John Adams

This is a long audio book, abridged it’s still close to 10 hours. But it’s certainly a great listen and it’s a small amount of time to spend when you consider the impact this man had on the United States of America. He was one of the chief architects of the Declaration of Independence and was integral in obtaining its passage by the Continental Congress. He became a foreign policy expert after the Revolutionary War and built advantageous relationships with France and Great Britain. He was elected our second president (after serving as Washington’s veep) and used some textbook diplomacy to avert a war with France when the relationship turned sour near the turn of the century.

I’ve consumed a few books about the birth of our nation. I listened to 1776 in 2006 and read a Ben Franklin book in 2007. They dwell on the same time period and I think it’s useful to consume them all for the differing perspectives. To round things out I think I need to read a Jefferson book and an Alexander Hamilton book. Those are a couple of key figures who clashed with Adams and I feel the need for their perspective. But first, I’m watching the John Adams miniseries because Gail got it for me as a Valentine’s Day gift.

However, the interesting facts about this time period are only a portion of why this book is so interesting. What makes it shine are two things; (1) the descriptions of Adam’s personal relationships and (2) the exploration of his personality and character.

The most important relationship he had was with his wife. We’ve heard the stories about how important Abigail was in his life and the book bears this out. McCullough quotes many of their letters and leaves little doubt as to this fact. You cannot tell the story of John Adams without telling Abigail’s story also. They spent years and years apart but their relationship was strong throughout. And despite being apart, Adam’s relied on Abigail for input into all aspects of his life and work.

The consistency of Adam’s relationship with Abigail was in stark contrast to Adams’ relationship with Jefferson. To call it a roller coaster would be an understatement. They went from being amicable partners in writing and passing the Declaration of Independence, to agreeing to disagree on slavery, to best friends during their foreign service in France, and to bitter enemies during Adams’ presidency. But finally, after they had left public service, the made amends and started a long and fruitful relationship, mostly in the form of letters to each other.

This relationship lasted until the day they died, which was on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Is that unbelievable or what? They both died on the same day, within hours of each other, on the 4th of July, fifty years after the Declaration of Independence was signed. They were meant to see the day, I guess. Justice, since they were both so integral to its content.

Besides Jefferson, Adams clashed with many during his presidency. I don’t completely understand the parties at that point and I think a reading of a Jefferson book and Hamilton book will be enlightening. Adams was a Federalist but he clashed with Alexander Hamilton, so I think they basically broke up the party. McCullough identifies the other party as Republicans (Jefferson), but these weren’t today’s Republicans. I think the unabridged version may have had more on this. I need to do some more research.

In the end, McCullough paints a picture of an honorable man.

Adams decried slavery just about until the day he died. He would often try and engage Jefferson on this issue but Jefferson would have none of it. Abigail was also outspoken against slavery and racism of any sort. Abigail had run-ins with the local school about this very issue and persevered.

Adams loved books. He had a huge library, a massive library. He added comments in all of the margins. McCullough says, and I’m paraphrasing so this is not a direct quote, “that he sometimes wrote as much in the margins as was written by the author.” I know how he felt, I can relate. Books are so great that you want do more than just read them. You want to interact with them. You want to be closer to them. What do you do? You talk about them, write about them, notate them, live them. Which brings me to a point about audiobooks. I wish I could just page back and reread this passage, but I can’t, it’s too much of a hassle even with iTunes. Now with the Kindle I could, that would be cool.

I like Adams a lot. He wrote, read, ate, partied, visited, and rode horses into his later years and lived to be 90. He did not die a rich man, but neither a poor man. He seemed to be the type of caring, conscientious, and principled, independent thinker that this country needed to get off on the right foot back in those tumultuous times.