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John Adams by David McCullough




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Unalterably Determined

It doesn’t take a reader of David McCullough’s biography John Adams very long to savor and appreciate how captivated the author is by the subject. The best biographies overflow with the author’s enthusiasm for sharing with readers all the discoveries made about the range of character of the subject. After 650 pages of John Adams, you will go beyond admiration and respect for the second U.S. President, and actually like him. When I closed the book, I missed him. I admit to a certain mutual admiration with Adams, given this description from the book about my namesake (no relation that I am aware of), another signer of the Declaration of Independence:

“Knowing nothing of armed ships, he made himself expert, and would call his work on the naval committee the pleasantest part of his labors, in part because it brought him in contact with one of the singular figures in Congress, Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, who was nearly as old as Franklin and always wore his broad-brimmed Quaker hat in the chamber. Adams found most Quakers to be ‘dull as beetles,’ but Hopkins was an exception. A lively, learned man, he had seen a great deal of life, suffered the loss of the loss of three sons at sea, and served in one public office or other continuously from the time he was twenty-five. The old gentlemen loved to drink rum and expound on his favorite writers. The experience and judgment he brought to the business of Congress were of great use, as Adams wrote, but it was in the after-hours that he ‘kept us alive.’
     ‘His custom was to drink nothing all day, nor ‘til eight o’clock in the evening, and then his beverage was Jamaica spirits and water…. He read Greek, Roman, and British history, and was familiar with English poetry…. And the flow of his soul made his reading our own, and seemed to bring to recollection in all of us all we had ever read.’

Hopkins never drank to excess, according to Adams, but all he drank was promptly ‘converted into wit, sense, knowledge, and good humor.’”

McCullough’s richness of description throughout brings Adams and other characters to life. The wisdom of Abigail Adams appears on many pages, and their love for each other becomes clear and evident, despite prolonged separations. In many relationships, McCullough presents Adams as very difficult to get along with. The complexity of the relationship between Adams and Thomas Jefferson takes up more than ample space in the book, and McCullough presents a wide range of examples of how these two great men interacted with each other over a lifetime. If you think of John Adams as a cipher who served four years as President between Washington and Jefferson, treat yourself to a more complete understanding of an amazing man by reading McCullough’s biography, John Adams.

Steve Hopkins, March 6, 2002


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