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Book Review: John Adams by David McCullough
By John WN Buell
May 12, 2003

In my last quarter and free from any course readings, I undertook some light reading in something other than information science by reading John Adams by David McCullough. Drawing on a wealth of correspondence from John Adams, his wife Abigail, and various relatives, McCullough weaves a rich and compelling account of a hard working but ordinary man who lived in extraordinary times.

Often overshadowed by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Adams was a central figure in revolutionary America, serving in the Continental Congress, active behind the scenes in supporting the nomination of George Washington as commander of the Continental Army, and leading the fight for the drafting of a Declaration of Independence.

Adams was sent to the American mission in France during the war, was instrumental in peace negotiations with Britain, helped secure the Treaty of Paris in 1783, and served as ambassador to Britain following the cessation of hostilities. Adams returned to the United States and completed two terms as Vice President during the presidency of George Washington, and was elected president for one term. Adams died on the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1825, a year after his son John Quincy was inaugurated president and within hours of the death of Thomas Jefferson.

What makes this account so rich is the color and depth that McCullough imparts in the narrative. We can feel the personalities of John and Abigail, as well as his children -- Abigail Amelia (called Nabby), John Quincy, Thomas and Charles -- through the words of John and Abigail. Throughout his life, Adams and Abigail were prolific writers, penning thousands of letters to each other and to family and friends.

McCullough uses these private letters to paint a portrait of a man who was largely unappreciated and often criticized by his contemporaries, but who worked unceasingly and with great sacrifice. The letters illustrate the complex role of France during the War of Independence, Adams' role in the founding of the United States Navy, and the birth of vicious party politics in the new republic. The letters reveal the touching and deeply loving relationship between John and Abigail, as well as the challenges of living in an early 18th century New England plagued by outbreaks of small pox and cholera. Unlike many biographies of great personages, we are left with a strong impression of John Adams the man, his interests, personality and habits. Although McCullough might be accused of being biased in favor of Adams, his book is an entertaining, balanced, and well written account.

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