Skip to main content
Book Clubbing

Introduction

John Adams
by David McCullough

Title

Author

David McCullough

David McCullough

Author Interview

About the Book

Winner, Pulitizer Prize for Biography, 2002

In this powerful, epic biography, David McCullough unfolds the adventurous life-journey of John Adams, the brilliant, fiercely independent, often irascible, always honest Yankee patriot -- "the colossus of independence," as Thomas Jefferson called him—who spared nothing in his zeal for the American Revolution; who rose to become the second President of the United States and saved the country from blundering into an unnecessary war; who was learned beyond all but a few and regarded by some as "out of his senses"; and whose marriage to the wise and valiant Abigail Adams is one of the moving love stories in American history.

Like his masterly, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Truman, David McCullough's John Adams has the sweep and vitality of a great novel. It is both a riveting portrait of an abundantly human man and a vivid evocation of his time, much of it drawn from an outstanding collection of Adams family letters and diaries. In particular, the more than one thousand surviving letters between John and Abigail Adams, nearly half of which have never been published, provide extraordinary access to their private lives and make it possible to know John Adams as no other major American of his founding era.

As he has with stunning effect in his previous books, McCullough tells the story from within—from the point of view of the amazing eighteenth century and of those who, caught up in events, had no sure way of knowing how things would turn out. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, the British spy Edward Bancroft, Madame Lafayette and Jefferson's Paris "interest" Maria Cosway, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, the scandalmonger James Callender, Sally Hemings, John Marshall, Talleyrand, and Aaron Burr all figure in this panoramic chronicle, as does, importantly, John Quincy Adams, the adored son whom Adams would live to see become President.

Crucial to the story, as it was to history, is the relationship between Adams and Jefferson, born opposites -- one a Massachusetts farmer's son, the other a Virginia aristocrat and slaveholder, one short and stout, the other tall and spare. Adams embraced conflict; Jefferson avoided it. Adams had great humor; Jefferson, very little. But they were alike in their devotion to their country. At first they were ardent co-revolutionaries, then fellow diplomats and close friends. With the advent of the two political parties, they became archrivals, even enemies, in the intense struggle for the presidency in 1800, perhaps the most vicious election in history. Then, amazingly, they became friends again, and ultimately, incredibly, they died on the same day—their day of days—July 4, in the year 1826.

Much about John Adams's life will come as a surprise to many readers. His courageous voyage on the frigate Boston in the winter of 1778 and his later trek over the Pyrenees are exploits that few would have dared and that few readers will ever forget.

It is a life encompassing a huge arc—Adams lived longer than any president. The story ranges from the Boston Massacre to Philadelphia in 1776 to the Versailles of Louis XVI, from Spain to Amsterdam, from the Court of St. James's, where Adams was the first American to stand before King George III as a representative of the new nation, to the raw, half-finished Capital by the Potomac, where Adams was the first President to occupy the White House. This is history on a grand scale -- a book about politics and war and social issues, but also about human nature, love, religious faith, virtue, ambition, friendship and betrayal, and the far-reaching consequences of noble ideas.

Above all, John Adams is an enthralling, often surprising story of one of the most important and fascinating Americans who ever lived. (From the publisher.)

About the Author

• Birth—July 7, 1933 
• Where—Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA 
• Education—B.A., Yale University 
• Awards—National Book Award, 1978 & 1982; Pulitzer Prize, 1993 and 2002 
• Currently—lives in West Tisbury, Massachusetts 

Critics have called David McCullough America's premier narrative historian, and rightly so: McCullough is both a scholar and a storyteller, a meticulous researcher and a highly engaging writer. Given his ability to turn a 750-page biography of an often-overlooked, one-term president into a national bestseller, it might even be said that McCullough is a magician. Gordon Wood, author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution and a professor of history at Brown University, has said McCullough "is without doubt the most celebrated of what you could call our 'popular historians,' and he's also respected by academic historians."
McCullough, who majored in English literature at Yale, began his career as a magazine writer, but turned to history after reading some uninspired accounts of the disastrous 1899 flood of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He wrote his own history of the flood and its aftermath, and went on to chronicle two great feats of engineering: the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the creation of the Panama Canal.

Both The Great Bridge and The Path Between the Seas were bestsellers, and the latter won a National Book Award. Critics praised McCullough for his vivid descriptions and lively excerpts of firsthand accounts. The Great Bridge, wrote Robert Kirsch in The Los Angeles Times, is "a book so compelling and complete as to be a literary monument, one of the best books I have read in years." McCullough then progressed from the Panama Canal to its great proponent Theodore Roosevelt, the subject of his first biography, Mornings on Horseback, about the young Teddy Roosevelt, was hailed as a "masterpiece" by Newsday 's John A. Gable and praised as "a beautifully told story, filled with fresh detail" by The New York Times Book Review.

McCullough spent the next ten years researching and writing about Harry Truman, and the resulting book was a complex, compelling and affectionate portrait of America's 33d president. Truman won the Pulitzer Prize for biography and sold well over 1 million copies. Another Pulitzer Prize was awarded to McCullough's next book, John Adams, also a bestseller.

"McCullough's appreciation for Adams, like his appreciation for Truman, depends on an adherence to certain old-fashioned moral guidelines, which is to say on strength of character," wrote New York Times reviewer Pauline Maier. McCullough is eloquent about his subjects' honesty, unpretentiousness and deep sense of civic duty, though critics have sometimes charged that he is too quick to excuse or pass over their failings. But McCullough has his own reservations about "a certain school of historians who don't just want to prove somebody from the past had feet of clay, they want to show he's nothing but clay."

McCullough can admire his subjects in spite of their faults; as he once said, "The more we see the founders as humans the more we can understand them." Through his books, millions of readers have found American heroes whose human characters are as well worth studying as their historic accomplishments.

Extras

In researching John Adams, McCullough went to every place in Europe that Adams had lived, in England, France and Holland. He also traveled with his wife along the same route Adams and Jefferson took when they toured the gardens of England. "If I had been able to sail across the Atlantic in a 24-gun frigate, as John Adams did, I would have done that, too," he said.

In addition to his work as a writer, McCullough has hosted the public television shows Smithsonian World and The American Experience, and narrated Ken Burns's documentary The Civil War. (From Barnes & Noble.)

Discussion Questions

  1. John Adams had an insatiable desire to explore human nature. In defending the British soldiers involved in The Boston Massacre, Adams says to the jury, "Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." How has his decision to defend the British Army, even under suspicion of political treason, prepared him to draft a strong argument for independence?
  2. In Thoughts on Government, Adams begins to formulate thoughts on public education. Adams writes, "Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially for the lower classes of people, are so extremely wise and useful..." When Adams was a young boy he dismissed the idea of education and only wished to be a farmer. How has his background influenced his opinion on education? Why did he see education as essential to the farmer as to the statesman in the pursuit of an independent nation?
  3. On slavery, Abigail Adams writes, "It always seed a most iniquitous scheme to me- [to] fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have." Even Adams with his great display of integrity during The Boston Massacre trial, has managed to omit the issue of slavery from the Declaration of Independence. Who in Congress owned slaves and who did not? How could the abolition of slavery have helped The American Revolution? What stakes were involved?
  4. John Adams' voyage to France along with ten-year-old John Quincy took an incredible toll on Abigail. How has Abigail been an inspiration to her"good friend"? Why does their relationship seem an anomaly in this time period? How has his relationship with Abigail influenced his admiration for French women? Would you call john Adams a feminist? Why or why not? Give examples.
  5. John Adams led an obstinate quest to gather military and economic support from both the French and Dutch governments with little financial or moral support from Congress. Adams' feels very isolated at this point in the struggle for independence and often feels like he is running a one-man-show despite the fact that his ability to secure a loan from the Dutch was undoubtedly dependent upon the British General Cornwallis' surrender at Virginia. After reviewing the larger picture, what are the events and circumstances in Adams' life during this time that has made him feel politically isolated? Was he in fact running a one-man-show? Explain.
  6. In London, Adams publishes, A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of The United States of America. The crux of this pamphlet stresses the necessity for a government to establish a check and balance of political power. Adams writes that there is "a natural aristocracy among mankind... These were the people who had the capacity to acquire great wealth and make use of political power, and for all they contributed to society, they could thus become the most dangerous element in society..." In the current state of the United States Government, some would argue that it is ruled by the aristocracy, some may even go so far as to argue that the U.S. is currently ruled by a monarchy. What are your thoughts on the government of the United States? Is the United States realizing John Adams' dream? Why or why not?
  7. In 1783, the United States is officially recognized by the world as an independent nation upon the signing of the Treaty of Paris. During this time, Adams recognizes a moral shift amongst the American people. James Warren writes that patriotism has been abandoned to money and materialism. How has the institution of slavery influenced the morale of American people? Does the economic value of slavery make creating a unified government more challenging? Why?
  8. Adams displays a bit of apprehension toward his nomination for Vice President of the United States. Article I, Section 3, of the Constitution states that "[the Vice President] shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no vote, unless they be equally divided." It would seem as though Adams, a man so firm in his opinions, with the plainness of a teacher and the persuasion of a lawyer would be perfect for the Vice Presidency. Why didn't he think so? Why do you think he won by such a small margin?
  9. In 1798, the United States prepares to go to war with France. Adams' initial interactions with France during the Revolutionary War led to his apprehension on entering into a hasty relationship with the French. In a letter to Roger Sherman Adams warned of excessive attention to what the French thought, what France wanted, and writes that there was "too much [French] influence in our deliberations". What was the turning point in the United States relationship with France? What left the United States so vulnerable to the French?
  10. On Adams McCullough writes, "...he seems not to have viewed the presidency as an ultimate career objective or crowning life achievement. He was not one given to seeing life as a climb to the top of a ladder or mountain, but more as a journey or adventure... if anything, he was inclined to look back upon the long struggle for independence as the proud defining chapter." What do you think was driving the life of John Adams? What were his motivations?
  11. There is still much speculation over Thomas Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings. In a letter to Jefferson, Abigail Adams felt that a president should serve as an example on the manners and morals of the nation. What are your thoughts on Abigail's statement?
  12. Abigail Adams dies on October 28, 1818. At her beside John Adams says, "I wish I could lie down beside her and die too." To John Adams and his peers Abigail was much more than Adams' wife she was a colleague, and many remarked on her wit. As stateswomen, how has her role in politics paved the way for the first ladies that will succeed her, what do you feel is the role of the President's wife?