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Book description
VOLUME I: While older, this superb biography of Adams stands right there with David McCulloughs masterpiece. This was a pleasant surprise, as many books of this nature that were written several decades ago can and often do have a dated feel to them, with their authors frequently getting mired in minutiae. Not so with Smith. While detailed, he never gets excessive to where the reading is tedious. The story of the first half of Adams life from birth through 1784, when he was 49, moves along seamlessly. Again, without getting too detailed, Smith starts by examining the family roots that Adams springs from in Massachusetts. Actually, Massachusetts itself seems to be one of the many characters in this book as there are continuous references to it, specifically Braintree (where Adams lived), and Boston (where he worked and lived on and off). This is as it should be since the state was never far from Adams own mind, no matter how far away he was. And in this book, he spends a great deal of time away from home. His entire time spent in Europe adds up to roughly a decade. Then factor in all of the time that he spent in Philadelphia (and the not inconsiderable amount of time spent traveling to and from that city, which was a few weeks in those days). Smith steadily chronicles Adams rise to power via the legal profession. Adams worked hard (another theme that runs throughout the book) and earned the success that he eventually achieved. Adams, due to his boisterous and blunt personality, never left anyone wondering what he thought about a certain subject, or the person him or herself. As such, this is often the bane of Adams existence as it made him countless enemies, but on the other hand many people respected his honesty and willingness to be truthful regardless of the consequences. Thus, quite a few people were in Adams corner as well, and this came in handy while he served both in Congress and then later overseas at what we would now call an Ambassadorial level. Another strength of the book is that Smith is very good at providing context for what is going on. We do not view Adams in a vacuum. We see the world in which he was living, with conflicting forces swirling around him. We see him getting pressured and pulled from many different directions. This is so in Philadelphia but even more so when he goes to Paris to help negotiate a treaty with France. Communication across the ocean literally took months, and oftentimes letters were intercepted by enemy countries (namely Britain), were lost in a ship wreck, or were just plain lost due to the enormous amount of distance that the mail had to travel to reach its destination. This delay was never more distressing to Adams than when he was corresponding with his wife Abigail. Their letters number in the thousands, and both were not afraid to mince words. Adams wrote as spoke - off the cuff and unfiltered. Abigail was much the same way. Their voluminous correspondence definitely aided Smith in making this an interesting book to read. Indeed, one of Adams biggest frustrations is his long separation from Abigail. This was not originally intended by either of them, as Adams spent far greater time in Europe than he ever expected to. And this is after they had already been separated when he stayed in Philadelphia for months on end several times. But fortunately, this separation - while personally painful for the Adamses - was a boon for history as it has provided us with such a treasure trove of insights and feelings from the Revolutionary time period. Smith punctuates the facts with analysis about Adams motives and actions. He is eminently fair with Adams - neither lionizing him nor failing to point out his many faults. Adams was a vain man- everyone knew this, even Adams himself. Smith shows how his vanity many times got in his way and only made his path to accomplishing what it was that he wanted at the moment more difficult. Adams was also an incessant worrywart - fretting about his health even when he was young and vibrant. As with Adams, Smith is also fair with other important characters in the book: Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, etc... He explains why they had issues with Adams over either his thinking or his way of doing business, but he also shows why their behavior could infuriate Adams at times too. This is especially true of Franklin. The two men, with such different personalities, did not care for each other at all. Smith makes it easy to see both sides. Finally, Smith also writes at length of Adams as a parent, and of his devotion to his children. This devotion could at times be too much; John Quincy Adams did not catch a break from either parent on anything. Both of them were unbelievably demanding of him. No wonder he became so dour and aloof later in life. Smith paints a well-rounded portrait of John Adams that would be hard for anyone to surpass.Grade: A
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