John Adams by David McCullough

February 24, 2010

john adams Summary: There was so much hype surround David McCullough’s 2001 biography John Adams that I couldn’t help but be curious about the book. Then once HBO turned the tome into a miniseries that won multiple Emmy awards, I knew I would end up reading it — or at least attempting to. So I tried to ignore the massive page count and enjoy the story of our country’s second president. Unfortunately, I simply couldn’t plow my way though the entire thing.

I started this book more than a year ago, and have put it aside and picked it up again more times than I can count. I was able to make it more than halfway through (about 400 pages), but by that time Adams was just serving as an ambassador or something in London. The presidency was still a long way off, but I just didn’t have the patience or the inclination to keep going.

McCullough’s biographical style is pretty straightforward. He quotes extensively from Adams’s own letters and papers, as well as those of wife Abigail and some of their friends and contemporaries. McCullough also provides some analysis of key events, and does a good job of putting Adams’s life in historical context. In addition, it’s clear that McCullough thought Adams was a great guy. The parts that I read sounded like a puff piece that you might find in Parade magazine rather than an objective take on Adams.

Congratulations to those of you able to finish this book; you have far more determination than I! Personally, I knew I wasn’t gonna finish this when I found myself reading term life insurance pamphlets instead of Adams while waiting an hour for my doctor’s appointment.


  • Well, you can’t say that McCullough isn’t thorough! For those interested in the life and times of John Adams, you likely won’t do much better than this book.


  • I thought there were far too many extended quotations used throughout. Some of these quotes ran on and on for so long that I forgot what the point of the passage was. Sure, attribute that to my own ADD if you must, but it was still something I disliked.
  • Where was the “good stuff”? If I read a biography about a former president, I’d like to get to the presidency somewhere before the halfway mark. After all, you’d think that a majority (i.e. more than half) of the pages would be devoted to the subject’s most important years. But what I’ll take away from this book is that John Adams enjoyed his time in Paris, but missed his wife while they were separated. BFD.

Based on my own personal rating system, as spelled out right here, I give John Adams by David McCullough 0 stars out of 5 because I was unable to finish it. I will qualify my rating by saying that I am not a fan of Adams in particular or that period of history in general. If you are an avid buff of either of those things, you’ll probably love this book. But if you’re just an average reader thinking of tackling this book because of the rave reviews and awards, I wouldn’t recommend it.

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