John Adams

After finishing David McCullough’s book on The Wright Brothers, I remembered he had written a biography of John Adams that I hadn’t read. I don’t know as much about American history as I should, and since I like McCullough’s work, I decided to read that too. It’s long (650 pages) but informative and quite enjoyable.

I learned more than I will recount, but here are a baker’s dozen of items to remember:

1. People in the 18th century wrote a lot of letters. Adams and his wife Abigail exchanged more than a thousand, and they wrote hundreds to their children. Near the end of their lives, Adams and Jefferson wrote many letters back and forth. These people could write! Their letters were formal, affectionate, and memorable. I wonder how email and texting has ruined our ears for writing.

2. Adams wrote letters in part because he was separated for years from Abigail and their children. Adams wrote from Philadelphia as he served in the Continental Congress, in New York as the nation’s first vice president, and from England and France as he represented America in Europe. He took his young son, John Quincy, on one trip to France, and they were gone from home for a year and a half. It could take weeks to deliver a letter, and many were lost. In one difficult stretch, only two of John’s fifty letters to Abigail reached her.

3. Travel was hard. The voyage to Europe took three to four weeks, and there was constant danger from storms, pirates, and enemy navies. Adams spent a lot of time in port, waiting for good weather to sail across the Atlantic.

4. John and Abigail detested Alexander Hamilton. They thought he was a hypocritical opportunist who’d do whatever it took to get ahead. They would have hated the musical.

5. Jefferson was terrible with money. He married a rich widow, but his high tastes far exceeded his income. He wasted money on fine dining, wine, building Monticello, and remodeling temporary residences he didn’t own. The State of Virginia started a fund-raising lottery to help him but he still died $100,000 in debt, leading to the posthumous selling of his possessions, slaves, and Monticello.

6. Once on a trip, Adams and Ben Franklin shared the same bed and argued whether to sleep with the window open. One thought the night air was better for his health. The other thought the breeze would bring germs inside.

7. Slavery was controversial at America’s founding. John and Abigail Adams spoke out frequently against it. Abigail said it was hypocritical to fight for independence while owning slaves. Jefferson opposed slavery yet had 200! One, Sally Hemmings, was particularly close, if you know what I mean.

8. There were good people on both sides of the American Revolution. There were patriots, like Adams, who courageously put their necks on the line, and there were loyalists like John Dickinson who on principle opposed the war, knowing it would cost his career.

9. A good line repeated by Washington and Adams during the revolution, “We cannot insure success, but we can deserve it” (91).

10. Disease killed more soldiers than bullets. In the Revolutionary War, seventeen British sailors died from disease for every one killed in battle.

11. Americans justifiably think our country is in trouble now, but it always has been. Immediately after winning the war, many Americans thought their fellow citizens cared more about themselves than the common good. They said the love of money had replaced patriotism (398).

12. John and Abigail had three sons, and two finished badly. Charles was the most heart-wrenching. How did a good-natured kid become an adulterous drunk who deserted his wife and five kids? Charles wouldn’t change his ways or listen to John or Abigail. John finally renounced him.

13. Adams and Jefferson had a falling out that lasted for some time. They didn’t care for each other’s personality or politics, and they ran against each other to succeed Washington as our second president. When Jefferson lost he wrote a warm, congratulatory letter meant to encourage Adams and repair their relationship. He sent it first to James Madison, who told Jefferson it was a big mistake. If Adams were to fail as president, the letter might come back to haunt Jefferson. The letter was never sent.

McCullough writes, “For Adams it could have been one of the most important letters he ever received. Jefferson’s praise, his implicit confidence in him, his rededication to their old friendship would have meant the world to Adams, and never more than now…” (466).

There’s a lesson here. Take the risk. Send the letter!








3 responses to “John Adams”

  1. Tom Harmon

    I read the book and saw the TV series, definitely lessons learned. Glad Adams and Jefferson became “pen pals” in their later years, putting aside differences and becoming friends, lesson for today! They both went to meet their creator on July 4, 1826, that is amazing!!

  2. Tim Miskimen

    If you know of any articles examining the loss of letter writing to emails I’d like to know. Personally I miss the letters to and from family.

  3. Mike, I love this piece, especially the letter writing lesson. Thanks for sharing this.

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