Summary and book reviews of John Adams by David McCullough

John Adams

by David McCullough

John Adams
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  • First Published:
    May 2001, 752 pages
    Sep 2002, 752 pages

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Book Summary

The enthralling, often surprising story of John Adams, one of the most important and fascinating Americans who ever lived.

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.

From Chapter One: The Road to Philadelphia

You cannot be, I know, nor do I wish to see you, an inactive spectator....We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.
-- Abigail Adams


In the cold, nearly colorless light of a New England winter, two men on horseback traveled the coast road below Boston, heading north. A foot or more of snow covered the landscape, the remnants of a Christmas storm that had blanketed Massachusetts from one end of the province to the other. Beneath the snow, after weeks of severe cold, the ground was frozen solid to a depth of two feet. Packed ice in the road, ruts as hard as iron, made the going hazardous, and the riders, mindful of the horses, kept at a walk.

Nothing about the harsh landscape differed from other winters. Nor was there anything to distinguish the two riders, no signs of rank or title, no liveried retinue bringing up the rear. It might have been any year and they could have been ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. John Adams had an insatiable desire to explore human nature. In defending the British soldiers involved in The Boston Massacre, Adams says to the jury, "Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." How has his decision to defend the British Army, even under suspicion of political treason, prepared him to draft a strong argument for independence?

  2. In Thoughts on Government, Adams begins to formulate thoughts on public education. Adams writes, "Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially for the lower classes of people, are so extremely wise and useful..." When Adams ...
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  • award image

    Pulitzer Prize for Letters, Drama and Music


Media Reviews

Washington Post Book World - Edwin M. Yoder -

The authentic John Adams has been concealed too long in the glamorous shadows of Jefferson and Washington, and some rectification is past due. McCullough's biography will go far to provide it, for none before it -- not even Gilbert Chinard's classic of a generation or more ago -- has attained its height of narrative art. But that is only to be expected of the writer who is our historian laureate in waiting.

Publishers Weekly

Here a preeminent master of narrative history takes on the most fascinating of our founders to create a benchmark for all Adams biographers.


This is a wonderfully stirring biography; to read it is to feel as if you are witnessing the birth of a country firsthand.

Library Journal

This life of Adams is an extraordinary portrait of an extraordinary man who has not received his due in America's early political history but whose life work significantly affected his country's future....This excellent biography deserves a wide audience.

Kirkus Reviews

While McCullough never misses an episode in Adams's long and often troubled life, he includes enough biographical material on Jefferson that this can be considered two biographies for the price of one--which explains some of its portliness. Despite the whopping length, there's not a wasted word in this superb, swiftly moving narrative, which brings new and overdue honor to a Founding Father.

Reader Reviews


John Adams
An absolutely MUST READ novel. The author puts real flesh on historical figures making them complicated yet awe inspiring human beings. An absolutely wonderful read. I will recommend this summer reading to my bookclub.

Robert Rohan

The real father of these United States
I happened to watch the HBO series of John Adam and decided to read the book it was based upon, written by David McCullough. Based upon the letter's Adam's and his family wrote in there days, I found it to be the most enlighting book I've ever ...   Read More


John Adams by David McCullough
Being the first book picked by the Book Club, I recently joined, I was overwhelmed by Mr. McCullough's research on John Adams. I felt like I was back in History class only this time enjoying it. I learned more in this book about our country and ...   Read More


As a 20 something who is not normally apt to reading books thicker then a brick I was completly captivated by the epic story of John Adams life. At times I felt that I was reading my own history. This book has been a catalyst for conversation in my ...   Read More

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