If ever the author of a historical biography ran the risk of having too much primary material at his disposal, David McCullough ran such a risk in researching John Adams, one of the most carefully documented biographies in recent years. The Adams papers, held in the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, contains a “full collection of letters, diaries, and family papers of all kinds, ranging from the year 1636 to 1889.” The items, copied on 608 reels of microfilm, results in a full five miles of microfilm records. McCullough has searched this collection diligently and has successfully sidestepped the danger of creating a book so weighed down with factual information as to make it unreadable.
Despite its length—over seven hundred pages—this book is vibrant and exciting from start to finish. The factual material it presents is accurate and relevant, but never does McCullough permit it to outweigh the dramatic events that make Adams one of the most interesting early American patriots. The author’s skill in presenting John Adams and his wife, Abigail, as people to whom readers can relate directly is commendable. McCullough’s characters live and breathe and have a palpable being.
This book is far more than a biography of one man. Its broad scope makes it a cultural and political history of the United States during its formative stages. Adams’s interactions with early American statesmen such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington, as depicted by McCullough, present unique insights into the characters and political maneuverings of these influential statesmen.
John Adams sprang from humble beginnings, the son and grandson of farmers. Because young John Adams showed exceptional ability, his father encouraged him to become the first member of the Adams family to attend college. Adams’s four years at Harvard were among the most fulfilling of his long life. The same cannot be said for his stint as a teacher in Worcester, Massachusetts, although the time spent there resulted in his rethinking and reshaping many of his most cherished beliefs. During this period, he read for the law for two years under the direction of a Worcester attorney, James Putman.
Certainly a turning point in Adams’s life came with his marriage, in 1764, to Abigail Smith. Because of her frail health, she had been schooled at home by her father, William Smith, a clergyman who, like Adams, had attended Harvard College. Abigail’s mother objected to the union, thinking that Abigail was marrying beneath her. The marriage, nevertheless, took place and was as successful, enduring, and fulfilling a union as can be imagined.
Abigail Adams was a remarkably canny person. On the surface she might have seemed provincial, having never strayed more than fifty miles from Braintree until 1784, when, at age forty, she reluctantly sailed for England to join her husband. He had, by that time, been abroad on embassies to France and the Netherlands for several years and was suffering greatly from the strain of having been separated from his family for such an extended period, although two of his sons, John Quincy and Charles, were with him at various times.
Abigail’s first exposure to European ways shocked her, although during her residence in Paris she became increasingly tolerant of the sort of freewheeling life that many Parisians lived. She saw stage plays in Paris and became a devotee of the theater. She also became enamored of opera and was a frequent patron of the Paris Opera. Abigail proved herself capable of adjusting to her circumstances, whether this involved struggling to make ends meet during her solitary years in Braintree, when money was always short, or fitting into a completely foreign society in which her husband was expected to function as a diplomat. Even in Paris, however, Abigail had to struggle to make ends meet—Adams’s salary of five thousand dollars a year did not permit the family to live in a manner befitting a ranking diplomat.
During Adams’s early days in France, as part of a three-member commission that included Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee, Franklin was living rent-free in the palatial residence of the Comte de Vergennes. Adams considered this inappropriate, because Vergennes was involved financially with the United States and opposed Congress’s measures to devaluate the...
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