Monday, 6 September 2010

Book Review: John Adams

John Adams John Adams by David McCullough

Category: Biography

Challenges: 2010 Challenge (TBR), Memorable Memoirs

My Thoughts: This book left me with two overarching thoughts: 1) Nothing has changed in politics in the past 150 years. 2) Those who use the term “this wasn’t what the Founding Fathers intended…” really need to study some history, ‘cause the Founding Fathers couldn’t and didn’t agree on almost anything.

I really enjoyed this biography. I enjoyed getting to know John Adams and Abigail Adams both through McCullough’s narrative and through the great use of primary sources, primarily letters written by the different people in the book. I enjoyed learning more about a period in history of which I (to my embarrassment) know very little. I enjoyed the vivid portraits painted by McCullough.

As I mentioned I enjoyed getting to know John and Abigail Adams and I felt that although McCullough is clearly a fan of Adams he still managed to give a fairly balanced view. Or at least he manages to point out the faults that Adams undoubtedly had. However, he is far more critical of Adams contemporaries than he is of Adams himself. As much as I enjoyed reading the book, I would like to, in the future, read a biography written by someone else, in order to get a more balanced view. I would also like to read biographies written about the rest of the “cast”. They all seem to be fascinating characters.

As someone whose favourite subject in school was history I was very pleased with the extensive use of primary sources used by McCullough. This was clearly helped by the fact that Adams was a prolific letter writer, in the closing pages of the book McCullough remarks that in a letter exchange between Adams and Jefferson, Adams wrote at least two letters for every one of Jefferson, often more than that. And Jefferson wasn’t Adams only correspondent. At various points in his life Adams corresponded with his wife, his children, his in-laws, his grandchildren and various friends, acquaintances and enemies. In addition to writing many letters Adams also kept diaries and notebooks, wrote pamphlets and reports, not to mention being on the committee charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence. McCullough therefore had a large amount of primary sources from which to learn about the man. In addition to all this written material Adams also argued with his books, in his books. Yep (and I hear some of you gasp out there) Adams WROTE in his books (you can guess how vindicated I feel here). Adams enjoyed arguing with his books in pen, at the source. 

As I said in my opening paragraph this book showed just how similar politics then are to politics now. Even in Adams time the different factions pursued campaigns of defamation of character centred around the different individuals political and/or religious affiliation (or lack thereof), their personal choices (who really cares who warms whose bed?) and other sundry political missteps. Part of me wanted to be really depressed at this intrigue and part was glad to know that at least we haven’t sunk from great heights (we are currently in the last two weeks of a general election campaign here, at let me tell you, politics on this side of the pond? just as muckslingingly disgusting).

Although the biography is about John Adams, it also heavily covers Thomas Jefferson as he had a large impact on Adams life, for good and for bad. And despite the fact that the hero of the book is most definitely Adams I felt some sympathy for Jefferson, even though he is portrayed as a bit of a clueless dandy at times. This sympathy is perhaps what really marks McCullough’s writing, all of the people are show at their best and their worst and this both heightens the hero status many of these people have, but at the same time makes them feel very approachable. And I must admit that I actually cried when first Abigail and later Adams and Jefferson passed away (partly I think it is because I was not at my best when reading those sections, but partly it was because these people, who died long before I was a twinkle in anyones eye, were real people to me now). I really wish I could have known these men and women, and I really hope that McCullough writes a biography about Abigail.  

At the end of the book there are extensive source notes as well as an extensive bibliography for the reader who wishes to continue their study of this time period and the people connected with it. In addition McCullough has also has several other books and audio series concerned with the same time period. I highly recommend 1776 as well (review from when I was a very baby blogger before this blog was really a book blog).

Overall I thought this was a very good biography. It gave me a good feel for both the man, John Adams, and the time in which he lived, as well as the historical events in which he was involved. In addition I felt like I learned something about humans and the human condition. I would recommend this book to others.

Purchase John Adams from BookDepository


Copyright ©2010 Zee from Notes from the North. This post was originally posted by Zee from Notes from the North. It should not be reproduced without express written permission.


Kristen M. said...

My husband really enjoyed this book as well and has read many different biographies of quite a few of the founding fathers. He's also watched the John Adams miniseries more than once. I've tried but I just can't keep everyone straight. It would probably help to be more familiar with history ... perhaps by reading this book? ;)

Jillian said...

Wow, this sounds really good. Adding it to Goodreads. :-)