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Classic review: John Adams

President John Adams wins overdue accolades in David McCullough's searching biography.

By Terry Hartle / January 30, 2011

John Adams, by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, 752 pp.

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[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on May 31, 2001.]

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There are shelves of books devoted to the Founding Fathers. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Hamilton have all had numerous biographers. However, few writers have seriously considered John Adams, and consequently, he is much less well known than his compatriots.

This is not surprising. Adams had the bad fortune to follow Washington to the presidency and to precede Jefferson. His tenure lasted just one term. He lacked the physical stature of Washington and Jefferson. They were tall and slender, he was short and fat. To the extent that he is known today, it is probably because he was, until recently, the only president whose son also served as president.

Thanks to John Adams, a new biography by Pulitzer Prize-winner David McCullough, this distinguished, if relatively unknown, statesman will soon be much more widely appreciated. McCullough's basic point is that John Adams was a key actor in all the major events of his time.

Adams successfully (and to great criticism) defended the British soldiers who fired the shots that resulted in the Boston Massacre; he was the strongest voice for independence in the Continental Congress (Jefferson called him "a colossus of independence"); he wrote the Massachusetts constitution (still the oldest operating constitution in the world); he served as ambassador at large during the Revolutionary War and arranged a crucial loan with the Dutch that helped finance that cause; he negotiated (along with John Jay and Ben Franklin) the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War; he was indispensable to the founding of the American Navy; he served as a loyal vice president during Washington's presidency; and, while president, he successfully resisted the calls for war with France - and in doing so, probably defeated his reelection.

Any one of these accomplishments would have secured his place in American history. Adams did all of these, and more.

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