A thoughtful account of John Adams’ ideas and life, warts and all.


John Adams (1735-1826) does not lack biographies, but this book by a fellow lawyer delivers provocative insights and makes clear why he remains our least charismatic Founding Father.

Lacking Washington’s gravitas or Jefferson’s or Madison’s political acumen, Adams excelled as a prosecutor—pointing out British offenses against American rights in the 1774-1777 Continental Congress—and as a constitutional scholar. Bernstein agrees with historians that his major contribution to the republic was the American system of government. Unlike Jefferson and Paine, who claimed that whatever government the common people chose would be perfect, Adams insisted that humans were selfish, competitive, and envious. His solution was our present balance-of-power structure of executive-legislative-judiciary. His career may have peaked during the Continental Congress, where he led the fight for independence. Jefferson later called Adams “our Colossus on the floor.” Sent to France in 1778, he irritated its government by pushing American interests more aggressively than the far more agreeable Benjamin Franklin. They didn’t get along; indeed, it seems that not getting along with people was an Adams specialty. He spent an unhappy eight years as vice president, an unexpectedly powerless office, and “narrowly” won the 1796 presidential election. Entering office in 1797, Adams kept Washington’s cabinet almost intact. A mediocre group, they preferred Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton to the new president. On some issues, they publicly disagreed with Adams and worked against his policies. Equally disloyal, Vice President Jefferson spent his term campaigning for the 1800 election. Adams left office bitter and unpopular. It is only in the last 50 years that scholars have agreed that his political ideas reveal more insights into the real world than competing Founding Fathers. David McCullough’s bestselling 2001 biography smooths out many rough edges that Bernstein does not ignore in this more balanced rehabilitation.

A thoughtful account of John Adams’ ideas and life, warts and all.

Pub Date: June 1, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-19-974023-9

Page Count: 344

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: March 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.



Rootin’-tootin’ history of the dry-gulchers, horn-swogglers, and outright killers who populated the Wild West’s wildest city in the late 19th century.

The stories of Wyatt Earp and company, the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and Geronimo and the Apache Wars are all well known. Clavin, who has written books on Dodge City and Wild Bill Hickok, delivers a solid narrative that usefully links significant events—making allies of white enemies, for instance, in facing down the Apache threat, rustling from Mexico, and other ethnically charged circumstances. The author is a touch revisionist, in the modern fashion, in noting that the Earps and Clantons weren’t as bloodthirsty as popular culture has made them out to be. For example, Wyatt and Bat Masterson “took the ‘peace’ in peace officer literally and knew that the way to tame the notorious town was not to outkill the bad guys but to intimidate them, sometimes with the help of a gun barrel to the skull.” Indeed, while some of the Clantons and some of the Earps died violently, most—Wyatt, Bat, Doc Holliday—died of cancer and other ailments, if only a few of old age. Clavin complicates the story by reminding readers that the Earps weren’t really the law in Tombstone and sometimes fell on the other side of the line and that the ordinary citizens of Tombstone and other famed Western venues valued order and peace and weren’t particularly keen on gunfighters and their mischief. Still, updating the old notion that the Earp myth is the American Iliad, the author is at his best when he delineates those fraught spasms of violence. “It is never a good sign for law-abiding citizens,” he writes at one high point, “to see Johnny Ringo rush into town, both him and his horse all in a lather.” Indeed not, even if Ringo wound up killing himself and law-abiding Tombstone faded into obscurity when the silver played out.

Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-21458-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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