John Adams

by David McCullough
768 pages, Biography/History
Reviewed by Jeanne

An excellent, vivid biography for older readers, with some content of which to be aware.


In this biography of the Founding Father John Adams, McCullough paints a vivid portrait of his life on the background of the time period, the mid-18th Century into the 19th.


Issues of morality are not really addressed as right or wrong, and definitely not from a solidly Biblical standpoint. Problems do arise that are not answered; the issue of whether or not American colonists were right in revolting from the British and the ethics of the French Revolution (though one does have the conflict that arose on this issue between Adams and Jefferson, and the author seems to side with Adams) are two such questions. The construction of the U.S. government was very brutal on a personal level and McCullough records some cutting insults, some directed at John Adams, some coming from Adams' own pen. Issues of immorality arise in different players on the historical scene (see other boxes).

Spiritual Content

Most of the Founding Fathers would probably have professed to be believers, but from their own writings they come across more as Deists than orthodox believers. Jefferson trimmed his Bible quite vigorously to get rid of all the mentions of miracles and the deity of Jesus Christ; it is mentioned in this biography that he was frequently abused as an atheist. Adams references God, often just as Providence or the Creator, in his letters. There are quite a few mentions of thanking God and the like.


Nothing very gruesome. The Boston "Massacre," which was not really a massacre, occurs. The brutality of the French Revolution, which Jefferson supported and Adams abhorred, is discussed and the deaths in the American Revolution are mentioned. The peril of sea travel is depicted in Adams' crossings of the Atlantic. One person had cancer and it was necessary to operate to remove it without anesthetic. Broken bones are mentioned. Bad blood between politicians sometimes resulted in fights and duels, which is mentioned.

Drug and Alcohol Content

One of Adams' favorite drinks was "hard cider." Wine is frequently mentioned; smoking also shows up. Two of the Adamses' sons became alcoholics and ruined themselves because of it.

Sexual Content

Adams described himself as having an "amorous" disposition and it is mentioned that before his marriage he enjoyed keeping company with female acquaintances. McCullough relates that, while in France, Adams is shocked by the forwardness of French ladies; one woman inquires how he thinks Adam and Eve knew how to have children. The adultery that was frequent in the aristocracy is mentioned and Hamilton's adulterous affair is discussed briefly. Benjamin Franklin's popularity among Parisian women also shows up. Jefferson's affair with one of his slaves turns up several times. One man carries on a correspondence with Abigail Adams, John's wife, and writes some insinuating letters to her; she continued to write to him, either not noticing his meaning or brushing it off.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

Again, the insults that the men in government hurled at one another were often very low. "B******" is used by Adams in reference to Alexander Hamilton, who was illegitimate and whom Adams very much disliked; "w****" is also used in another crude remark about Hamilton. See Sexual Content.


David McCullough's biography of John Adams is wonderfully done, drawing readers into the era and the man's life. His frequent use of excerpts from letters and newspaper articles shows the amount of research the author did, but also allows readers to see the events through the eyes of Adams, the other Founding Fathers, and other men of the time. Despite its size, it is highly enjoyable and does not grow weighed down with an enormity of details as some biographies do, though McCullough records amusing incidents here and there. It is certainly a good book for mature, older readers who want an in-depth look at the era of the American Revolution and the growth of the young United States. While there is some untoward content, most of it is necessary for depicting the lives of historical figures, and it accurately shows the Founding Fathers (who are sometimes seen as gods or saints) as sinful men.

Fun Score: 5
Values Score: 4
Written for Age: adult

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