John Adams - David McCullough


Michael Benton, Contributor

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john adams mcculloughIn 2001, an historical biography was published under the title John Adams by David McCullough. Unbeknownst at the time to David McCullough, John Adams would go on to inspire an award-winning HBO miniseries produced seven years later. This HBO miniseries brought renewed attention to the John Adams biography McCullough had written. Before John Adams, David McCullough had written biographies of Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman, both became best-sellers. With John Adams, McCullough had greater success than any of his previous titles and it became one of the fastest selling non-fiction books ever as well as winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2002. David McCullough, historian educated at Yale, first became known for his book The Johnstown Flood which earned him great acclaim as a social historian. He has also written about the history of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal; his book about the latter subject helped Jimmy Carter pass a treaty through Congress granting Panama control of the Canal Zone. When he first began work on John Adams, David McCullough summary included focus on Thomas Jefferson; he later dropped the aspects focusing on Adams' greatest political rival and ensured that the entire book would be dedicated to the second President.

Many high school teachers and undergraduate professors assign John Adams by David McCullough as an instrumental text in early U.S. History. Because of this widespread attention in schools, John Adams by David McCullough sparknotes are widely available on the web. To capture and retain attention from people outside of academia, McCullough made the writing of John Adams accessible to lay readers and brought the subject to life by portraying Adams' life as an adventure that has left indelible marks on the United States to this day. It is probably this dramatic and personal approach that made the book attractive as the base of an HBO series. Adams was often faced with decisions that could alter the future of the United States and the structure of government; he was a leader in the Federalist Party but faced opposition from within the ranks as well as from Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party. Some of the decisions he made remain controversial such as signing the Alien and Sedition Acts into law.

David McCullough's John Adams is not the first biography on this Founding Father. The first biography on John Adams was actually put together by his grandson, Charles Francis Adams, in 1856. Working off of early chapters written by his father, John Quincy Adams, Charles Francis Adams used family papers maintained from John Adams' life including his diary and autobiography as well as hundreds of personal letters between him and Abigail Adams as well as between him and Thomas Jefferson. The Adams' family personal documents were not fully opened to the public until the early 1950's, ushering in a new series of biographies on both John and Abigail Adams. McCullough's was the first John Adams biography of the 21st century and remains the premier text on the subject for contemporary readers.