port of entry to America. The incoming tide of English, Welsh,
Scotch-Irish, and Palatine Germans had been growing steadily. In numbers,
if not in influence, Presbyterians and Baptists had long since surpassed
the Quakers of the Quaker City.
Fifty years earlier, when young Benjamin Franklin arrived from Boston
with a single “Dutch” (German) dollar in his pocket, Philadelphia had
been a town of 10,000 people. By 1776 its population was approaching
30,000. Larger than New York, nearly twice the size of Boston, it was
growing faster than either.
It was a house and setting such as John Adams had never seen or could
ever have imagined as his own, any more than he could have imagined the
scale of Jefferson’s domain. On his daily rounds by horseback, surveying
his crops and fields, where as many as a hundred black slaves labored,
Jefferson would commonly ride ten miles, as far as from Braintree to
Boston, without ever leaving his own land.
The day was Wednesday, January 24, 1776. The temperature, according to
records kept by Adams’s former professor of science at Harvard, John
Winthrop, was in the low twenties. At the least, the trip would take two
weeks, given the condition of the roads and Adams’s reluctance to travel
on the Sabbath.
Like when Adams and Franklin finished their work in France:
What passed between Adams and Franklin at their final parting was not
recorded. Doubtless both were perfectly cordial. There would be further
work to transact between them, further correspondence to maintain. But it
was the last time they were ever to see one another.
Like the serious differences which underlaid Adams’ and Thomas Jefferson’s
And it was because of their common zeal for independence, their
wholehearted, mutual devotion to the common cause of America, and the
certainty that they were taking part in one of history’s turning points,
that the two were able to concentrate on the common purpose in a spirit
of respect and cooperation, putting aside obvious differences, as well as
others not so obvious and more serious than they could then have known.