A Founding Father Every American Should Appreciate: My Review of David McCullough’s Masterpiece Biography of John Adams

Two hundred and forty-two years ago today (July 2), the Second Continental Congress voted to approve Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee’s motion for independence. And John Adams wrote his wife Abigail the next day that the “Second of July” would forever be recognized as a national day of celebration.

Two days later, the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, making the Fourth of July the birthday that stuck. Adams’ prophetic error may be mildly amusing to some, but it’s a great reminder that this time of year is the perfect time to brush up on your knowledge of and appreciation for John Adams.

With his Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece John Adams (published in 2001), David McCullough almost single-handedly resurrected the legacy and reputation of our nation’s second President and (until then) too-often ignored Founding Father. McCullough’s book earned widespread (and well-deserved) acclaim and was the basis for HBO’s phenomenal miniseries John Adams starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney.

McCullough originally intended his project to be a joint biography of both Adams and Thomas Jefferson. And Jefferson features prominently in this tome. As the project progressed, McCullough realized that it was Adams’ story which needed to be told — and which he wanted to tell.

Short, vain, combative, and a little on the chunky side, John Adams had one of the most colorful personalities of all the Framers. He was also a force of nature, making his mark again and again locally, regionally, and nationally. Even internationally.

During the founding era, Adams was always visible in the foreground and was generally recognized as one of the leading men of the American Revolution and the nascent American Republic. Farmer, lawyer, writer, politician, diplomat — Adams did it all.

Still, he was often (much to his chagrin) eclipsed by others. And as he (somewhat bitterly) predicted, this became more common as the years went on. Benjamin Franklin was an inventor, creative leader, witty philosopher, and charming diplomat. His consummate political skills were legendary. A clever inventor and shrewd politician in his own right, Thomas Jefferson was a great visionary who could be magnificently eloquent with his pen. And then there’s George Washington. How do you follow him? Even second-tier Founders like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton have eclipsed Adams in some ways. Madison is remembered as the “Father of the Constitution” and of course served as our fourth President (during the War of 1812). And Hamilton, the brilliant Treasury Secretary, adorns the $10 bill. Outside of New England and his circle of friends, Adams was often taken for granted, overlooked, and (as time went by) forgotten. And yet…

As David McCullough makes abundantly clear, it’s difficult to fathom the American Revolution succeeding or the new nation getting off the ground without John Adams. He was the heavy-lifter of the Founders, doing more than all of them — other than perhaps Washington. Adams deserves a lot more recognition and gratitude than he has received over the years, and McCullough appropriately shines the spotlight on him. If you haven’t yet read John Adams, I hope you’ll do so. It will give you a richer appreciation of our nation’s founding and of one of the families right at the center of it.

Though Adams may have been out of sync with when Americans would celebrate their independence, he was at the very forefront of what Independence Day is all about. Remember that when you watch the fireworks this Fourth of July.