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For the third book I've read in my passion project on the presidents, I chose  "John Adams" by David McCullough and complimented it by watching "John Adams", the mini-series on Amazon Prime (never going ahead of the book) and by reading letters written between Adams and Abigail published at the Massachusetts Historical Society website. (Letters by Jefferson are there too, plus a host of other interesting stuff). 

McCullough crafts a sentence with finesse. Not a word is wasted. As a writer, I learned as much about Adams as I did about writing. 

This was the fourth or fifth time I started the John Adams mini-series. It's slow-moving and failed to grip me past the Boston Massacre and Adams' representation of the British soldiers at trial until I began learning about who Adams truly was. Then, as I read the book and watched the series, studied every nuance Paul Giamatti put into his portrayal of our second president (Damn the bad reviews of his performance!), and hung on each word from Laura Linney's Abigail, I enjoyed every mendering moment. If you recall from my introductory blog to this series, it was because of Ms. Linney that I decided to undertake this project. Here is where that happened. In fact, I wanted the series to turtle along even more, although I certainly did not need to see another person being tarred and feathered at the Boston Tea Party. Once was enough.

Perhaps, for me, out of all the people I've read about so far (I just finished a bio on James Monroe #5, plus a book on Franklin and one on the first First Ladies), John Adams has been the person most brought to life. I expect the trove of his letters has given biographers and history buffs that gift.

McCullough's book was comprehensive and exhaustive, thanks to Adams and Abigail's dedication to letter writing and the preservation of those letters, and thanks to McCullough's research. (Where do I send my resume to get on the research staff for his next book?) I never felt reading the book was a chore and the 650 pages was the perfect length to detail the life of our most unappreciated and detested founding father. I enjoyed reading about Adams and Abigail's relationship with each other and with Thomas Jefferson, and of course about the beginnings of America. But most of all, I enjoyed learning about Abigail. What a remarkable woman. More on Abigail, along with Martha and Dolley, in a later post.

After having read several biographies by different authors, I have found the negative aspects of their subjects' lives often not fully fleshed out and lacking hypotheses as to why these men made some horrific choices. Digging into questions such as why they chose not to act when it was in their power to make even greater monumental changes, like when it came to slavery and the rights of indigenous persons, would have enhanced the reading experience. Adams' pomposity, which was a factor in his decision to spend the majority of his children's growing years away from them, does not feel fully explored. I would like to know, was he genetically cranky? Or was this a man so desirous of making a difference that he wrapped his insecurity in a protective package of irascibility?

Adams certainly made choices he felt were for the betterment of America and he accomplished remarkable things in The Hague, France, England, and, of course, in America. But overall he might best go down in history not as the first vice president, not as our president #2, but for gaining the ire of men like Thomas Jefferson #3 and James Madison #4 who made it their preoccupations to defeat him, which they did. Along with the Federalist Party. 

Adams had drive and determination. Being bookish, he was well-educated. But what if Adams, who had the intellect to create the framework of America, had the personality of more likeable fellows like Thomas Jefferson or James Monroe #5? What then, Mr. Adams? What might your legacy be? How might that have changed the course of our politics?

Adams' last words, just hours after Jefferson died on July 4th, 1826--the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence--was "Thomas Jefferson survives". John was 90, Thomas was 83. John Quincy Adams, his son, was president. (James Monroe, the last founding father, also died on July 4th, 5 years later).

The true character of John Adams is evident in his letters. Adams sought greatness, but never felt he achieved it. However, he was wrong. Adams was blessed with a luster of character to be witnessed time and time again in the letters he wrote. Letters to Abigail, letters to his children, letters to friends and co-workers. He was devoted and thoughtful, well-meaning and eager to serve his country at his own personal sacrifice. His letters with Jefferson--exchanges between the former presidents after Jefferson orchestrated Adams' failure to be re-elected to a second term -- demonstrates the ultimate true character of a person, the ability to forgive. 

In family law, which I practiced for twenty years, there was a saying: "elephants don't marry giraffes". Abigail saw something in Adams to stay with him for fifty-four years, the first fifteen years of their marriage mostly spent apart. She was petrified to cross the Atlantic but ultimately did so to be with her husband in France. He left her in Massachusetts to raise their children, to fight disease and hunger, and with a war literally waging outside the door to their home. What did she see in him? I think she saw his wit, his drive and dedication, his propensity to love deeply if not widely, his ability to forgive, and the way his words poured from his brain to parchment, from his heart to paper. At least that's what I see in the man. 

Underappreciated for all he did for our country, John Adams--who rejected slavery -- was one of the greatest. Even with his crankiness, we could use his intellect and his heartstrings today. He righted America in its infancy, perhaps a person like him could do the same in its middle age. Or perhaps Abigail could rise from the grave and bring us her resourcefulness, wisdom and tenacity. Then we'd really have a fighting chance.

Today is Abigail's 275th birthday. Happy birthday, old girl!

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