While on my afternoon walk yesterday, I finished my re-read of John Adams by David McCullough. I read the book when it first came out in 2001, loved it, and decided to read it again, in part to see if it lived up to my memory of it. Here are some thoughts on the book, now that my re-read is complete.
1. I loved it again. In fact, I think I loved it more the second time around than the first. It is one of the best pieces of non-fiction I have ever read. The story is both engaging and fascinating.
2. When I read of the death of Abigail toward the end of the book, and later, of John Adams himself, I found myself in tears, even as I walked. McCullough brought them back to life and I was sad to see them go.
3. The re-read cemented in my mind John Adams as my favorite president. I don’t say he was the best president, just my favorite. Granted things were different back then, but I think that if politicians had the intelligence, honesty, and candor that Adams had in his day, and for which he was greatly respected (and loathed), things would be a lot different.
4. In some ways, however, things are remarkably similar today as they were 200+ years ago. After Washington, party politics emerged as more important (to party members) than the good of the law itself. People complained about political parties (John Adams and George Washington among the complainers) much as they do today.
5. I was particularly fascinated by the pace of life back in Adams time. It seems almost beyond imagination today to think that it could take mail weeks to go from Philadelphia to Boston, and months to cross the Atlantic. But I kept thinking that while that would seem strange to me, it would be business as usual for the people of late 18th and early 19th centuries.
6. Adams’ correspondence is truly remarkable and the most remarkable of all is his letters to Jefferson, and Jefferson’s in return. Some of what appears in those letters is so prescient as to border on precognition, but of course, what it really amounted to was the good judgement of intelligent people plotting out courses through potential future challenges. (Adams was emphatic that issue of slavery would ultimately result in civil war, for instance.)
Having read it twice, I’d rank John Adams among the finest pieces of nonfiction I’ve ever read. McCullough brings history to life with the same verve and detail that Will Durant accomplished with his histories. There is something about the tone he sets and the voice with which McCullough writes that, like Durant, brings the story to life and makes it much more than names and dates on the page.