By David McCullough
(Simon & Schuster, Hardcover, 9780684813639, 752pp.)
Publication Date: May 22, 2001
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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.
David McCullough has been widely acclaimed as a “master of the art of narrative history” and “a matchless writer.” He is twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize, twice winner of the National Book Award, and has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.
Mr. McCullough’s most recent book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, the #1 New York Times bestseller, has been called “dazzling,” “an epic of ideas…history to be savored.” His previous work, 1776, has been acclaimed “a classic,” while John Adams, published in 2001, remains one of the most praised and widely read American biographies of all time. More than three million copies are in print and it is presently in its eighty-second printing.
In the words of the citation accompanying his honorary degree from Yale, “As an historian, he paints with words, giving us pictures of the American people that live, breathe, and above all, confront the fundamental issues of courage, achievement, and moral character.”
Mr. McCullough’s other books include The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge, The Path between the Seas, Mornings on Horseback, Brave Companions, and Truman. His work has been published in ten languages and, in all, more than 9,500,000 copies are in print. As may be said of few writers, none of his books has ever been out of print.
Mr. McCullough is also twice winner of the prestigious Francis Parkman Prize, and for his work overall, he has been honored by the National Book Foundation Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award and the National Humanities Medal. He has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has received forty-seven honorary degrees.
In a crowded, productive career, he has been an editor, essayist, teacher, lecturer, and familiar presence on public television—as host of Smithsonian World, The American Experience, and narrator of numerous documentaries, including Ken Burns’s The Civil War. His is also the narrator’s voice in the movie Seabiscuit.
John Adams, the seven-part mini-series on HBO, produced by Tom Hanks and starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, was one of the most acclaimed and talked about television events of recent years.
A gifted speaker, Mr. McCullough has lectured in all parts of the country and abroad, as well as at the White House. He is also one of the few private citizens to speak before a joint session of Congress.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1933, Mr. McCullough was educated there and at Yale, where he graduated with honors in English literature. He is an avid reader and traveler, and has enjoyed a lifelong interest in art and architecture. He is a devoted painter as well. Mr. McCullough and his wife, Rosalee Barnes McCullough, have five children and eighteen grandchildren.