Excerpt from John Adams by David McCullough, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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John Adams

By David McCullough

John Adams
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  • Hardcover: May 2001,
    752 pages.
    Paperback: Sep 2002,
    752 pages.

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No one in Congress had impressed Adams more. On the day he had called on his fellow delegates to put their colleague, "the gentleman from Virginia," in command at Boston, Washington, out of modesty, had left the chamber, while a look of mortification, as Adams would tell the story, filled the face of John Hancock, who had hoped he would be chosen. Washington was virtuous, brave, and in his new responsibilities, "one of the most important characters in the world," Adams had informed Abigail. "The liberties of America depend upon him in great degree." Later, when she met Washington at a Cambridge reception, Abigail thought John had not said half enough in praise of him.

A council of war with the commander and his generals convened January 16 in the parlor of the large house on Brattle Street, Cambridge, that served as Washington's headquarters. With others of the Massachusetts congressional delegation still at Philadelphia, Adams was the only member of Congress present as Washington made the case for an attack on Boston, by sending his troops across the frozen bay. But the generals flatly rejected the plan and it was put aside.

Two days later, Adams was summoned again. Devastating news had arrived by dispatch rider. An American assault on Quebec led by Colonels Richard Montgomery and Benedict Arnold had failed. The "gallant Montgomery" was dead, "brave Arnold" was wounded. It was a crushing moment for Washington and for John Adams. Congress had ordered the invasion of Canada, the plan was Washington's own, and the troops were mostly New Englanders.

As a young man, struggling over what to make of his life, Adams had often pictured himself as a soldier. Only the previous spring, when Washington appeared in Congress resplendent in the blue-and-buff uniform of a Virginia militia officer, Adams had written to Abigail, "Oh that I was a soldier!" He was reading military books. "Everybody must and will be a soldier," he told her. On the morning Washington departed Philadelphia to assume command at Boston, he and others of the Massachusetts delegation had traveled a short way with the general and his entourage, to a rousing accompaniment of fifes and drums, Adams feeling extremely sorry for himself for having to stay behind to tend what had become the unglamorous labors of Congress. "I, poor creature, worn out with scribbling for my bread and my liberty, low in spirits and weak in health, must leave others to wear the laurels."

But such waves of self-pity came and went, as Abigail knew, and when in need of sympathy, it was to her alone that he would appeal. He was not a man to back down or give up, not one to do anything other than what he saw to be his duty. What in another time and society might be taken as platitudes about public service were to both John and Abigail Adams a lifelong creed. And in this bleakest of hours, heading for Cambridge, and on to Philadelphia, Adams saw his way clearer and with greater resolve than ever in his life. It was a road he had been traveling for a long time.


II

At the center of Braintree, Massachusetts, and central to the town's way of life, was the meetinghouse, the First Church, with its bell tower and graveyard on the opposite side of the road. From the door of the house where John Adams had said goodbye to wife and children that morning, to the church, was less than a mile. Riding north out of town, he passed the snow-covered graveyard on the left, the church on the right.

He had been born in the house immediately adjacent to his own, a nearly duplicate farmer's cottage belonging to his father. He had been baptized in the church where his father was a deacon, and he had every expectation that when his time came he would go to his final rest in the same ground where his father and mother lay, indeed where leaning headstones marked the graves of the Adams line going back four generations. When he referred to himself as John Adams of Braintree, it was not in a manner of speaking.

Copyright © 2001 by David McCullough

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