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JOHN ADAMS by James Grant


Party of One

by James Grant

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2005
ISBN: 0-374-11314-9
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

An agile life of Adams, “the unbeloved ‘president by three votes.’ ”

Historians have been paying greater attention to the hitherto-overlooked second president in the wake of David McCullough’s magisterial John Adams (2001) and the contested presidential election of 2000 (see David Ferling’s John Adams vs. Jefferson, 2004). Financial historian Grant (Money of the Mind, 1992, etc.) focuses on Adams as a politician and revolutionary, but also as an economic thinker and sometimes ambivalent philosopher. Raised a Puritan, for instance, Adams had no lack of work ethic yet was, at least in his youth, “dull, lazy, unobservant, and confused”; when he was supposed to be studying or working, Adams could often be found eating, smoking, “gallanting the girls” or drinking. On the last matter, Adams was especially of two minds; fond of a dram himself, he was unsure whether to campaign against the taverns of Braintree, Massachusetts. Marrying Abigail, with whom he had a tender and playful relationship, was a step in the right direction, and when it came time to draw up the Declaration of Independence, Adams was no stranger to hard work. Grant points out that Adams served on more than 30 congressional committees, was active in drafting American foreign policy, and was constantly on the run even while predicting that he would soon die from sheer exhaustion. Though most of his pages are devoted to events before 1781, Grant gives generous coverage to Adams’s post-revolutionary career, when, first, he became vice president and wrestled with the fundamental cheapness of a people that did not wish to be taxed and a Congress that did not want to spend, then became president—by a slender margin indeed—and faced with difficulties of establishing a secular, democratic government in a God-haunted nation that, even then, was beginning to crack apart under the weight of slavery.

A well-researched complement to McCullough’s somewhat more accessible life: of much interest to students of the early Republic and the revolutionary era.