John Adams

by David McCullough

Published by Simon & Schuster

736 pages, 2001


Presidential Portrait

Reviewed by Adrian Marks


Though it embarrasses me slightly to retell it, I'll do so anyway. One of my earliest memories is a George Washington moment. The nature of the fabrication eludes me all these years later. (Had I broken my brother's Hot Wheels and not owned up? Had I told my sister her face would stay like that if she kept looking at me that way?) I only recall the aftermath: My mother -- who was seldom stern -- looking at me severely. Witheringly, I would say now, though I hadn't the vocabulary then. "Always think about the father of your country. George Washington could own up to anything and he could not tell a lie."

I paraphrase, I realize, as I write this. My mother would not have used those words in that way, but the gist remains the same. And -- sure -- they embodied everything jingoistic that America stood for prior to Vietnam, but there's a sweetness in that as well. An innocence that had nothing to do with cherry trees and everything to do with the way the world looked from next to our steel-banded Aroborite table while I looked fiercely at my mother's stockinged knee (I couldn't meet her eye). George Washington, father of my homeland would not, could not tell a lie. Who the hell did I think I was trying to behave in such a fashion? (And here, of course, I paraphrase as well.)

Now, going back over everything I ever knew about George Washington, the man was a bit of a milquetoast. Sure, he told the truth about a lot of stuff, but in many ways his becoming the founder of these great United States was as much a matter of timing and happy accident than actual thought and planning on the part of the man himself. None of that matters, however. You always remember the dude who founded the country and, no matter how worthy the next guy is, it will always be difficult for him to rise above being number two.

All of that said, a great deal has been written about the number two in this particular case. John Adams was not merely the second President of the United States, he was the father of yet another American president (John Quincy Adams) and a contemporary and colleague of such historical players as Thomas Jefferson (with whom Adams seemed to have an eerie and almost supernatural link), Benjamin Franklin and James Madison: all of whom take prominent roles in John Adams, David McCullough's thorough and deservedly lengthy biography of the longest lived American president's life.

While the rich ground of Adams' life has been probed many, many, many times since his death on July 4th, 1826, no one has blasted as much life into this story as McCullough. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author (for Truman, another sterling biography) understands exactly what it takes to breathe life into material that, in other hands, has the potential to be deadly boring. Reading John Adams, you get the feeling that McCullough could write a biography on your neighbor the plumber and make it at least passably interesting. Working with a historical character like Adams, whose long life was filled with fascinating people and deeds and who lived at a time of great change, the result is little short of mesmerizing. | June 2001


Adrian Marks is an author and journalist.