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John Adams by David McCullough

7190999Of the founding fathers, the three that probably stand out are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.  Of these, however, John Adams is probably the one we learn the least about, this in spite of the fact that, of all of the founding fathers, “we” probably know the most about him, a result of his prodigious letter writing and the diaries he kept.

It’s a shame, really, as Adams is both a very important and very interesting character.  While Washington certainly merits his place as the father of our country, he is also rather dull, comparatively, having not written his private thoughts.  Jefferson is a very interesting character in his own right, a man full of contradictions, embodying both the highs and lows of the human essence.

In contrast, it can be said that Adams is the picture of integrity, the one word that maybe defines his career over all others.  He was also loyal to an extreme.  Compare his behavior as Vice President to Washington with that of Jefferson’s as Vice President to Adams.  Even when Adams disagreed with Washington, his loyalty to the administration meant he wouldn’t undermine Washington’s efforts.  Jefferson so disagreed with what Adams tried to do, on the other hand, that he actively tried to derail Adams’ administration.

Adams’ long and distinguished service to his country — beginning as a delegate to the Continental Congress, through years as a diplomat in Paris and London trying to secure first the finances to support the Revolutionary War and then to secure the peace, and finally as first Vice President and then President — are admirably covered by David McCullough in his excellent biography of John Adams.  McCullough quotes extensively from letters to and from Adams, as well as letters written by his wife Abigail, Adams’ diaries, and newspapers of the time to really bring both the era and Adams to life.  In fact, there were times where he spent relatively lengthy sections on, for instance, Abigail’s opinions of French or London society, which felt at times tedious.  However, by the end of the book, when Adams’ family members start to pass away, these moments actually hit the reader as, by that time, you are so emotionally invested in these people.  The tediousness of those sections is more than made up for by the impact on the reader near the end.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the narrative is the relationship between Adams and Jefferson, which has been of much discussion.  Here it comes alive, from the respect they shared at the Continental Congress to their blossoming friendship in Europe to the disintegration of that friendship during their years in the Federal government, only to finally be renewed in their later years.  That such a strong bond of friendship could be nearly destroyed by politics is dismaying to watch, especially considering the role that Jefferson — a boyhood idol of mine — played.  That these two men could at least partially reconcile their differences should speak volumes to us today.

Another very interesting aspect of the era, related to the relationship between Adams and Jefferson and the politics of the time, is how nasty those politics were.  We are often dismayed at how politics is practiced in our day and age.  In terms of pure nastiness, however, it does not compare to the politics of the founding of our country.  That a great man like Jefferson could attack his one-time friend Adams so strongly and do so hiding behind others is borderline shocking.  And Jefferson’s behavior pales in comparison to men like Alexander Hamilton who actively subverted Adams’ own cabinet.  Maybe there is a lesson here, that, in spite of how bad things seem to be now, our country has survived worse times and will do so again.

Adams’ life is a fascinating subject and McCullough does a wonderful job of bringing it, well, to life.  After reading McCullough’s account of Adams’ life and career, I have a new-found and deep respect for Adams, both as a man and a politician.  I highly recommend this book.

1776 by David McCullough

War ends up being so pivotal in so many developments in history and, yet, the more I read about the most crucial wars in our country’s history, the more I am amazed by how much of the outcome was due to incompetence, bad decisions, or just plain luck.

David McCullough’s 1776 describes the events of that decisive year in the outcome of the Revolutionary War.  Starting with the Siege of Boston, which began in 1775, McCullough takes us through the events that lead to the British abandoning Boston and eventually taking New York.  The year ends with two stunning American victories at Trenton and Princeton, victories that occurred at such a low point in morale in the army that, had they not happened, the war may have gone a completely different way.

McCullough is a master at describing the events on the ground.  Drawing from a huge number of primary sources, especially letters and diaries, he shows us the conditions the average soldier dealt with, including marching in freezing weather with rags covering their feet and hauling cannon through mud and across rivers.  You get a sense for how difficult it was, especially considering that moving the army occurred entirely by foot — there were no transports of course.

In particular, we get great insight into the thinking of the important players, such as Washington, Greene, and Knox, as well as some of the British commanders.  It is amazing that Washington, leading the entire army to determine the future independence of the United States, was only 43 years old in 1775.  I myself, as I write this, am 38.  Jefferson was only 32 and John Hancock, president of the Second Continental Congress, was 38 himself.  Amazing to think how young these leaders were!  Washington is the particular focus, as McCullough tries to uncover the thinking of this most central man.  As the Americans lost battle after battle in New York, due in no small part to the indecisiveness of Washington, and as soldiers left the army as their enlistments ended, Washington begins to fret for the outcome of the war and his reputation as a general.  Even so, he perseveres, keeping up appearances for his soldiers and pushing them to perform.  While Washington may not have been the most brilliant tactical mind of his day, his determination to succeed definitely was the key reason the Revolution itself eventually succeeded.

It is even more astonishing, though, to consider how the weather, how decisions by the British to not pursue the fleeing American army, made such huge outcomes.  More than once, storms masked the movement of the Americans, in a way that had the weather been good, the Americans may not have been able to execute their plans.  The British, on more than one occasion, also stopped in what could have been a complete rout of the Americans, a defeat that would almost assuredly have ended the war with a British victory.  I find it truly astonishing how the outcome of such important events depends on these little details.

I’ve read one other history of the Revolutionary War, The Glorious Cause by Robert Middlekauff.  Middlekauff covers the entire war, including the build up to the war and the aftermath, ending with the writing of the Constitution.  While I remember the book being very good, it’s been a while since I read it, and with my memory like a sieve, I remember very few details, unfortunately.

1776 is a nice, high level overview of the events on the ground.  It is written in a very casual style, with copious footnotes, but those are all relegated to the back (even the numbers are omitted in the text, something which I actually regret).  The reading is fast and easy, but also very vibrant, giving a great sense of the spirit of the times.  I greatly enjoyed this book.