John Adams 1797-1801


Book: John Adams: A Life

Author: John E. Ferling

Date Published- Originally published in 1992, this book stood as the best biography on the second President for years. The book may be from a previous generation yet still produces an unbiased and objective look at John Adams. With the McCullough effort postdating Ferling by almost a decade, this is not the go-to book for the most up to date look at Adams. However, despite being over 20 years old, the book still benefits from hindsight and the reflection needed to put the man in context. An Adams work predating Twitter and Facebook does not necessarily detract from a man who died in 1826.

Grade: B

Scope- The author seemingly runs out of steam right before Adams ascends to the Presidency. Truthfully, Adams is a man who leads a tremendously successful and full life with the Presidency mixed in. However, the successor to George Washington does not reach the highest office until almost three quarters into the work. The scope also fails to cover one of the longest post-presidencies in the Revolutionary era. In a time where men did not last past their 60s, Adams lives until the age of 91. His 25 years of retirement is consigned to a mere 30 pages where the tremendous correspondence with Jefferson, Rush and others does not receive its due. The scope of everything leading up to his election in 1796 is wonderful on the part of Ferling. Afterwards, the effort lacks the finishing touch. This book does not fail because it did not look into a decrepit Adams, it fails to touch on his indomitable will.

Grade: B-

Author- John Ferling is an accomplished author from the University of West Virginia. In addition to writing about Adams, Ferling has written about both the Revolutionary Era and about George Washington and Joseph Galloway. As an author ,he writes this work very much like a scholarly book would read. The narrative is progressive and certainly flows chronologically but the reliance on other historians’ work takes away from the flow. Ferling spends much time examining the previous findings of other biographers instead of breaking all the ground himself. The work of the author does not stand alone and conform entirely to the goal of the project.

Grade: C+

Length- The book provides all the functions of a short biography but does a disservice by neglecting the presidency and post-presidency. This length is ideal for a reader wanting to move at a brisk pace through the project as it does not get bogged down by irrelevant details or highly in depth examinations. The length provides a solid introduction to the life of Adams yet could be longer and give the due attention to the Presidency itself.

Grade: B+

Mission- Ferling seems to have two missions, only one of which is stated in his introduction. One is to examine the work of other biographies and put his work in the broad context of previous research. The second mission of the work is to examine John Adams the person, specifically his relationship with his family. Strangely, Ferling does not examine his family relationships or hardships until well into the work.  He describes Adams’ absence from his family in multiple instances but fails interestingly enough, to mention the similar absences of his contemporaries.  As a result, it seems Ferling does not paint the contemporaries of Adams with the same critical brush. It is an odd mission but because Ferling expressly mentions it in his introduction it reveals a mission unfulfilled.

Grade: C+





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