“He was John Adams of Braintree and he loved to talk. He was a known talker. There were some, even among his admirers, who wished he talked less. He himself wished he talked less, and he had particular regard for those, like General Washington, who somehow managed great reserve under almost any circumstance…
As befitting a studious lawyer from Braintree, Adams was a ‘plain dressing’ man. His oft-stated pleasures were his famliy, his farm, his books and writing table, a convivial pipe and cup of coffee (now that tea was no longer acceptable), or preferably a glass of good Madeira…
He was a man who cared deeply for his friends, who, with few exceptions, were to be his friends for life, and in some instances despite severe strains. And to no one was he more devoted than to his wife, Abigail. She was his ‘Dearest Friend,’ as he addressed her in letters — his ‘best, dearest, worthiest, wisest friend in the world’ — while to her he was ‘the tenderest of husbands,’ her ‘good man.’
John Adams was also, as many could attest, a great-hearted, persevering man of uncommon ability and force. He had a brilliant mind. He was honest and everyone knew it. Emphatically independent by nature, hardworking, frugal — all traits in the New England tradition — he was anything but cold or laconic as supposedly New Englanders were. He could be high-spirited and affectionate, vain, cranky, impetuous, self-absorbed, and fiercely stubborn; passionate, quick to anger and all-forgiving; generous and entertaining. He was blessed with great courage and good humor, yet subject to spells of despair, and especially when separated from his family or during periods of prolonged inactivity.
Ambitious to excel — to make himself known — he had nonetheless recognized at an early stage that happiness came not from fame and fortune, ‘and all such things,’ but from ‘an habitual contempt of them,’ as he wrote. He prized the Roman ideal of honor, and in this, as in much else, he and Abigail were in perfect accord. Fame without honor, in her view, would be ‘like a faint meteor gliding through the sky, shedding only transient light.’…
John Adams was not a man of the world. He enjoyed no social standing. He was an awkward dancer and poor at cards. He never learned to flatter. He owned no ships or glass factory as did Colonel Josiah Quincy, Braintree’s leading citizen. There was no money in his background, no Adams fortune or elegant Adams homestead like the Boston mansion of John Hancock.
It was in the courtrooms of Massachusetts and on the printed page, principally in the newspapers of Boston, that Adams had distinguished himself. Years of riding the court circuit and his brilliance before the bar had brought him wide recognition and respect. And of greater consequence in recent years had been his spirited determination and eloquence in the cause of American rights and liberties.”
From the opening chapter of David McCullough’s seminal biography John Adams.
“I feel so sorry for anyone who misses the experience of history, the horizons of history. We think little of those who, given the chance to travel, go nowhere. We deprecate provincialism. But it is possible to be as provincial in time as it is in space. Because you were born into this particular era doesn’t mean it has to be the limit of your experience. Move about in time, go places.
Why restrict your circle of acquaintances to only those who occupy the same stage we call the present? It doesn’t have to be that way… Take the novels of Willa Cather when you go to Nebraska. Bring Faulkner when you’ re going south.
Read. Read all you can. Read history, biography. Read Dumas Malone’s masterful biography of Jefferson and Paul Horgan’s epic history of the Rio Grande, Great River. Read Luigi Barzini’s books on Italy and America. Read the published journals of those who traveled the Oregon Trail. Read the novels of Maya Angelou and Robertson Davies, read Wendell Berry, Wallace Stegner, and the poems of Robert Penn Warren. However little television you watch, watch less.”
David McCullough, speaking recently to a class of college graduates.
Watch McCullough and Morley Safer of 60 Minutes discuss the founders, our current political climate, and McCullough’s writing routine below:
Read some of John Adams’s personal correspondence with his wife, Abigail, below:
Whether I Stand High or Low in the Estimation of the World
The Great Anniversary Festival