Commentary on David McCoullough’s “John Adams”

David McCoullough’s excellent biography of John Adams describes a highly opinionated man with high morals and firm convictions who believed strongly in the need for America to be independent from England and who had great faith in the people. According to McCoullough, Adams dedicated himself totally to accomplishing those things he believed in – independence and nurturing the birth of a new nation – regardless of the personal cost to him. He dearly loved his wife and was devoted to his children. However, whenever his countrymen said they needed him in a certain position, i.e. at the Continental Congress, as Minister to France or to any other position, he stopped whatever he was doing and answered the call, even though it meant long separations from those he loved – his wife and family.

Adams was a prodigious writer. He wrote his wife Abigail frequently sharing his thoughts and opinions with her. He believed (and frequently told her) that she was his best friend and the only person he could trust completely and confide in. He shared his innermost opinions with her during their many prolonged absences. He not only trusted her, but valued her opinions and insights as well.

Adams was so dogmatic in the way he pursued his goals that he frequently managed to antagonize people. As a result he did not have many close friends. His colleagues respected his commitment, but did not appreciate the way he pushed his opinions on them. He once said that people should express their opinions freely and push them. He acted on this belief daily. As a result, he frequently antagonized people and in many cases alienated them. For example, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, his two closest allies in getting the Declaration of Independence signed, both turned against him later in their lives. In Jefferson’s case, Adams sought to reconcile their friendship toward the end of their lives. Jefferson responded and both exchanged many letters in their final years. Ironically, Jefferson, an aristocrat, was perceived as a man of the people, and Adams, a man from a working family, was seen as an aristocrat.

Adams, as McCoullough describes him and according to his own writings, appears to be a Persister base personality type. According to Dr. Taibi Kahler’s personality system, Persisters are conscientious and dedicated. They perceive the world through their opinions and have a well-developed belief system that helps them steer their way through life. That describes Adams to a “T”. He held firm to his beliefs throughout his life and, regardless of the personal attacks on him, continued to stick to his values in all of his dealings with others. As president, he stuck to his views, in many cases even when they were unpopular with the people and with his political allies. He took the road he believed in because in his opinion it was the right thing to do. He was willing to antagonize his supporters even if it might cost him re-election to a second term. Actually, it did, because many of his supporters deserted him and voted for Jefferson.

Adams had other parts to his personality too. He had a lot of Workaholic and Reactor and some Rebel. He also had a little Promoter and Dreamer. He may have experienced at least one phase change during his lifetime. Obviously, we cannot be certain of this 186 years after his death. However, according to McCullough and the quotes in the book, John Adams primary motivation seems to have changed in his final years. In his later years he loved to talk and regale people with stories and, according to McCullough, he was happiest when people came to visit him. During these visits, Adams appears primarily interested in telling stories. He still had very strong opinions and continued to give them, but his focus was on entertaining others rather than in persuading them to his beliefs. Also, his letters at that time were not well organized, but seemed to be stream of conscious writings.

Interestingly, he and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day – July 4, 1826.

It was among his grandchildren that his words would be remembered longest. For example, he wrote to his grandson, John, “The Lord deliver us from all family pride.’ And, “No pride, John. No pride.” To his granddaughter, Caroline, he wrote, “Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. This is enough.”

Despite all the misfortune and pain Adams encountered during his lifetime, he loved life right to the end. To support this conclusion, McCullough ends the book with a quote from a letter Adams wrote to his old friend Francis van der Kemp, “Grief upon grief! Disappointments upon disappointments. What then? This is a gay, merry world notwithstanding.” McCullough concludes that this could have been Adams’s epitaph.

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