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John Adams is the Star...

But the Supporting Cast Steals the Show

Reading David McCullough's biography of John Adams, I recalled something Warren Beatty once said about his method of script selection: he gravitates to scripts with good roles for everyone, not just himself (at least, that's what he said). Like Beatty's most memorable roles, John Adams' life was surrounded by a cavalcade of interesting supporting players whose highjinks easily outshone the machinations of the principal player.

Adams led a fairly stalwart life after his Harvard graduation: he settled into a successful law career -- in spite of the fact that he lost his first case). He represented Massachusetts at the Continental Congress and worked as a diplomat to secure financial and military aid from the Dutch and French. He also became Washington's vice president and America's second president.

All these achievements sound good on paper. But if you're looking for a pulse, Adams' family and colleagues steal the limelight. His industrious wife, Abigail, became one of the most sought-after correspondents of her day. His phenom son, John Quincy, won over the Europeans to such a degree that Lafayette entrusted him to bring seven hunting dogs to George Washington. His strong daughter, Nabby, endured a masectomy before the development of anesthesia. And that's just Adams's family.

His colleagues were equally interesting. McCullough goes on to show us how Benjamin Franklin managed to disobey all the aphorisms he wrote of in Poor Richard's Almanac. Britain's King George III is described as a big talker and a big lover (a father of 15). Speaking of lovers, Adams appears positively Puritan next to Thomas Jefferson, the red-headed firebrand who frolicked on both domestic and foreign soils, challenging Adams on nearly every political tenet he held dear.

Author McCullough, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Harry Truman has a talent for creating visceral scenes that is inherent in his fidelity to detail. The signing of the Declaration of Independence takes on new shades when you notice the black flies tearing into the legs of Continental Congress members. Adams' admonition to his wife to "smoke" all the letters she received due to the smallpox epidemic will comfort any contemporary reader hoarding cipro in his/her medicine cabinet.

For John Adams, McCullough waded through the equivalent of five miles of microfilm at the Massachusetts Historical Society: Adams was a prolific letter writer and diary keeper. Of all his achievements, it was peace with France which Adams secured in 1800 that Adams wanted to be remembered for. Without this benchmark moment, war would have followed. The Louisiana Purchase would not have occured.

Yet, if he had his life to live over, Adams wrote a friend, he would have been a shoemaker, like his father. This biography suggests that Adams was a cobbler of sorts: he made his brethren more ambulatory at the expense of a more dramatic life of his own.

John Adams
By David McCullough
Hardcover - 736 pages (May 2001)
Simon & Schuster; ISBN: 0684813637

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