David G. McCullough: John Adams
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 2001

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using the 2001 Simon and Schuster  edition.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of its commentary.   

Overall Impression: A fine work reminding us what a struggle the heroic early Americans had--very timely for American patriots after the events of September 11.


I. Revolution

Chapter 1: The Road to Philadelphia

John Adams (JA) was from Braintree MA. Attended Harvard, read law, admitted to bar 1759 loved books (incl. Cicero). Father died 1761. Marriage to Abigail Smith 1764, dtr. of Reverend William Smith. Their first dtr. was Abigail "Nabby". First son John Quincy (eventually 6th president). Had sons Charles 1770 and Thomas 1772. Stamp Act 1765. Adam's Essay on Liberty 1765 and "Braintree Instructions". Troops stationed in Boston 1768. Boston Massacre 1770. Boston Tea Party 1773. First Continental Congress 1774. Lexington and Concord 1775. Americans attack British ships 1776.

Chapter 2: True Blue

Philadelphia 2nd Continental Congress, John Hancock presiding. Congress indecisive and debating on independence. Paine's Common Sense 1776. Need for sea defenses. JA's "Thoughts on Government". Jefferson, his "Summary View". Monticello. Jefferson's authorship of the Declaration of Independence.

Chapter 3: Colossus of Independence

Adam's decisive speech for independence. Final vote for independence July 2 1776. Concern over slavery. Signing of Declaration of Independence on Aug. 2. General William Howe lands Staten Island July 1776. B. of Long Island August 1776. JA meets with General Howe. Washington's army routed at Manhattan. Congress turns to France for help, King Louis XVI.

II. Distant Shores

Chapter 4: Appointment to France

Privations experienced by the US population. Howe occupies Philadelphia Sept. 1777. Adams appointed commissioner to France, sails N. Atlantic in winter Feb. 1778 with Capt. Samuel Tucker--encounters British cruiser. French alliance signed Feb. 1778. Impressions of France, fellow commissioners Benjamin Franklin (slipshod) and Arthur Lee; Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. June 1778 Britain attacks French ships at sea, setting off a power struggle in Europe. French foreign minister Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes. JA departs France June 1779 for home, arriving Aug. 1779. Revolutionary War is at a stalemate. JA draws up Commonwealth of Massachusetts constitution 1779. 

Chapter 5: Unalterably Determined

JA chosen to return to France, sails Nov. 1779 with sons John Quincy and Charles. Ship Sensible leaks. Lands in Spain, makes overland trip to Paris Dec. 1779-Feb. 1780. Vergennes' displeasure with him--frictions with French over US relations and European power politics. Writes for British press, advocates avoidance of entangling relationships with Europeans. US currency devaluation March 1780 opposed by Vergennes, gives offence to the court, according to Franklin who was highly critical in private--as was Vergennes. 

JA departs for Holland (7 provinces of Netherlands) hoping to render US less dependent on France, arrives July 1780. Amsterdam fever, putrid canals. Revolutionary War going poorly, future of independent America very much in doubt. British conduct undeclared war against the Dutch. JA appeals to Dutch April 1781 against protocol. Demoted from position as sole peacemaker with Britain June 1781. Returns to Paris. Gets cerebral malaria. Oct. 1781 Yorktown victory, British General Cornwallis surrenders his army to General Washington and Rochambeau, having been greatly aided by French sea power. Leads to greater favor in Holland. JA charges of vanity. Dutch recognize the independent US March 1782. US embassy established in Dutch Republic. Secures loan from Holland, signs treaty of commerce. Begins formal negotiations (along with John Jay and Franklin) with British Oct. 1782 in Paris: major issues were boundaries of US, navigation of Mississippi R, debts, interests of Americans Loyalists (Tories), fishing rights in the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. Treaty of Paris with British Sept. 3, 1783: Britain finally recognizes American independence.

Chapter 6: Abigail in Paris

Her father has died. Abigail sails for Europe June 1784. Storm off Grand Banks. July 20 lands on British coast. London. Reunited with JA after 4 years. To Paris, house in Auteuil. Jefferson also present with his daughter Patsy in Paris. Abigail repelled then attracted to French ways--stench and dirtiness, prostitutes, abandoned babies, hedonism. Likes the Opera and Comedie Francaise. Meets Marquise de Lafayette. 

Flowering of friendship with Jefferson, a widower (wife was Martha, d. 1782). Jefferson described, damage to his reputation when he fled the advancing British troops in Virginia. His negative attitudes toward JA as a politician. Extravagant shopping habits, books, clothes, debts.

Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson work at diplomatic tasks but only succeed in negotiating a treaty with Prussia. British-American relations strained. John Quincy's achievements.

JA named minister to England 1785 after rancorous debate. Jefferson's attitudes toward slavery and blacks, their inferiority and bad odor, etc.

Chapter 7: London

Court of British King George III at St. James's Palace. Brief meeting with the king June 1785, not favorably reported by the press. Hears Handel's Messiah. Gets house in West End. London description, poverty and misery, entertainments, theater. JA glad to be in a Protestant country. Coolness of British toward him, attacks in the press. "They hate us". British exclude Americans from Canada and the West Indies as well as from Britain. Problems 1785 with piracy and extortion from the African Barbary States for protection. High quality of American tobacco. Jefferson visits them London 1786, buys instruments, they tour English countryside and gardens April 1786. Portraits drawn of JA and Jefferson. Nabby and Colonel William Smith marry June 1786 London. John Quincy at Harvard, also Charles. 

Concern over failure of America to pay its debts. Shay's Rebellion 1786 protest over rising taxes and court action against indebted farmers.

Jefferson's dalliances with Maria Cosway etc. His attitude toward revolutionary violence ("the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is a natural manure." JA and Abigail meet Sally Hemings, the 14 y/o "nurse" accompanying Jefferson's dtr. Polly, who stays with them.

JA's paper "A Defence of the Constitutions of Governments of the USA" favoring tripartite govt., a discussion of governing systems. JA asks to be recalled having accomplished little in London. Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia draws up Constitution, signed September 17, 1787. JA sees the constitution as the best means of unifying the country. Departs London March 1788, the last time he was in Europe.

III. Independence Forever

Chapter 8: Heir Apparent

June 1788 arrives in Boston to large cheering crowd. Begins a farmer's life. Elected VP Feb. 1789 with Geo. Washington President. Population c. 4 million. No coinage, poor roads, no army, no navy, Indians c. 100,000. Question of the durability and strength of the union of the states. Rise of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, North vs. South. Constitution finally ratified June 1789 when ninth state New Hampshire signed. Problem of slavery, rising avarice. Defining the role of the VP, e.g., as Pres. of the Senate. Federal Hall in New York, built in Federal Style, is first site where the new congress meets.

JA attends Senate as VP April 21, 1789. Geo. WA inaugurated April 30, 1789. Question of titles (JA inappropriately advocates titles) and how to address the Pres. JA facetiously called "his rotundity". Senate decides to call the Pres. "The President of the United States". GW keeps his distance from JA, in part because of his views on titles, gives him little influence. Some suspect JA is a monarchist, supported by the views reflected in his "A Defence of the Constitutions...", and Benjamin Rush cautions JA to temper his views. Some express concern that JA is a little unbalanced, Franklin thought he was "absolutely mad". JA denies all attachments to monarchy. JA refuses to help friends get employment. Lives at Richmond Hill on the Hudson. Abigail finds NY dull. Judiciary act establishes the federal court system, sets size of Supreme Court. Cabinet includes Alexander Hamilton as Secy. Treas., Jefferson Secy. State, John Jay as Chief Justice.

French Revolution begins July 1789: Bastille stormed July 14. JA expresses in print his concerns about unbalanced governments, foresees a tragic outcome. English writer Edmund Burke predicts French ruin, most famously in "Reflections on the French Revolution" 1790.

Jefferson arrives in US September 1789. Patsy marries. Franklin dies April 17 1789, with great public homage to him. JA concerned by the tyranny of the majority and the excesses of democracy in articles entitled "Discourses on Davila". He fears rule by the passions. To Jefferson, Adams had become an embarrassment, would never seek his counsel. Question of national assumption of debts incurred by the states during the Revolution raised by Hamilton. He along with Madison had written the Federalist Papers, but Madison opposed this measure and it was initially defeated.

Location of capitol resolved in Compromise of 1790, in which capital moves to Philadelphia for 10 years, then to a permanent site on the Potomac, in exchange for southern support of Assumption of state's debts.

They move to Philadelphia Aug. 1790. Bank of the US formed 1791. Paine's "Rights of Man" 1791 written in response to Edmund Burke. Jefferson provides endorsement of it with a passage condemning "political heresies that have sprung up among us", meaning JA, causing deep offense. Rebuttal letters by "Publicola" were written by John Quincy Adams, attacking use of the term "heresy" regarding political opposition. Jefferson weakly apologizes but ultimately refuses to take responsibility. From then on, Jefferson and JA were perceived as archrivals. 

A part of Braintree becomes Quincy, MA.

Feud between Jefferson (who disliked the British) and Hamilton (who disliked the French). Jefferson, Madison, and allies begin to call themselves Republicans (implying that the Federalists like JA and Hamilton were actually monarchists or monocrats).

France is now at war with Europe. Lurid news of extreme radicals: the Jacobins (Marat, Danton, Robespierre, etc.) King of France declared a traitor August 1791 and calls for his execution; massacres; outpouring of persecuted priests, etc. Jefferson supports the Jacobins still in Jan. 1793 in a letter: "The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest...rather than it [the French Revolution] should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there an Adam and an Eve left in every continent, and left free, it would be better than it now is". [p. 438]

Geo. WA and JA reelected 2nd term decided by Feb. 1793. 2nd Inauguration March 1993. 

Abigail stays in Quincy for JA's 2nd term. GW attacked by the press as a monarchist. Jefferson working to drive Hamilton from office, obsessed that monarchists are about to take over; regarded as a fanatic by JA. More French bloodshed by Danton, Robespierre, Marat etc. The Duc de La Rochefoucauld, a philosopher, is stoned to death. Louis XVI tried--beheaded January 21. JA has not heart for king killing; privately expresses his dismay: "Mankind will in time discover that unbridled majorities are as tyrannical and cruel as unlimited despots". Jefferson condones the execution privately and publicly: "Monarchy and aristocracy must be annihilated, and the rights of the people firmly established." 

Great Britain plus Spain have declared war on France Feb. 1, 1793--a war that will last 22 years. "Citizen Genet" arrives from France as the new envoy from Jacobin France, to stir up support for the revolutionaries. But Geo WA issues Proclamation of Neutrality April 1793, supported by JA who says "Let us above all things avoid as much as possible entangling ourselves with their [the French] ways and politics." French Reign of Terror commenced 1793. Marie Antoinette executed October 1793. Marat murdered, Danton and Robespierre executed. Jefferson coming around to support the president. Jefferson resigns Secy. State Dec 31, 1793, to JA's relief--he regarded Jefferson's soul poisoned with ambition.

Yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia.

Increasing threat of war with British, capturing ships and impressing sailors. John Jay sent as envoy to Britain.

Jefferson works on transforming Monticello.

Citizen Genet is recalled. John Quincy made minister to the Netherlands 1794. Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania against federal taxes on distilleries. 

Jay Treaty with Britain reaches Geo. WA 1795 reveals very unfavorable terms for no gains, leads to public riots, but JA knows it is better than war with Britain in their weakened state. JA seems to be heir apparent to the presidency. The treaty is ratified, avoiding a constitutional crisis.

JA returns to Quincy. Geo WA retires Sept 17, 1796 giving Farewell address. JA and Jefferson are leading contenders for presidency, their contest becomes a vicious all-out battle. Paine attacks Geo. WA. Jefferson attacked as an atheist and Jacobin. Aaron Burr (NY) and Thomas Pinckney (of SC, favored by Hamilton) running for VP. Leads to breach between JA and Hamilton. JA elected Dec. 1796 (71 votes), with Jefferson (w 68 votes) as VP (Pinckney had 59 votes, Burr 30). 

Chapter 9: Old Oak

Inauguration Mar. 1797, union now 16 states (incl. Vermont, KY, and TN). JA makes the mistake of keeping Washington's cabinet: Timothy Pickering, etc., all Federalists anti-French pro-British who favor Hamilton. Awaits results of treaty negotiation with France by General Charles Pinckney [the French refuse to meet with him]. Jefferson and Madison do not wish to work with the administration and JA seldom consults with him. A de facto undeclared war with France begins 1797.

Moves into the President's house in Philadelphia.

Scandal over Jefferson's private letter of a year earlier to Philip Mazzei, in which he described America as "a country taken over by timid men who prefer the calm of despotism to the boisterous sea of liberty" and mentioned "apostates who have gone over to those heresies... who have had their heads shorn by the harlot England." This was regarded as an unconscionable attack on Geo. WA and damaged Jefferson's reputation.

JA enters Congress hall May 16, 1797. Advocates neutrality and a military buildup especially a navy ("wooden walls"). Sends new commission 1797 to Paris: General Pinckney, John Marshall and Elbridge Gerry--they meet with French Foreign Minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord. French depredations on shipping continue. 

Jefferson emerges as leader of the opposition, undermines JA and privately advises the French to drag out negotiations with the envoys.

Congress approves a Navy--construction begins on frigates United States, Constitution, and Constellation.

John Quincy marries Louisa Catherine Johnson.

Scandal with Hamilton, "Reynolds affair" involving adultery (with Maria Reynolds), blackmail, corruption.

Napoleon Bonaparte armies sweep Europe 1798. Spat on floor of Congress between Lyon and Griswold. French privateers continue to attack. Events are leading toward the precipice. Envoys to France are rejected: Talleyrand through his agents "X, Y, and Z" had asked for a bribe. Coded dispatches received in US lead to rumors and eventually confirmation that the mission to France had failed. JA attacked in the press. US prepares for war, arming merchant ships and starting harbor fortifications and cannon foundries, authorization of warships to capture French privateers. JA's approval soars. But he still favors peace over war. More war ships built by subscriptions. JA delays any declaration of war. 

Alien and Sedition acts of 1798 passed--black mark on his regime, reflecting rampart fear and paranoia sweeping the country. JA never invoked the Alien law but Sedition Act was used to prosecute mostly Republican editors (a line of attack also supported by Geo WA). 

House votes first direct tax 1798, Marines founded 1798. The Quasi-War with the French continues. Abigail seriously ill with ?malaria for 11 weeks.

Dispute over Hamilton's desire to lead the army, Hamilton is aided by advocate Geo. WA.

Elbridge Gerry reports the French want peace, confirming JA's confidence in him.

Chapter 10: Statesman

JA has bad teeth. British under Horatio Nelson have overwhelmed the French Aug. 1 1798 at the Battle of the Nile. JA still promotes peace with France. Sends navy to Caribbean. JA's diplomatic efforts with Toussaint L'Ouverture, leader of the slave rebellion on San Domingo (eventually Haiti). Joseph Bunel is first black to dine with an American President.

Jefferson working on secret Kentucky resolutions regarding states rights to nullify federal actions it deemed unconstitutional, an open challenge to the authority of the central govt. which posed a threat to the union. JA fears effects of a federal army. Jefferson fears influx of blacks as a result of Toussaint's clause. JA fears a military coup by Hamilton.

JA resolves to gamble and send William Vans Murray as minister to France along with Wm. Davie and Oliver Ellsworth. The Constellation had captured the French Frigate L'Insurgent. JA convinced peace comes through growing naval strength. Frigate Boston launched. Talleyrand assures US he will receive envoys. The French Directory has broken up. General Hamilton favors joining with the British against France, opposes mission to France. Mission departs nonetheless Nov. 1799. 

His son Charles is a hopeless alcoholic and renounced by JA.

Geo WA dies Dec. 1799 "first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen" according to General Henry Lee. Jefferson stays away ashamed over Mazzei letter etc.

Napoleon takes over as First Consul in coup Nov 19, 1799--he declares the French Revolution is officially over (as is America's enchantment with it).

Jefferson draws up a Senate Manual. JA establishes the Library of Congress.

Progress on the new capital in Federal City (D.C.). JA moves into the President's House (White House) Nov. 1, 1800. Abigail's low opinion of southern whites, disapproval of slavery.

Contest for presidency 1800. JA fires his cabinet. Uprising in Pennsylvania Dutch farmers over taxes, led by John Fries. Jefferson attacked for atheism, cowardice, personal immorality, cohabiting with slave women, etc. JA attacked as insane, monarchist, addled, toothless, fainthearted. JA attacked by Hamilton Federalists as well as by the opposition Republicans. Hamilton's wants to make Charles Pinckney president, wants to destroy JA, makes himself a burden to the party.

Treaty with France made Oct. 3, 1800, news arrives Nov. 2000 not in time to benefit JA's campaign. He learns he lost (65) to Jefferson and Burr (each 73) Dec. 2000. Had he had Hamilton's support, he would have won. JA names John Marshall as Chief Justice. House is deadlocked trying to resolve election--finally on 36th ballot Jefferson wins. JA makes nepotistic and other lame duck appointments.

Jefferson inauguration March 1801. JA petulantly elects to depart town beforehand. The country was at peace, the coffers full, commerce flourishing, agriculture productive.

Charles dies Dec 3, 1800 of dropsy and ?cirrhosis.

Chapter 11: Rejoice Ever More

11 years will lapse before JA and Jefferson correspond. Feels dejected and bitter. Farming at Stoneyfield. Reunion with John Quincy. Relations with Louisa Catherine. John Quincy elected to MA senate. Financial losses.

Jefferson in office. His relations with Sally Hemings published in print 1802 by James Callendar after Jefferson pays insufficient hush money. He also divulges other damaging actions by Jefferson regarding Hamilton-Reynolds affair and all he did to defame JA. Jefferson elects not to respond to these attacks. Sally was relatively fair skinned & reputed to be the daughter of Jefferson's father-in-law John Wayles, thus half-sister to Jefferson's wife Martha. She had 7 children. Jefferson had been home 9 months before each delivery and some resembled him strikingly. Her son Madison claimed he was the father acc. to his mother. JA did not make public attacks but observed privately that Sally etc. were "blots on his character" and "a natural and almost unavoidable consequence of that foul contagion in the human character, Negro slavery." 

Jefferson dtr. Polly dies 1804, evoking sympathetic letter from Abigail. In response, Jefferson complains to her about JA's appointments in the lame duck era. Abigail angrily rebuts this and counterattacks him regarding his dealings with Callendar, the sudden dismissal of John Quincy, etc.

Hamilton killed in duel with Burr.

1804 Jefferson reelected with George Clinton. Has French chef. 

JA's physician friend Benjamin Rush starts a correspondence with JA 1805. JA takes up books again: Cicero, Bible, Shakespeare etc, Greek, Latin etc. Rush is an outcast from his profession due to overly enthusiastic bloodletting, etc.

JA's old friend Mercy Warren 1806 publishes a history singling out JA as a betrayer of the revolution, which he defends against in writing in vain.

Madison elected president 1808, John Quincy made minister to Russia.

Nabby has breast cancer. 

Rush promotes reunion in letter between JA and Jefferson 1809, but first letter written by JA to Jefferson does not occur until 1812. Rush stage manages the reconciliation. The letters were often written for posterity and are a national treasure. Jefferson refused to be drawn out on certain matters.

War of 1812 with Great Britain. Madison reelected 1812. Rush writes treatise on mental illness, is the father of psychiatry. Rush dies April 1813. Napoleon's disastrous retreat from Moscow 1813. Nabby dies Aug. 1813.

Chapter 12: Journey's End

Peace with Britain concluded 1814. Jackson victorious over British at New Orleans Jan. 1814. Jefferson sells his library to Library of Congress in part to raise funds. JA, unlike Jefferson, makes extensive marginalia in his books. James Monroe elected pres. 1816, with John Quincy Secy. State. Abigail dies 1818. 

Florida acquired 1819. Missouri Compromise 1820 allows Missouri as slave state. JA's opposition to slavery. Jefferson refused to free his slaves and gave no public support for emancipation: "this enterprise is for the young". He favored gradual emancipation and eventual colonization for the slaves, fearing the effects on southern states of setting them all suddenly free. He establishes U. VA, his architectural masterpiece.

JA reads Cicero, James Fennimore Cooper, Walter Scott. Lafayette tours US.

John Quincy elected 6th pres. 1825.

In 1826, celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Declaration of Independence are held, but neither Jefferson nor JA is healthy enough to attend any. Final letter from JA to Jefferson April 17, 1826.

Jefferson dies 1 PM and JA dies 6:20 PM on July 4, 1826. JA had an estate with net worth c. $100,000 whereas Jefferson had net debts of c. $100,000, requiring an unsuccessful lottery. His will freed only 5 slaves, but not Sally Hemings. 130 of his slaves were sold at auction. Monticello was also sold.