So I finally finished a John Adams biography last night. I don't think I've ever read such a good book more slowly. I really don't know what took me so long. I guess I just wasn't in any rush to finish. It's not like I had a deadline, or anything.
Going in I knew very little abut Adams. He was the first vice-president and the second president. He was a 'founding father.' His wife's name was Abigail and John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, was their son. And he lived in Massachusetts. Mostly, anyway (as it turns out).
David McCullough, the book's author, relies heavily on letters written by Adams and others. Throughout his life Adams corresponded with many people, most notably Abigail (his wife) and Thomas Jefferson. Also Benjamin Rush, a physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Quincy, Benjamin Franklin and others. McCullough also referenced letters written to Jefferson from Abigail and vice versa, as well as letters between other characters. Everybody was writing letters, which sometimes took up to six months to reach their addressee. I guess nobody had facebook yet.
Adams grew up in Braintree, Massachusetts. Abigail was from neighboring Quincy (named for her Mother's family). He graduated from Harvard and subsequently acquired a law degree. He practiced law for a few years, including as attorney for the defense for the British soldiers who were tried for their part in the 'Boston Massacre.' But politics was to be his career. He was chosen to be a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, in late 1775, in Philadelphia, a group charged with determining what to do about the growing 'British problem.' The colonies, you may remember, were fairly autonomous right from the start. England, though, had decided to address its huge Seven Years War debt by imposing new taxes on them. The Second Continental Congress set out to decide on a course of action. Adams and Jefferson helped convince that body that independence was the way to go and the Declaration was produced.
Adams had hopes that his work was done as he returned to Braintree. He hated being away from Abigail and their growing family. However he was soon asked to sail to France as part of a commission to gain recognition of the United States of America, and French aid in the war. Adams went back and forth twice and also served in The Netherlands and, once the war was over, England. Adams was crucial in securing credit from the French and the Dutch, without which the war effort would have been severely hampered.
Once he finally was able to return home, in 1788, he was soon mentioned as a likely candidate for high office, under the new Constitution. Maybe even the presidency, though most agreed that George Washington would be the best choice. Adams wound up with the second most votes and was named vice-president, a position that had no actual duties (except to break ties in the Senate).
The second half of the book is largely about the differences between the Federalists, led by Washington and Adams, and the 'Republicans,' led by Jefferson. There were two schools of thought regarding the Constitution, which led to the Federalist Papers, written by Hamilton, Madison and John Jay; and what some historians call the Anti-Federalist Papers, largely written pseudonymously by 'Cato' or 'Brutus.' (Most of the Federalist papers were written under pseudonyms too, though we now attribute them to their actual writers). The principal point of contention between the two sides went to how strong the 'central government' should be. The Federalists favored stronger, the Republicans weaker. The purpose of the Constitution had been to replace the Articles of Confederation, which hadn't established much of a role for a Federal government (and established no executive branch). Adams and his fellow Federalists assumed that once they had won the ratification debate that the matter was settled (in favor of a strong central government). Jefferson, et al., did not see it that way and set themselves up as an 'opposition party,' despite there having been near unanimous agreement that party politics would be detrimental to the over all good of the new nation.
Adams and Jefferson became political 'enemies,' a situation made extremely interesting when Adams was elected to succeed Washington as president and Jefferson was elected as vice-president. Eventually Jefferson succeeded Adams, who was finally able to retire from public life, and learned, as President, to see things with a new appreciation for a strong role for the executive. After both men had been out of office for a while they again began to correspond and renewed their friendship. They died within hours of each other, on the fourth of July, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the document that was authored by Jefferson and that Adams had played such a crucial role in getting approved.