John Adams by David McCullough

2203Yes, I have finally finished this tome! It’s only taken me four and a half months of reading on and off, but I really did enjoy it. Perhaps Mr. McCullough’s only criticism could be that he likes details just a bit too much. He skillfully wove the letters, papers and diaries of Mr. Adams and his peers into the writing, but there were some things that I could have lived without. I didn’t need to know the location of every business in Philadelphia in 1775, for example. But nonetheless, it was a great look at our second President, about whom I knew comparatively little.

One final quotation, this one written to his granddaughter, Caroline:

You are not singular in your suspicions that you know but little. The longer I live, the more I read, the more patiently I think, and the more anxiously I inquire, the less I seem to know….Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. This is enough….

(p. 650)

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final set of John Adams quotes

Before any great things are accomplished, a memorable change must be made in the system of education and knowledge must become so general as to realise the lower ranks of society nearer to the higher. The education of a nation instead of being confined to a few schools and universities for the instruction of the few, must become the national care and expense for the formation of the many. (p. 364)

If the executive power, or any considerable part of it, is left in the hands of an aristocratical or democratical assembly, it will corrupt the legislature as necessarily as rust corrupts iron, or as arsenic poisons the human body; and when the legislature is corrupted, the people are undone. (p. 375)

Gentlemen, I feel a great difficulty how to act. I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything. (p. 389)

Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody. It will be done by somebody or other. If wise men decline it, others will not; if hones men refuse it, others will not. A young man should weigh well his plans. Integrity should be preserved in all events, as essential to his happiness, through every stage of his existence. His first maxim then should be to place his honor out of reach of all men. In order to do this he must make it a rule never to become dependent on public employments for subsistence. Let him have a trade, a profession, a farm, a shop, something where he can honestly live, and then he may engage in public affairs, if invited, upon independent principles. My advice to my children is to maintain an independent character. (p. 415)

No one is without difficulties, whether in high or low life, and every person knows best where their own shoe pinches. (Abigail – p. 423)

[Said of the White House] I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof. (p. 551)

[Said of the new Capitol] Here may the youth of this extensive country forever look up without disappointment, not only to the monuments and memorials of the dead, but to the examples of the living. (p. 555)

Patience and perseverance will carry you with honor through all difficulties. Virtuous and studious from your youth, beyond any other instance I know, I have great confidence in your success in the service of your country, however dark your prospects may be at present. Such talents and such learning as you possess, with a character so perfectly fair and a good humour so universally acknowledged, it is impossible for you to fail. (pp. 587-588)

It would divert you to witness conversation between my ancient friend and colleague Robert T. Paine and me. He is above eighty. I cannot speak and he cannot hear. Yet we converse. (p. 601)

They fill the air of the room with their bubbles, their air balloons, which roll and shine reflecting the light of the fire and candles, and are very beautiful. There can be no more perfect emblem of the physical and political and theological scenes of life. Morality only is eternal. All the rest is balloon and bubble from the cradle to the grave. (p. 611)

more John Adams quotes

The end of the institution, maintenance, and administration of government is to secure the existence of the body politic; to protect it; and to furnish the individuals who compose it with the power of enjoying, in safety and tranquility, their natural rights and the blessings of life; and whenever these great objects are not obtained, the people have a right to alter government, and to take measures necessary for their safety, happiness, and prosperity.

The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals. It is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good. (p. 221)

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. (p. 226)

You invite me to you. You call me to follow you. The most earnest wish of my soul is to be with you – but you can scarcely form an idea of the conflict in my mind. It appears to me such an enterprise, the ocean so formidable, the quitting of my habitation and my country, leaving my children, my friends, with the idea that perhaps I may never see them again, without my husband to console and comfort me under these apprehensions – indeed, my dear friend, there are hours when I feel unequal to the trial. (Abigail – p. 291)

But let no person say what they would or would not do, since we are not judges for ourselves until circumstances call us to act. (Abigail – p. 293)

John Adams quotes

David McCullough quotes from Adams’s personal diary and papers extensively and there are many of his words that have really struck me. I want to have them all in one place for future reference.

Now to what higher object, to what greater character, can any mortal aspire than to be possessed of all this knowledge, well digested and ready at command, to assist the feeble and friendless, to discountenance the haughty and lawless, to procure redress to wrongs, the advancement of right, to assert and maintain liberty and virtue, to discourage and abolish tyranny and vice? (p. 53)

Government is a plain, simple, intelligent thing, founded in nature and reason, quite comprehensible by common sense…Let us dare to read, think, speak and write…Let us recollect it was liberty, the hope of liberty, for themselves [first settlers] and us and ours, which conquered all discouragements, dangers and trials. (p. 60-61)

When I consider the great events which are passed, and those greater which are rapidly advancing, and that I may have been instrumental of touching some springs, and turning some wheels, which have had and will have such effects, I feel an awe upon my mind which is not easily described. (p. 110)

The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more. (p. 130)

Our N[ew] England people are awkward and bashful; yet they are pert, ostentatious and vain, a mixture which excites ridicule and disgust. They have not the faculty of showing themselves to best advantage, nor the act of concealment of this faculty. An art and faculty which some people possess in the highest degree. Our deficiencies in these respects are owing wholly to the little intercouse we have had with strangers, and to our inexperience in the world. These imperfections must be remedied, for New England must produce heroes, the statesmen, the philosophers, or America will be no great figure for some time. (p. 149)

I’ll continue to add to this list as I continue to read the book.

little things revealed

I am currently reading John Adams by David McCullough and though I’m only 25 pages in, it’s proving to be the interesting read I had hoped it would be. It’s amazing to me how much information can be gathered by historians from such innocuous sources.


The strong clarity of her handwriting, the unhesitating flow of her pen across the paper, line after line, seemed at odds with her circumstances. Rarely was a word crossed out or changed. It was as if she knew exactly what was in her heart and how she wished to express it–as if the very act of writing, of forming letters, in her distinctive angular fashion, keeping every line straight, would somehow help maintain her balance, validate her own being in such times.


As a quasi-historian myself, it makes me curious what might be said about my handwriting, my letters. What am I unconsciously putting out there in the world for history to find?