“Let us dare to read, think, speak and write.”John Adams, “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law”
John Adams took his last breath on July 4, 1826, on the fiftieth anniversary of his – and his fellow revolutionaries’ – greatest achievement.
That was 194 years ago. In that time, there have been thousands of books about the man Richard Stockton called the “Atlas of American Independence” and Thomas Jefferson referred to as “our Colossus on the floor” of the Second Continental Congress. Each author of these books brings something different, of course, but many follow the same template of all biographies – a chronological recounting of his life, often focusing on the highlights, downplaying the lesser moments, neatly wrapped up and presented as if it were all destined to occur.
Thus, it’s exciting when a new Adams book does not follow the same path. Or, at least promises not to. R. B. Bernstein’s The Education of John Adams (Oxford, 2020) is touted as being the “first by a biographer with legal training” that focuses on “the record left by Adams himself — in diaries, letters, essays, pamphlets, and books.”
That promise is half-kept.
While Bernstein, a professor at City College of New York and New York Law School, does indeed focus more on Adams’s writing and correspondence he’s not the first to do so and while he may bring a different perspective because of his background in law, the book is still, by and large, presented as a traditional biography in chronological order.
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Still, Bernstein adds some nice personal touches, like “Adams lived with books at his elbow and a pen in his hand” and “the positions that Adams took were personal and intellectual” and employs the epilogue to briefly examine Adams’s legacy and how historians – both past and present – shaped the general view of Adams.
It is, like all the best biographies, is meticulously researched, but Bernstein deserves extra credit for not just listing his sources, but giving his insights into the books that came before, in both the epilogue and the further reading section: “The best modern biographies are John E. Ferling, John Adams: A Life, and James Grant, John Adams, Party of One…Page Smith, John Adams, is badly organized and poorly documented; the book lacks a table of contents and a reliable index. The highly uncritical David McCullough, John Adams, elevates John Adams’s character over his mind.”
While it may not fully live up to its promise, The Education of John Adams is still a tight, concise biography of the most underrated Founding Father, largely in his own words.
4 out of 5
I was provided a free copy in exchange for an honest review. This article contains Amazon affiliate links. Any click may result in my receiving a commission.
Christopher Pierznik is the worst-selling author of nine books. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.