John Adams 1797-1801

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Book: John Adams

Author: David McCullough

1. Date Published- Originally published in 2001 and later an award winning mini series for HBO, this is the most recent authoritative biography available. Coming almost ten years after John Ferling’s work, the benefits of perspective and time give John Adams its due diligence. Adams was a man very sure of his conflicted sense of posterity famously uttering, “And then Franklin smote the ground and up rose George Washington, fully dressed and astride a horse! Then the three of them, Franklin, Washington and the horse, proceeded to win the entire revolution single handley!” The bias of the book seems to be in favor of the subject but not without cause. In the project the early presidents have the overwhelming benefit of hindsight and this book is strongly recommended on that account.

Grade: A

2. Scope- The book’s scope and subject matter is a huge consideration in scoring the book. There is without a doubt extensive coverage of Adams’ rise to the presidency. Normally this would strike out in the scope department as the President’s Project has as its main goal a slow burn examination of the office. However, the scope in this book is right. Adams is the main character in the revolution and it is in his exceptional case that the presidency pushed to the last third of the book does not violate its scope, it enhances it. However, it cannot be called exceptional because the coverage of the presidency moves like the rest of the book. The book has a tendency to move too quickly and here it does Adams time as president a disservice.

Grade: B+

3. Author- McCullough is trying to put Adams to his seemingly rightful place in American history. Book-ended by two consensus top five presidents (Washington and Jefferson), McCullough as an author attempts to extrapolate on Adams’ accomplishments and put him in his rightful place. The result is not a partisan angle, but it is certainly a rosy description. He alludes to the anger of Adams but places much of the blame on Jefferson for the inception of partisan squabbles and fracturing of American unity. However, McCullough’s scholarship is solid as evidenced by a quick scan of his sources and his authorship is outstanding. This book is far from the drawbacks of a partisan narrative which a contemporary account almost certainly would serve. It is a testament to the fantastic writing of McCullough that he will appear later on this blog (spoiler alert).

Grade: A

4. Length- This book reads like a short biography in that time moves quickly. However, the sheer length is a testament to two realities. One, Adams was an incredibly accomplished man as a delegate, ambassador, Vice President and President to name a few. Simply a helping of each would not produce a substantially shorter book. The other plain fact is that Adams lived to 91 years of age. For a frame of reference only Ronald Reagan lived into his 90s as a former president. The long book with irrelevant passages does not fit the mold of this 700+ page tome but ironically this is the best short biography available.

Grade: A

5. Mission- Though not stated explicitly, the mission is simple, bold and true from the start of McCullough’s book. John Adams, second president of the USA, has been overshadowed by contemporary giants as he feared he would as he lived. McCullough tries to bring us his greatness, his craft, and the reason why he almost seamlessly moved to be the most traveled and accomplished statesman of his time. The mission was a success but not without glossing over gross injustices seemingly at odds of his descriptions. For example, the man that seemed fair and forgiving was the same man whose Alien and Sedition Acts completely contradicted the 1st Amendment. It is here the mission tinges with dishonesty and falls short of being truly realized. As an attempt to restore greatness the mission is mostly accomplished with a few puzzling oversights.

Grade: B

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