Book review, David McCullough, John Adams (biography)

Table of Contents

Adams Family Tree              10

Part One : Revolution

1.  The Road to Philadelphia   17
2.  True Blue                  78
3.  Colossus of Independence   125

Part Two : Distant Shores

4.  Appointment to France      167
5.  Unalterably Determined     228
6.  Abigail in Paris           287
7.  London                     333

Part Three : Independence Forever

8.  Heir Apparent              389
9.  Old Oak                    467
10. Statesman                  515
11. Rejoice Ever More          568
12. Journey's End              615

Acknowledgments                653
Source Notes                   657
Bibliography                   703
Index                          727

Book review
David McCullough, John Adams
First edition, 2001, hardcover, 751 pages
Simon and Schuster, ISBN 0-6848-1363-7

The biography of John Adams by David McCullough covers the life of Adams from his early days as a Harvard educated lawyer in Massachusetts up through the administration of the third President, Thomas Jefferson. Adams was born on October 30, 1735 in Braintree, Massachusetts, which is now called Quincy, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard University in 1777.

John Adams was the second President of the United States.

The correspondences between John Adams and Abigail, his wife for 54 years, are among the main components of the book. Unlike Jefferson, who destroyed letters after receiving and reading them, making modern research difficult, the Adamses saved everything. Over a thousand Adams letters are stored today by the Boston Public Library and the Massachusetts Historical Society.

John Adams (1735-1826) was the son of John Adams (1691-1761) and Susanna Boylston (1709-1797). Abigail Smith (1744-1818) was the daughter of William Smith (1709-1783) and Elizabeth Quincy (1721-1775). The marriage of John Adams and Abigail Smith produced five children: Abigail Adams (1765-1813), John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), Susanna Adams (1768-1770), Charles Adams (1770-1800) and Thomas Boylston Adams (1772-1832), and later, seventeen grandchildren. [Refer to the Adams family tree on pages 10-11]

According to the original Constitution of the United States, the first and second place winners in the number of electoral votes became the President and Vice President. In 1788 and 1792, George Washington came in first place and John Adams came in second place. Therefore, Adams was the country's first Vice President. In 1796, Adams came in first place and was elected as the nation's second President; Thomas Jefferson came in second place and was elected Vice President for the Adams administration. In 1800, Jefferson was elected to be the third President.

It was Adams, then a member of Congress, who said the country needs "government of laws, not of men.". The remark was made in a letter to his fellow congressman William Hooper regarding a proposed state constitution for Connecticut. The letter was later published in 1776 under the title Thoughts on Government. [101, 378] He enlarged on this principle in 1787 when he wrote the pamphlet A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. [page 374] Historians customarily refer to the latter by an abbreviated name, Defence of the Constitutions. In this pamphlet he opposed hereditary monarchy and aristocracy [375] and opposed proposals for the new country to have a one-house legislature. [376].

McCullough writes:

"With people spread so far and communication so slow and unreliable, what was to hold the nation together? Such Republics of the past, as Adams had written about in his Defence of the Constitutions were small in scale -- so what hope was there for one so inconceivably large? 'What would Aristotle and Plato have said, if anyone had talked to them, of a federative republic of thirteen states, inhabiting a country of five hundred leagues in extent?', Adams pondered.

"Besides, the country had no tradition of union. Indeed, Americans were long accustomed of putting the interests of region or state ahead of those of the nation, except during war, and not always then. Following the Revolution, General Nathanael Greene had written to Washington from South Carolina that 'many people secretly wish that every state be completely independent and that as soon as our public debts are liquidated that Congress should be no more.'" [Excerpt from page 397]

In 1782 John Adams became the first U.S. ambassador to a foreign country when he was sent to the Dutch Republic. He called the U.S. embassy there "the United States House." [270-271]

John Adams was one of the signers of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783, which marked the end of the Revolutionary War. The other signatories were William Templeton Franklin, Henry Laurens, John Jay and Benjamin Franklin. [See painting reproduction and captions between 144-145.] With the war ended, it was time for diplomatic relations between the two former enemy nations. John Adams was the first minister of the United States to Great Britain, and met with King George III on June 1, 1785. [144-145.]

Adams was in London, not acccompanied by Abigail, when the Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787, and a copy of the document was sent to him. He and Jefferson corresponded about their disappointments with the compromises. The Bill of Rights had not yet been proposed. Adams wrote, "What think you of a Declaration of Rights? Should not such a thing have preceded the model?" [379] But Jefferson's greatest disappointment was that the President would be so powerful relative to the Congress, and no term limits were indicated. "He may be reelected from four years to four years for life." [380] Adams replied, "You are apprehensive of monarchy; I, of aristocracy. I would therefore have given more power to the President and less to the Senate." [380] When Adams at the age of 54 left London for America in 1788, he had been away from home for ten years. [383-384]

Adams was inaugurated as President in 1797, prior to construction of the White House, and he moved alone into the President's House in Philadelphia. He wrote to Abigail about the building's "deplorable" physical condition. He had to keep his residence there until 1800. John Adams wrote his first letter from the White House to Abigail. On November 2, 1800 he wrote to her, in part, "I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof." Today, these two sentences are commemorated by having been carved in the mantlepiece of the State Dining Room in the White House. [560-561]

Like many historians, McCullough indicates that the darkest hour of the presidential administration of John Adams may have come in 1798 when he failed to oppose, and signed into law, the Alien and Sedition Acts passed by the US Congress controlled by the Federalist Party. The acts consisted of several laws. In this young nation so recently created by immigrants, the residency period required to become a citizen was increased from five to fourteen years (the Naturalization Act). The President acquired the unilateral power to expel any noncitizen by declaring the individual to be "dangerous" (the Alien Act). Ignoring the First Amendment, the Congress mandated fines and imprisonment for any individual, citizen or not, who had written a critique of the government that was judged to be "false, scandalous, and malicious" or allegedly tending "to stir up sedition." [504-505]

The Alien and Sedition Acts were passed largely due to prejudice against French and Irish immigrants. The Federalist Party's excuse for the acts was the possibility that Congress might declare war against France, which subsequently it did not. The US ship Constellation and the French ship L'insurgente battled on February 9, 1799. [See painting reproduction and caption, between 560-561] A declaration of war was averted after Adams chose the peace-making method of diplomatic relations and, perhaps more decisively, demonstrating to France in 1800 that the US had assembled a large naval fleet. [505, 517-519, 566]

Vice-President Thomas Jefferson protested the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts by refusing to be present when they were signed into law, writes McCullough -- "... he quietly packed and went home to Monticello." [506] Jefferson further protested by writing to the legislature of Kentucky that a state has the "natural right" to refuse to implement a federal law if the state legislature believes it to be unconstitutional (Jefferson's correspondences now known as the Kentucky Resolutions). [520-521] Adams never found out that Jefferson had been the author of the Kentucky Resolutions. [607]

Adams ignored the pleas made by Secretary of State Timothy Pickering to begin the mass deportation of non-citizens for their alleged "dangerous" character. Adams never invoked the new power given to him by the Sedition Act. [505] Adams could see that no substantial rebellion movement threatened the country. The closest thing to a rebellion was when several German immigrant (so-called Pensylvania Dutch) farmers in Pennsylvania, led by John Fries, armed themselves and organized a riot to protest the imposition of federal taxes. Federal troops arrested Fries and two other men, and a jury sentenced the three to be hanged. Despite dissent by Pickering, Adams pardoned the three men with the explanation that their act was a "riot" but not a "rebellion" or "insurrection." [540]

Unwisely, Adams had chosen to reappoint Washington's cabinet instead of choosing his own. The President's cabinet became his chief opponents. Pickering and other Federalists spread rumors that Adams, and perhaps Jefferson also, were politically corrupt. It was said that Adams was a "monarchist" for pardoning Fries. The word was circulated that Adams had sent an envoy to Europe for the sole purpose of recruiting four mistresses for him and bringing them back to America. [544] Adams fired Pickering. In the hope of changing administrations with the election of 1800, Alexander Hamilton (Secretary of the Treasury during the administration of George Washington) compiled anti-Adams anecdotes provided by Pickering, Secretary of War James McHenry, Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, and others. Then Hamilton published a 54-page pamphlet charging Adams with "defects of character," including "disgusting egotism" and "bitter animosity." [549] Adams dropped the idea of writing his autobiography to make time to devote himself to defending against attacks. [596] Abigail Adams remarked that Alexander Hamilton was "another Bonaparte." [560-561]

Of all the federal appointments made by Adams, he was most pleased with his appointment of John Marshall (1755-1835), who served as the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court for 35 years (1801-1835). The present U.S. concept of constitutional law was largely formulated by decisions made by the court under Marshall, e.g., Marbury v. Madison in 1803 firmly established the practice of judicial review -- the court took for itself the power to overrule any legislation passed by Congress or the states. more complete information about the Marshall court, see the new

John Adams was a lover of books and he established the original Library of Congress, which was destroyed by the British in the War of 1812. He also liked to write in the margins of his books, and he wrote about 12,000 words in the available space he found in his copy of French Revolution , by Mary Wollstonecraft. [619]

McCullough writes:

"Unable to sleep as long as Abigail, he would be out of bed and reading by candlelight at five in the morning, and later would read well into the night. When his eyes grew weary, she would read aloud to him.

"Unlike Jefferson, who seldom ever marked a book, and then only faintly in pencil, Adams, pen in hand, loved to add his comments in the margins. It was part of the joy of reading for him, to have something to say himself, to talk back to, agree or take issue with, Rousseau, Condorcet, Turgot, Mary Wollstonecraft, Adam Smith, or Joseph Priestly. 'There is no doubt that people are in the long run what the government makes of them...,' Adams read in Rousseau. 'The government ought to be what the people make it,' he wrote in response.

"At times the marginal observations nearly equaled what was printed on the page, as in Mary Wollstonecraft's French Revolution, which Adams read at least twice and with delight, since he disagreed with nearly everything she said. To her claim that government must be simple, for example, he answered, 'The clock would be simple if you destroyed all the wheels ... but it would not tell the time of day.'" [Excerpt from page 619]

In the presidential election of 1800, the US had 16 states. The outcome was 73 electoral votes for Thomas Jefferson, 73 for Aaron Burr, 63 for Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, 65 for John Adams. Jefferson and Burr were tied. Pursuant to the Constitution, the decision was given to the House of Representatives. The House chose Thomas Jefferson to be the President. [556] Adams made his last speech as President when he spoke before a joint session of Congress on November 22, 1800, in the still-unfinished Capitol Building. After a prayer of thanks to "the Supreme Ruler of the universe," Adams expressed his gratitude to the members of the Army and Navy. [554] Once Jefferson was inaugurated, he was his own person. He immediately pardoned everyone earlier imprisoned under the Sedition Act. He reduced size of Army and Navy, even though the war against the Barbary pirates was just beginning. He abolished the whiskey tax. [577]

The 54-year marriage of Abigail and John Adams ended when Abigail at the age of 74 died of typhoid fever on October 28, 1818. [622-623] John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day, July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

David McCullough has written a masterful work combining details from the everyday life of John Adams, and the intimate and unpolished letters he exchanged with his wife, with the historical importance of the founding and embryonic formation of the nation. It became the first nation ever formed out of revolution against a mother country, and the first nation ever formed on the principle that government shall exist only to serve the people. Adams was part of the generation that conceived of conducting this great social experiment, and those who were determined to see to it, and yet unsure, that the experiment would work.

McCullough is now in the final stage of editing a follow-up book to be published in June 1992, entitled The Book of Abigail and John : Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784

- - - - - - Book review by M. L. for, June 20, 2001

25-page 2-column index

Illustrations --
- between 144-155 : 16 pages with 25 b&w photos
- between 560-561 : 16 pages with 23 b&w photos
- between 336-337 : 8 pages with 13 color photos
map on 184-185
b&w sketches on 4, 15, and the front and back endpapers
701 - Illustration credits

Original date of publication, May 2001

Pulitzer Prize for David McCullough
New York Times bestseller list for hardcover nonfiction

(also available as an audio book)