October 30, 1735 - July 4, 1826

A federalist, the second president of the United States, from 1797 to 1801. He was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

John Adams was a realistic president. Adams was viewed by his peers as one of the most significant statesmen of the revolutionary era, but his status among the distinguished faded. What made Adams a prominent figure at first, later led to his demise as the second president. Above all John Adams was honest, he also had a sharp way with words. The two most important qualities that helped him through his four years were his caliber as a political thinker, and his pragmatic perspective on American foreign policy. However, first, John Adams had to surpass a few obstacles after taking office in 1797.

As the second president of the newly founded country, John Adams found these obstacles from the beginning. He inherited many burdens from Washington’s presidency. Such burdens included; a raging naval conflict with the French in the Caribbean named the "Quasi war"; and the impractical task of succeeding the greatest hero of the revolutionary era, of course, Washington.

The Quasi War carried throughout the Adams presidency. He had to make the decision as to whether or not to engage in war with France. Finally, with bold reluctance, he made the decision to partake in the war. This act incensed the Hamiltonians. While the Jeffersionians were willing to give it one last try with France. Adams attempted to steer a middle course between these partisan sides, which left him vulnerable to political attacks from both sides. If Adams had requested a declaration of war in 1798, he would have enjoyed widespread popularity and a virtually certain reelection two years later. Instead, John Adams acted with characteristic independence by sending yet another, and this time successful, peace delegation to France against the advice of his cabinet and his Federalist supporters. The move ruined him politically but avoided a costly war that the young American republic was ill prepared to fight. John Adams did not fair so well in passing the Alien and Sedition Acts.

The two acts were passed within less than a month. Neither act was accepted with open arms. Part of the reason it was not readily accepted was because it took away the rights of Americans and immigrants and gave the power to the government. The government seemed to be scared. If there was not a threat then the Alien Act would not had been passed. So there must had been a reason that it was so necessary that the Act was passed. The other act passed a week before was the Naturalization Act. This too was doomed to survive. More people were traveling to the New World, yet there rights were being diminished. These acts proved to be John Adam's major domestic failure.

John Adams handled the office practically. He made unpopular, but safe decisions for the young, vulnerable country. These decisions were necessary for America to establish itself without engaging in another war. Another war could have simply destroyed the ambitious country. By simply protecting the United States, John Adams basically signed away his chance to win a second term in office. Though not seen at that point in history, the self-less act reiterated John Adam's image of honesty and his outstanding knowledge of Foreign policy.

"I have heard of one Mr. Adams, but who is the other?"
    - King George III of England

John Adams

by David McCullough
Simon & Schuster, 752 pages
ISBN: 0743223136


This book chronicles the life, love, and service of John Adams. He is alternately remembered as founding father, foreign diplomat, vice-president, president, peacemaker, father, husband, monarchist, censor, and warmonger.

The sheer quantity of his surviving correspondence was greater than any other statesman of his time. This allows for a uniquely personal interpretation of the life of the second President of the United States as well as a thoughtful, if opinionated, look at the times in which he lived. In addition to the historical record, one can examine the thoughts of the man himself and his reasoning, his motives, and his worldview. This is not an exaggeration either, as John Adams was a man who often wrote with his heart rather than with his head, so a good deal of his passionate personality is imprinted on his various letters and thereby preserved for the ages.

This volume draws heavily on those letters and those of his equally passionate wife, Abigail, as well as building upon previous biographical works.


Let me start by saying this was among the best biographies I have read, within the categories of historical content and quality of writing. Sadly, though, a small but highly visible current of bias trickles through an otherwise outstanding book.

Be warned: This book starts with a chaotic non-linear chapter on the American Revolution and John and Abigail Adams which--to one who is not a great expert on either the Adamses or the American Revolution--was difficult to follow. There are places for unorthodox writing styles or odd usage and sentence structure, but those places do not include non-fiction works whose primary aim is to communicate information in a clear way. I almost gave up there, but I stoically trudged through the first difficult pages and then, suddenly, the work changed gears and became a well-written biographical work. My hope is that the chaos of the first chapter was supposed to be a kind of metaphor for the chaos of the subject matter: The American Revolution. Even so, it was distracting.

Following this, the work is linear and chatty. I say "chatty" because much of it is told in the voice of the participants via the letters mentioned in the synopsis. It is a rarity that so much of a modern work can draw from the raw personality of a man who lived 200 years ago.

The major problem with this volume is the bias. It is possible that in drawing so much from personal correspondence, the author, either intentionally (as a creative idea) or otherwise pushed the opinions of Mr. Adams as his own. The author paints Benjamin Franklin as little more than an aging malicious philandering dandy who had no idea what was going on around him. While parts of this are undoubtedly true, this is the entirety of the picture drawn of the famous statesman. Thomas Jefferson, Adams' protege and sometimes friend, is also treated unkindly, focusing very strongly on his reclusive behavior and personal problems.

The worst bias, though, was regarding John Adams himself. The enormous political errors in France were essentially other people's problems (including the errors committed by Adams himself). The Alien and Sedition Acts were covered inadequately, and explained away as a product of the times. In fact, in almost every case where an unfavorable opinion of Adams might take even the most tenuous hold, the author tries to explain it away and in several instances comes very close to apologizing.

In closing, I feel that this is an important book. It covers the life and career of one of the least remembered Presidents in a well-paced and well-written if sometimes tilted fashion. Read this book, but read it critically.

Awards and Honors

  • Pulitzer Prize - Biography or Autobiography (2002)
  • American Academy of Diplomacy - Douglas Dillon Award for Distinguished Writing on American Diplomacy (2001)
  • Christopher Award - Books for Adults (2002)
  • Revolutionary War Roundtable Prize
  • Time Magazine - Best nonfiction book of the year (2001)
  • New York Times Book Review - Editors' Choice (2001)

John Adams - David McCullough

John Coolidge Adams, b. February 15, 1947, is a minimalist composer and the creator of several sensational contemporary operas.

A native of Worcester, Massachusetts, Adams' childhood was spread out across several New England states. He had a musical childhood: he learned the clarinet from his father when he was quite small, grew up attending Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts, and began composing his own music at ten (it first graced his ears when he was around thirteen or fourteen).

After obtaining two degrees from Harvard - earning the distinction of being the first student at America's oldest higher learning institution to be permitted to submit a musical composition as an undergraduate thesis - in 1971, he made the shift from East Coast to left coast that informs his piece Dharma at Big Sur. In his own words:

When I was asked by [ ... ] the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director to compose a special piece for the opening of Disney Hall in LA, I immediately began searching my mind for an image, either verbal or pictorial, that could summon up the feelings of being an emigrant to the Pacific Coast—as I am, and as are so many who’ve made the journey here, both physically and spiritually.

I wanted to express the moment, the so-called “shock of recognition”, when one reaches the edge of the continental land mass. ... Rather than gently yielding ground to the water the Western shelf drops off violently, often from dizzying heights, as it does at Big Sur, the stretch of coastal precipice midway between Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara. Here the current pounds and smashes the littoral in a slow, lazy rhythm of terrifying power. For a newcomer the first exposure produces a visceral effect of great emotional complexity. [ ... It evokes a ] sense of liberation and excitement, an ecstasy that is nevertheless tinged with that melancholy expressed in the first of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths: “All life is sorrowful.” (1)

(Dharma at Big Sur is the work that definitively got me hooked on Adams's music. I'm a musical illiterate - I barely consider myself qualified to do this writeup - but I hear whale song, wind and water, great heights, and California in Dharma at Big Sur. I heard it for the first time shortly after spending an inspiring weekend in California, so it always turns a key in my Midwestern heart.)

Adams spent the next thirteen years in a teaching position at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and as composer-in-residence for the San Francisco Symphony. He still lives in the Bay Area, but his music has become a national and international phenomenon - he's been distinguished with an honorary doctorate from Cambridge and an honorary membership in Phi Beta Kappa, and has been an Artist-in-Association with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. And who doesn't like the BBC?

I find the politics of Adams' career pretty fascinating, too. In 2003, his 9/11 commemorative composition for "orchestra, children's choir, and pre-recorded tape," On the Transmigration of Souls, won a Pulitzer prize and three Grammy Awards. I'll inappropriately insert his eloquence on his own work again:

I want to avoid words like "requiem" or "memorial" when describing this piece because they too easily suggest conventions that this piece doesn’t share. If pressed, I’d probably call the piece a "memory space". It’s a place where you can go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions. The link to a particular historical event – in this case to 9/11 – is there if you want to contemplate it. But I hope that the piece will summon human experience that goes beyond this particular event.

[ ... ]

I am always nervous with the term "healing" as it applies to a work of art. I am reminded that we Americans can find a lot of things "healing". These days a criminal sentenced to death is executed and then we speak of "healing". It’s perplexing. So it’s not my intention to attempt "healing" in this piece. (2)

In my mind, these expressions of the underpinnings of On the Transmigration of Souls do a lot to explain how Adams' work diverges from acceptable Americanism, possibly why his other works haven't been so well received in the United States, and certainly why he has the honor of belonging to the U.S. Homeland Security department's official blacklist.

Three of his operas have been based on recent history, and embody politics in a way that's less easy to gloss over in nationalistic fervor: Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic. In John W. Freeman's book The Metropolitan Opera: Stories of the Great Operas, these are referred to as CNN operas.

Nixon in China drew attention for its critical slant on Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (and how can you even talk about Nixon without sticking your tongue out at him just a little). Nixon in China's staging incorporates a giant projection of the actual footage from Nixon's visits to Beijing, emphasizing the towering press presence (televised news being just a few decades old at this point).

The Death of Klinghoffer is based on the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro by four members of the Palestian Liberation Front. The Death of Klinghoffer has been called anti-Semitic, anti-American, and anti-Palestinian. Yes, all three. After 9/11, the Boston Symphony Orchestra self-censored a performance of Klinghoffer's "Chorus of Exiled Palestinians" and "Chorus of Exiled Jews" - why, it's unclear to me, since Israel and Palestine have little to do with 9/11, except, of course, if you consider all dissent to be unpatriotic.

Doctor Atomic is the story of the invention and use of J. Robert Oppenheimer's atomic bomb. Doctor Atomic addresses the U.S. government's mishandling of the first nuclear test (panic in Los Alamos the night of the first test was such that several soldiers had to be sedated and removed), Oppenheimer's association with Communism, the opposition of many scientists to the work being done on the bomb, nuclear guilt, and peace. These are still sensitive themes, despite being solidly grounded in very recent memory. I haven't seen Doctor Atomic staged in person, but it's famous for its great reveal of the bomb itself, which is, true to life, kind of weird-looking.

List of Works(3)

Stage Works

Nixon in China
opera in three acts (1985-87)

The Death of Klinghoffer
opera in two acts (1990-91)

I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky
songplay in two acts (1995)

El Niño
A Nativity Oratorio (1999-2000)

Doctor Atomic
opera in two acts (2004-5)

A Flowering Tree

opera in two acts (2006)


Common Tones in Simple Time

for chorus and large orchestra (1980-81)

Shaker Loops
version for string orchestra (1983)


The Chairman Dances
foxtrot for orchestra (1985)

Tromba lontana
fanfare for orchestra (1985)

Short Ride in a Fast Machine
fanfare for orchestra (1986)

Fearful Symmetries

Eros Piano
for piano and orchestra (1989)

Violin Concerto

El Dorado


Slonimsky’s Earbox

Century Rolls
for piano and orchestra (1996)

Naive and Sentimental Music

Guide to Strange Places

On the Transmigration of Souls
for orchestra, chorus, children’s choir and pre-recorded soundtrack

My Father Knew Charles Ives

Dharma at Big Sur
for electric violin and orchestra (2003)

Doctor Atomic Symphony

Voice and orchestra

The Nixon Tapes
three suites for voices and orchestra from Nixon in China (1987)

The Wound-Dresser
for baritone voice and orchestra (1988)

Chamber Music

Piano Quintet

Shaker Loops
for string septet (1978)

Chamber Symphony

John’s Book of Alleged Dances
for string quartet (1994)

Road Movies
for violin & piano (1995)

Gnarly Buttons
for clarinet and chamber ensemble (1996)

Son of Chamber Symphony

String Quartet

Other ensemble works

American Standard
for unspecified chamber ensemble (1973)

Christian Zeal & Activity
for unspecified chamber ensemble (1973)

for six voices, three saxophones and live electronics (1975)

Grand Pianola Music
for 2 pianos, 3 female voices, winds, brass & percussion (1982)

for amplified ensemble (1996)


for mixed chorus, osciallators and filters (1974)

for chorus and large orchestra (1980-81)

Choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer

On the Transmigration of Souls
for orchestra, chorus, children’s choir and pre-recorded soundtrack

Tape and electronic compostions

Heavy Metal
two-channel tape (1970)

Studebaker Love Music
two channel tape (1976)

four channel tape (1976)

Light Over Water
two channel tape (1983)

Hoodoo Zephyr

Piano solo or duet

Phrygian Gates
for piano (1977)

China Gates
for piano (1977)

Hallelujah Junction
for two pianos (1996)

American Berserk
for solo piano (2001)

Film score

Matter of Heart
music for the documentary film about C.G. Jung (1982)

An American Tapestry
music for the film directed by Gregory Nava, produced by Barbara Martinez-Jitner, & released on the Showtime Cable Channel

Arrangements and Orchestrations

The Black Gondola
(orchestration of La Lugubre Gondola by Franz Liszt) (1990)

Berceuse élégiaque
(arrangement for small orchestra of Busoni’s original) (1991)

Le Livre de Baudelaire
mezzo soprano & orchestra (orchestration of four songs by Claude Debussy from Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire) (1993)

La Mufa
(orchestration of tango by Astor Piazzolla) (1995)

Todo Buenos Aires
(orchestration of tango by Astor Piazzolla) (1996)

Six Songs by Charles Ives
arranged for voice and chamber orchestra (1989-93)

(1) (2) Quotations are Adams' words as published on his website, earbox.com.

(3): also plagiarized from earbox.com.

Today I learned to make brackets . Thanks, Custodian!

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