A great, troubled, and, it seems, overlooked president receives his due from the Pulitzer-winning historian/biographer McCullough (Truman, 1992, etc.).
John Adams, to gauge by the letters and diaries from which McCullough liberally quotes, did not exactly go out of his way to assume a leadership role in the tumultuous years of the American Revolution, though he was always “ambitious to excel.” Neither, however, did he shy from what he perceived to be a divinely inspired historical necessity; he took considerable personal risks in spreading the American colonists’ rebellion across his native Massachusetts. Adams gained an admirable reputation for fearlessness and for devotion not only to his cause but also to his beloved wife Abigail. After the Revolution, though he was quick to yield to the rebellion's military leader, George Washington, part of the reason that the New England states enjoyed influence in a government dominated by Virginians was the force of Adams's character. His lifelong nemesis, who tested that character in many ways, was also one of his greatest friends: Thomas Jefferson, who differed from Adams in almost every important respect. McCullough depicts Jefferson as lazy, a spendthrift, always in debt and always in trouble, whereas Adams never rested and never spent a penny without good reason, a holdover from the comparative poverty of his youth. Despite their sometimes vicious political battles (in a bafflingly complex environment that McCullough carefully deconstructs), the two shared a love of books, learning, and revolutionary idealism, and it is one of those wonderful symmetries of history that both died on the same day, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. While McCullough never misses an episode in Adams's long and often troubled life, he includes enough biographical material on Jefferson that this can be considered two biographies for the price of one—which explains some of its portliness.
Despite the whopping length, there's not a wasted word in this superb, swiftly moving narrative, which brings new and overdue honor to a Founding Father.