David McCullough is America’s most celebrated popular historian. Not only is he the author of a number of excellent best-selling works of history, including his Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of Harry Truman, but for years he has been the mellifluous narrator of PBS’s American Experience and several historical documentaries, including Ken Burns’s Civil War. When most people think about America’s premier historians, they think first about David McCullough. He has more than taken the place in American culture once occupied by Barbara Tuchman. Unlike Tuchman, who feuded with university professors of history, McCullough has the respect of academic historians, maybe because he respects them. McCullough actually attends historical conferences and sits patiently listening to long specialized papers.1 Anyone who does that, and doesn’t have to, deserves respect.
So well known is McCullough that any book he now writes becomes an expectant event. Learning that McCullough was working on a biography of John Adams, readers of popular history and professional historians alike have eagerly awaited its publication. They will not be disappointed. This big but extremely readable book is by far the best biography of Adams ever written. It may do for Adams’s reputation what McCullough’s last biography did for Truman’s. This much underappreciated Founder would be pleased. He never expected posterity to honor him or erect a monument in his memory. It is about time that we did.
McCullough did not set out to write a biography of Adams alone. He originally intended to do a study of both Adams and Thomas Jefferson. But the contrast between the two men’s letters—the hearty and revealing nature of Adams’s correspondence compared to the cool and controlled character of Jefferson’s—convinced him that Adams alone was worth a book. But because the two Founders’ lives were so intermingled, as both friends and political enemies, a life of Adams was bound to include a lot about Jefferson. And, indeed, Jefferson emerges as a major figure in this work, often as a foil for McCullough’s celebration of Adams’s distinctive personality and character.
Adams was born in 1735, the son of a respectable farmer and shoemaker in the small village of Braintree, Massachusetts, just south of Boston. He entered Harvard at age fifteen and was ranked fourteenth out of an entering class of twenty-five. Such ranking was based not on academic promise but on the dignity of the student’s family. Adams ranked as high as he did only because his mother was a Boylston and his father was a deacon in the church; otherwise he would have been very near the bottom of the list. His father wanted his son to become a minister, but Adams realized he was not temperamentally suited for a clerical life, and he chose the law.
Although he built a successful legal practice in Boston, Adams yearned to make it on a larger stage. “I feel my own ignorance,” he wrote in his diary in 1760. “I feel concern for knowledge. I have a strong desire for distinction.” But “I never…
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