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John Adams    by David McCullough order for
John Adams
by David McCullough
Order:  USA  Can
Simon & Schuster, 2001 (2001)

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* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

John Adams is a not-to-be-missed biography of the early American patriot and second president of the United States. Thanks to his lifelong habit of keeping a diary and his prolific letter-writing (along with the fortunate preservation of these documents) McCullough has been able to reconstruct a fascinating look at Adams' long life. John Adams has often been over-looked by historians who have focused on other key figures such as the first and third U.S. presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. However, this book and the recent Passionate Sage by Joseph J. Ellis, go a long way towards reclaiming Adams' proper place as one of the key figures during the formative years of U.S. history, from pre-revolutionary days to the Revolutionary war and the early years of the new country as it found its feet and began to establish itself on the world stage.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is seeing early American history come to life. Adams lived from 1735 until 1826 and participated in all the key events of the time. Trained as a lawyer, he quickly became involved in politics and was the prime mover in getting the Continental Congress to approve the Declaration of Independence and vote for separation from Great Britain. He then became an emissary to France and the Netherlands during the Revolutionary War, securing the much needed financial and military support which allowed the new country to defeat Britain. Following the war, he was elected as the first vice-president (to George Washington) and subsequently was elected as the second president where he proudly succeeded in maintaining peace in the face of very aggressive action by Napoleon and France.

All the important people of the times were friends and colleagues of Adams, including Washington, Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and numerous others. The love / hate relationship between Jefferson and Adams is an important theme of the book. Both passionate about U.S. independence, they were close friends when they served in Paris during the war. However, their differing view of politics, and according to McCullough, Jefferson's intrigues and attempts to displace Adams as president, drove them apart. Luckily in their old age, the two resumed correspondence and renewed their friendship. Remarkably they died within hours of each other on July 4th, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence which Jefferson wrote and Adams was instrumental in getting passed.

Another very interesting feature of the book is the look at the loving relationship between Adams and his wife Abigail. They were often separated from each other due to Adams' duties, since he never refused when his country called on him. Theirs was an extremely supportive 54-year marriage, both a lifelong love affair and equal partnership, and the reader gets a wonderful look at this through their letters. In them, Adams is quite endearing as he is very honest about his feelings and his own failings. Adams, the son of a Massachusetts farmer, was extremely well-educated and the book contains many quotes, both classical and modern, from his favorite authors. McCullough also quotes widely from his numerous letters to family and friends, including Adams' famous aphorisms. These include 'you will never be alone with a poet in your pocket', and one to his son John Quincy Adams advising him to study military tactics, so that his sons can study mathematics and science, and so that their children can study art and literature.

John Quincy Adams, the joy of his father's life, was one of five children born to the Adamses who survived infancy. John Adams lavished much attention on his son and often took him on his travels so that John Quincy became one of the most traveled and educated men of his generation. He later become Secretary of State and eventually the fifth president in 1824, thus achieving one of his father's long goals. Until the current Bushes, they were the only father / son team who had both been U. S. presidents. John Adams' biography should be required reading for all Americans since it is a superbly written look at early U.S. history and at a very important figure who has often been overlooked. Thanks to the extensive documentation of Adams' life, McCullough has really been able to breathe life into the man and this historical period. One wonders in this modern age, when people do not commit their ideas to diaries and long letters, what knowledge of today's heroes is being lost.

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