Saturday, April 20, 2013

John Adams by David McCullough

This Pulitzer Prize winning biography by David McCullough has become a classic work. John Adams is one of the most interesting and, before this book was published, one of the least known of the Founding Fathers. Born to a farmer in Braintree, Massachusetts Adams went to Harvard and then studied law. He became a respected attorney in the Boston area. He met and married the brilliant Abigail Smith he proceeded to and they produced four children who lived to maturity. From there his career took off. He defended the British soldiers who fired on a mob. He served in both Continental Congresses. He served on the diplomatic mission to France. While in Europe he helped to secure loans from Dutch bankers to keep the American Revolution going. He served on the peace commission. He was named the first ambassador to Great Britain. Returning home he become the first Vice-President and the second President of the United States.

McCullough bring out the brilliant and irascible character of Adams. Adams was brilliant. In fact he was one of the most brilliant men of his age. A man of passionate and fiery temper he often rubbed people the wrong way. He was well known as one of the great orators of his time. His speeches on behalf of Independence helped to lead the way to the Declaration of Independence. As brilliant as he was as a thinker and a speaker he always seemed to have a hard time getting his thoughts on to paper. He tended to write material that was long and rambling. He also never seemed to grasp that other people were not as well read as himself, nor were they capable of understanding some of the subtleties of his thought. A thoroughly practical man he seemed to not understand that he lived in a day of rhetoric and idealism.

The period that Adams lived in and helped to define was a complex period. New ideas were coming together that would change the world forever. So many things that we take for granted, the idea of individual rights, freedom of speech, even freedom of thought, were not accepted as the norm. In fact many believed that a society founded on such ideas was considered dangerous and unlikely to succeed.

As alway, McCullough’s prose is masterful. He has the writer’s gift of making complex issues come alive and seem easy to understand. So many scenes remain with you. You can see the rage of the mob and the fear of the British soldiers as they fire on the crowd at the Boston Massacre. You feel the cramped and stuffy conditions of the Congress as it debates the idea of independence. Most of all you get to know the characters. You get to know, and love the irascible Adams. You get to know his brilliant wife, Abigail, who was the great love of his life. So many other people come out. You feel the friendship that he had with Thomas Jefferson. You feel the pain that he felt when Jefferson chose party ideology over friendship. The pain that his children, except for his oldest son John Quincy, brought to him is heartbreaking. If you have never read this book you should do so. It is a brilliant work of history, and a wonderful work of literature.

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