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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  • First Published:
    May 2001, 752 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2002, 752 pages

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The community numbered perhaps 2,000 people. There was one other meetinghouse -- a much smaller, more recent Anglican church -- a schoolhouse, gristmill, village store, blacksmith shop, granite quarry, a half dozen or more taverns and, in a section called Germantown, Colonel Quincy's glass factory. With no newspaper in town, news from Boston and the world beyond came from travelers on the coast road, no communication moving faster than a horse and rider. But within the community itself, news of nearly any kind, good or bad, traveled rapidly. People saw each other at church, town meeting, in the mill, or at the taverns. Independent as a Braintree farmer and his family may have been, they were not isolated.

The Adams homestead, the farmhouse at the foot of Penn's Hill where young John was born and raised, was a five-room New England saltbox, the simplest, most commonplace kind of dwelling. It had been built in 1681, and built strongly around a massive brick chimney. Its timbers were of hand-hewn oak, its inner walls of brick, these finished on the inside with lath and plaster and faced on the exterior with pine clapboard. There were three rooms and two great fireplaces at ground level, and two rooms above. A narrow stairway tucked against the chimney, immediately inside the front door, led to the second floor. The windows had twenty-four panes ("12-over-12") and wooden shutters. There were outbuildings and a good-sized barn to the rear, fields and orchard, and through a broad meadow flowed "beautiful, winding" Fresh Brook, as Adams affectionately described it. The well, for household use, was just out the front door. And though situated "as near as might be" to the road, the house was "fenced" by a stone wall, as was the somewhat older companion house that stood forty paces apart on the property, the house John and Abigail moved into after they were married and from which he departed on the winter morning in 1776. The one major difference between the two buildings was that the house of Adams's boyhood sat at an angle to the road, while the other faced it squarely. Across the road, in the direction of the sea, lay open fields.

In the dry spells of summer, dust from the road blew in the open windows of both houses with every passing horse or wagon. From June to September, the heat in the upstairs bedrooms could be murderous. In winter, even with logs blazing in huge kitchen fireplaces, women wore heavy shawls and men sat in overcoats, while upstairs any water left in the unheated rooms turned to ice.

In most of the essentials of daily life, as in their way of life, Adams's father and mother lived no differently than had their fathers and mothers, or those who preceded them. The furnishings Adams grew up with were of the plainest kind -- a half dozen ordinary wooden chairs, a table, several beds, a looking glass or two. There was a Bible, possibly a few other books on religious subjects. Three silver spoons -- one large, two small -- counted prominently as family valuables. Clothes and other personal possessions were modest and time-worn. As one of the Adams line would write, "A hat would descend from father to son, and for fifty years make its regular appearance at meeting."

Small as the house was, its occupancy was seldom limited to the immediate family. Besides father and mother, three sons, and a hired girl, there was nearly always an Adams or Boylston cousin, aunt, uncle, grandparent, or friend staying the night. Men from town would stop in after dark to talk town business or church matters with Deacon John.

With the short growing season, the severe winters and stony fields, the immemorial uncertainties of farming, life was not easy and survival never taken for granted. One learned early in New England about the battle of life. Father and mother were hardworking and frugal of necessity, as well as by principle. "Let frugality and industry be our virtues," John Adams advised Abigail concerning the raising of their own children. "Fire them with ambition to be useful," he wrote, echoing what had been learned at home.

Copyright © 2001 by David McCullough

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