“Go big or go home!” I think I first heard this expression from my adventurous younger sister, who has traveled widely, often in search of larger waves. I was trying to figure out how to explain my fondness for JOHN ADAMS, the 750-page biography by David McCullough, and this phrase kept ringing in my head. I believe it speaks to what McCullough has accomplished. And it definitely reflects the ambition, sacrifice, and commitment that John Adams provided to our fledgling country.
A few years ago, in an attempt to compensate for what I’d missed or failed to retain from high school history classes, I decided to read the best history books I could find. My goal was to start with explorers and plow through to the present day. Although I enjoyed a significant handful of books, I ran out of steam (no pun intended) midway through the Industrial Revolution. Let’s just say I am still working on this project.
In any case, JOHN ADAMS blew me away. McCullough is a tremendous storyteller, and the book reads more like a novel than a recitation of historical facts. Prior to reading this book, I’d viewed our second President with, I can now report, insufficient enthusiasm. He knew the Revolution was the right path to pursue, and he devoted his life to the cause. He spent months and years away from his family, traveled overseas at great peril, and brought his tremendous intellect and solid ethical backbone to bear on numerous challenges facing the colonists. Although not always popular, he stood up for what he believed in and helped lead this country in many ways even before he became president.
In addition to providing a clearer and more robust picture of this guy who was previously, quite frankly, just an outline in preparation for a test to me, this book delivers countless gems in the form of letters by Adams and his brilliant wife, Abigail. For example, as Adams prepared to return to Paris for a second time, he and Abigail agreed that this time their nine-year-old son Charles and the older son John Quincy would join him on the journey. John Quincy initially objected, saying that he wanted to stay home to prepare for Harvard, but his mother convinced him to go, writing him this remarkable farewell letter:
These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.
Words to live by, my friends. Words to live by.