Book Summary: John Adams by David McCullough

My Personal Summary

This book is a biography of John Adams, the second president of the United States.

Adams played a massive role during the American Revolution and was crucial in helping the U.S. gain independence from Britain.

He was honest, hardworking, determined, and loved his country.

Book Notes

  • Adams was born in 1735 in Braintree, Massachusetts.
  • He went to Harvard for college and was a voracious reader. He studied law and became a lawyer.
  • In 1764, at age 29, Adams married Abigail Smith.
  • Observations: Wild that to get anywhere you had to travel by horse (no matter the weather), to communicate you had to wait weeks between letters, and flus, small pox outbreaks, etc. regularly wiped out elderly and young.
  • Britain passed the Stamp Act in 1765, requiring all Americans to pay for stamps that had to be used on all paper documents like newspapers, bills, advertisements, deeds, etc. They did this because they were broke from spending money on the French & Indian war. This caused uproar. In response, Adams wrote an essay that got published in a major newspaper in Boston that declared “no free man should be subject to any tax to which he has not given his own consent.”
  • As business picked up with law, Adams moved his family from Braintree in to Boston. While still in his 30s, he became Boston’s busiest attorney.
  • In 1770, when tensions rose between British soldiers stationed in Boston and civilians who were taunting and throwing stones at them, the soldiers opened fire and killed 5 civilians. This became known as the Boston Massacre. John Adams was asked to defend the soldiers in court, as no other attorney in the city would take the case. He accepted. He argued that the mob instigated the fighting and that the soldiers were innocent. In the end, 2 of the 8 soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter.
  • Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet called Common Sense, which argued that the colonies should obtain independence from Britain. It became widely circulated and actually became the highest selling book (relative to population size) in U.S. history. This brought the idea of independence into the mainstream.
  • John Adams and his wife Abigail both hated slavery. By contrast, Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves at his plantation Monticello.
  • Adams attended the First Continental Congress in 1974, a meeting in Philadelphia attended by delegates from each of the 13 colonies. Philadelphia was the largest and most important city in the U.S. at the time.
  • Congress debated heavily over the next two years about whether or not to declare independence from Britain. Adams was one of the strongest advocates for independence.
  • In 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. On July 4, 1776, the document was signed by members of Congress, and it was declared that the United States was free from Britain. That week, citizens tore down a statue of King George in New York.
  • Britain sent 30,000 troops to New York and fought countess battles against colony troops led by George Washington.
  • Adams was appointed president of the Board of War, and made several important decisions regarding the fighting against the British. To entice men to fight, the Board of War offered $20 and 100 acres of land to each man who signed on to fight.
  • Wild stat: For every one British sailor who died during the American Revolution, 17 died of disease.
  • In 1778, Adams (accompanied by his 10-year-old son John Quincy who would later become the 6th U.S. president) sailed to Paris, France in order to recruit French forces to fight alongside the U.S. against Britain. The journey took 6 weeks.
  • When he returned to the U.S. after 18 months he wrote the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. After 3 months, he left for France again. He then traveled to the Netherlands and eventually was able to convince them to help the U.S against Britain in 1782.
  • Observation: Between attending meetings with Congress in Philadelphia and spending time in Europe, Adams was frequently away from his family for months and years at a time.
  • In 1783, with the aid of the French and the Netherlands, the U.S. shifted the tides of the war.
  • Adams was then in charge of negotiations with Britain on the terms of settlement. The British agreed to give over all the land between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River and acknowledged the U.S. as independent. Adams signed the Treaty of Paris along with representatives of King George the third in 1783 and the war was officially over.
  • “I must study politics and war so that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.” -John Adams
  • Thomas Jefferson joined Adams and Ben Franklin to work on diplomatic tasks in Europe after the war. Of Jefferson’s six children, four died from various diseases like whooping cough and his wife died in childbirth with their last child. It’s crazy how common this was back then.
  • Adams returned to the U.S. in 1788. In 1789, at age 53, he was elected to be the first Vice President of the U.S., with George Washington elected as president.
  • In 1797, Adams was elected as the second president of the U.S.

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