Continuing with my Revolutionary War theme — I’d heard about this book for a long time, and even though I wasn’t the biggest fan of McCullough’s 1776 (it was a little dry for me), I decided to try this one because it was supposed to be more character-driven. It was certainly that, although in a decidedly historical way: that is, McCullough doesn’t take any liberties for the sake of story-telling. He only says what can be known from letters or diaries, and never ventures into the realm of re-creating a scene or writing dialogue. Still, apparently keeping a diary was part of our Founding Fathers’ culture, because it seems like everyone did it, describing their daily activities down to the smallest detail. It’s inspiring, actually—I used to do this through college, and even a few years after, but at this point my journals have become sparse indeed, and primarily limited to ideas rather than events. It means the details of my normal hours and days are simply lost, with no record that they ever were—even while John and Abigail Adams, and their children and grandchildren seem so intimately real, hundreds of years later.
This was actually what struck me the most about the story: how human they all were. I know this is obvious (what else would they be?), but history books tend to paint the past in broad strokes, rendering its biggest players as demigods rather than people like you and me. But they were ordinary. They laughed and loved, fought and grieved. And wow, did John and Abigail have a lot to grieve—death was an everyday part of existence back then, and particularly toward the end of their lives, since they outlived most of their contemporaries. Adams was a jovial, likable guy, with a wide circle of intimate friends. As he grew older, I imagined him as my own grandfather, offering the wisdom of his years to me, along with his son John Quincy. His relationship with Thomas Jefferson in later years also made me happy: the two men started out as good friends, but had a falling out over political differences. Adams’s close friend, the doctor and fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence Benjamin Rush, prayed that the two men would reconcile their differences. Once both were out of office, toward the end of their lives, they did resume a regular correspondence. Probably the most memorable part of the whole story was the fact that Adams and Jefferson finally died on the same day—a day that just happened to be the 50-year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson passed away first, and with his last breath, Adams declared, “Jefferson survives!” I’ve heard this to mean he had not yet heard the news that Jefferson died first and thought he was still alive. But the way McCullough tells the story, it sounds to me more like he saw Jefferson, waiting for him on The Other Side.
I guess what I came away with more than anything else from this biography was this: life is short. And time keeps marching on. Neither revelation is particularly original or profound on its face, but it’s one thing to say them, and another to feel them to be true. This book made me feel them.
My rating: **** 1/2