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The Education of John Adams

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The Education of John Adams is the first biography of John Adams by a biographer with legal training. It examines his origins in colonial Massachusetts, his education, and his struggle to choose a career and define a place for himself in colonial society. It explores the flowering of his legal career and the impact that law had on him and his understanding of himself; his The Education of John Adams is the first biography of John Adams by a biographer with legal training. It examines his origins in colonial Massachusetts, his education, and his struggle to choose a career and define a place for himself in colonial society. It explores the flowering of his legal career and the impact that law had on him and his understanding of himself; his growing involvement with the American Revolution as polemicist, as lawyer, as congressional delegate, and as diplomat; and his commitment to defining and expounding ideas about constitutionalism and how it should work as the body of ideas shaping the new United States. The book traces his part in launching the government of the United States under the U.S. Constitution; his service as the nation's first vice president and second president; and his retirement years, during which he was first a vexed and rejected ex-president and then became the revered Sage of Braintree. It describes the relationships that sustained him - with his wife, the brilliant and eloquent Abigail Adams; with his children; with such allies and supporters as Benjamin Rush and John Marshall; with such sometime friends and sometime adversaries as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson; and with such foes as Alexander Hamilton and Timothy Pickering. Bernstein establishes Adams as a key figure in the evolution of American constitutional theory and practice. This is the first biography to examine Adams's conflicted and hesitant ideas about slavery and race in the American context, raising serious questions about his mythic status as a friend of human equality and a foe of slavery. This book's foundation is the record left by Adams himself-- in diaries, letters, essays, pamphlets, and books. The Education of John Adams concludes by re-examining the often-debated question of the relevance of Adams's thought to our own time.


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The Education of John Adams is the first biography of John Adams by a biographer with legal training. It examines his origins in colonial Massachusetts, his education, and his struggle to choose a career and define a place for himself in colonial society. It explores the flowering of his legal career and the impact that law had on him and his understanding of himself; his The Education of John Adams is the first biography of John Adams by a biographer with legal training. It examines his origins in colonial Massachusetts, his education, and his struggle to choose a career and define a place for himself in colonial society. It explores the flowering of his legal career and the impact that law had on him and his understanding of himself; his growing involvement with the American Revolution as polemicist, as lawyer, as congressional delegate, and as diplomat; and his commitment to defining and expounding ideas about constitutionalism and how it should work as the body of ideas shaping the new United States. The book traces his part in launching the government of the United States under the U.S. Constitution; his service as the nation's first vice president and second president; and his retirement years, during which he was first a vexed and rejected ex-president and then became the revered Sage of Braintree. It describes the relationships that sustained him - with his wife, the brilliant and eloquent Abigail Adams; with his children; with such allies and supporters as Benjamin Rush and John Marshall; with such sometime friends and sometime adversaries as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson; and with such foes as Alexander Hamilton and Timothy Pickering. Bernstein establishes Adams as a key figure in the evolution of American constitutional theory and practice. This is the first biography to examine Adams's conflicted and hesitant ideas about slavery and race in the American context, raising serious questions about his mythic status as a friend of human equality and a foe of slavery. This book's foundation is the record left by Adams himself-- in diaries, letters, essays, pamphlets, and books. The Education of John Adams concludes by re-examining the often-debated question of the relevance of Adams's thought to our own time.

30 review for The Education of John Adams

  1. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    As indicated by the title, this book was about the intellectual history of John Adams (with enough personal information to keep it from reading dry). There is nothing really new here based on what I have read on Adams. I think this book was very fair pointing out Adams' flaws and positive aspects but was favorable in its opinion of Adams overall. As indicated by the title, this book was about the intellectual history of John Adams (with enough personal information to keep it from reading dry). There is nothing really new here based on what I have read on Adams. I think this book was very fair pointing out Adams' flaws and positive aspects but was favorable in its opinion of Adams overall.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Michael Bellesiles

    Donate those hagiographies of the founders to the library and buy this brilliant book. Bernstein has crafted one of the finest biographies I’ve read, taking a subject I thought I knew well and moving beyond the traditional portrait to give us a very human John Adams. Bernstein casts Adams as a “thinking politician,” which right there is enough of a contrast with our times to capture the reader’s attention. The Adams most of us know is a stuffy curmudgeon and bitter loser who spent much of his li Donate those hagiographies of the founders to the library and buy this brilliant book. Bernstein has crafted one of the finest biographies I’ve read, taking a subject I thought I knew well and moving beyond the traditional portrait to give us a very human John Adams. Bernstein casts Adams as a “thinking politician,” which right there is enough of a contrast with our times to capture the reader’s attention. The Adams most of us know is a stuffy curmudgeon and bitter loser who spent much of his life whining that no one appreciated him. It is certainly true that Adams could be quite grumpy, especially when around Benjamin Franklin. Much of that grumpiness came from Adams’ sense that he did all the work and others got the glory. Even among people named Adams, Sam Adams got all the attention. In 1779 John Adams complained in his diary that people walked away when they learned “that he was not the famous Adams.” (103) Bernstein does not sugar-coat his subject: “His concern that others take him seriously caused him to behave in a way that made such respect all but impossible.” (119) But he does present us with a complex and completely believable person who had the good fortune to marry an amazing woman, Abigail Smith, and the ill fortune of taking himself far too seriously. Adams was certainly misunderstood and under-appreciated. Bernstein provides an excellent example in analyzing Adams’ opinion on the aristocracy. Contemporaries and many historians have seen Adams as favoring an aristocracy, a view that comes from failing to read the texts in their entirety and context. Adams saw aristocracy as a persistent problem for his times. He took it as a fact that an aristocracy will arise in every country and that the best way to keep them from forming an oligarchy is to bring them into government under constitutional rules that will prevent them from seizing power. Like so many intellectuals, Adams fell for Aristotle’s persuasive nonsense of universals. What he could not imagine is that his new nation would thrive without titled aristocrats, and that those we might label aristocrats would be content without titles, wielding power by dominating the economy. Adams was thus out of step with American intellectual development. He saw the United States as typical, since human nature is unchanging and determines politics. In contrast, James Madison saw the U.S. as exceptional, and believed that politics could alter human nature. Adams was backwards looking while so many of the new nation’s leaders followed Madison in looking forward to a new world. At the very least, these differing perceptions cast Adams into the old-fogey school of public life, coming across as a irksome teacher nagging the uneducated to study more and listen to their betters. Bernstein’s analysis is fresh and insightful. I especially appreciated his brief digressions when he sets the context and reminds us that the Eighteenth Century is different from now. One of his best passages is his explanation of Adams’ certainty, which to modern readers appears arrogant and foolish. But he was not alone in that intellectual self-confidence, for Enlightenment thinkers saw politics as a science, one with the same sort of iron-clad natural laws as physics or chemistry. Therefore, to question the political conclusions reached after long study seemed akin to denying gravity. (167-68) That said, many other leaders of the early republic had the good grace to assume that one’s critics just had not yet seen the light, rather than attack them as stupid or evil. Bernstein makes clear that Adams found it too easy to sink into self-pity. Honors were never enough. Welcomed back to Boston from his diplomatic missions to Europe in June 1788 with public demonstrations of appreciation and then elected the nation’s first Vice President, Adams somehow found cause to complain of his mistreatment and thought of rejecting the Vice Presidency and retiring from politics. He might have been far happier had he done so. Bernstein does an exceptional job laying out the many disasters of Adams’ twelve years holding the country’s highest offices with impressive concision and energy. John Adams was a smart man who made a number of very bad decisions, none worse than signing and attempting to enforce the Sedition Act. That act undermined his presidency and prompted his re-election defeat to his old friend Thomas Jefferson in 1800. Despite his life-long commitment to politics, Adams did not want to play the game as it was developing in the 1790s. Nothing is more revealing in this regard than the fact that Adams was gone from the capital for 385 days in the four years of his presidency, compared to Washington’s 181 days in eight years. Adams thus chose, in Bernstein’s words, to be an “absentee president.” (190) But Adams is responsible for one of the most important actions in early American history—an example that we all hope lives on into the year 2020: he not only handed over the government to his successor without complaint or interference, he actually worked to ease that transition. Thank you, John, for that model of civil conduct. There is of course so much more to this book, including the lovely final chapter on Adams’ pleasure in the revival of his friendship with Jefferson and their truly notable fifteen years of correspondence that ended with their deaths on the same day, July 4, 1826. To some extent Adams remains obscure because, as he admitted many times, he was not very persuasive. Adams did not leave us with the quotable eloquence of Jefferson, nor did he leave us scratching our heads over Jefferson’s obvious hypocrisy. As Theodore Parker so perfectly said, Adams “was terribly open, earnest, and direct, and could not keep his mouth shut.” (240) Adams worked hard and accomplished much, a laudable epitaph for anyone. With R. B. Bernstein he has found a worthy biographer.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Dave Reads

    "The Education of John Adams" is a well-written biography of our nation's second president. It shows Adams as a big thinker, influential writer, and someone who shaped the country in many different ways. We read about Adam's role in the Revolution, the Continental Congress, and vice-president to George Washington. But beyond the things we know about Adams, author R.B. Bernstein shows Adams questioning his role and contributions. At various parts of the book, I thought of him similar to that of P "The Education of John Adams" is a well-written biography of our nation's second president. It shows Adams as a big thinker, influential writer, and someone who shaped the country in many different ways. We read about Adam's role in the Revolution, the Continental Congress, and vice-president to George Washington. But beyond the things we know about Adams, author R.B. Bernstein shows Adams questioning his role and contributions. At various parts of the book, I thought of him similar to that of President Jimmy Carter during his presidency. Both men were brilliant but weren't always respected for what they did until they left office. MEMORABLE QUOTES: Adams lived with books at his elbow and a pen at his hand, insatiably curious about the world around him. He educated himself and sought to teach his contemporaries what he had learned. These lifelong processes of learning and teaching constitute the education of John Adams. The law suited him well as a career, meshing with his love of learning and study, his talent for public speaking and argument, and his capacity for hard work. One of Adam's great achievements as president is that he proved that not George Washington could be president, showing that the office was not uniquely crafted to fit the "father of his country" taking charge of the presidency and becoming his own man. After Washington's death, Adams helped shape the office in his own image. Only then could he show what a presidency tailored for him suited to his intellect, personality, and political virtues would look like. By then, however, it was too late to alter the public's view of him. Adams was deeply proud that he averted a disastrous war with France. Many scholars consider Adam's greatest presidential legacy his appointment of John Marshall to the Supreme Court. Adams not only accepted defeat in 1800 but cooperated in making a smooth transition of power to Jefferson. He also spurned efforts by federalists to persuade him to continue as a caretaker president after the end of his term. Adams, thus, helped to establish the tradition of orderly transitions of power from one party to another in presidential elections. Given these achievements, Adam's presidency was not the failure that many have deemed it. Against these successes, we must revisit the greatest blots on his record: his signing of the sedition act into law and his concurrence in enforcing it against critics of himself and his administration. The central theme of Adam's life is his immersion in politics and law, focusing on the American Revolution repeatedly he sacrificed family happiness and domestic bliss to his public duty to the Revolution.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Tammy Mannarino

    While not as accessible as David McCullough's biography of John Adams, it comes close! Bernstein succeeds in handling John Adams not only as a humorous, curmudgeon who helped shape the new country, but also as a man of letters and ideas. I really enjoyed the different aspects of Adams' "education," not just schooling but also learning from his own experiences, from friendships that waxed and waned and from his own scholarship in his retirement. While not as accessible as David McCullough's biography of John Adams, it comes close! Bernstein succeeds in handling John Adams not only as a humorous, curmudgeon who helped shape the new country, but also as a man of letters and ideas. I really enjoyed the different aspects of Adams' "education," not just schooling but also learning from his own experiences, from friendships that waxed and waned and from his own scholarship in his retirement.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Chris Burd

    I thoroughly enjoyed this perspective on John Adams. Having already read a few biographies of Adams and a wide range of books in which he is at least a minor player, there are a number of quirks of Adams that can seem contradictory. Bernstein did an excellent job of highlighting Adams’ thinking and the context of his decisions. I would not suggest this book as an initial biography of John Adams, but it is a fantastic resource to read alongside other books about the man and the era.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Karen Spisak

    I truly enjoyed reading The Education of John Adams. It is a beautifully well-crafted biography of our second president, with each chapter a perfect composition on its own. It is not merely complimentary, though, but looks at the man with all his flaws. However, it goes further, giving the reader insight into why Adams had those particular flaws. The Education of John Adams is a well written, interesting, and insightful presidential/founding father biography. I highly recommend it.

  7. 4 out of 5

    David

    I very much enjoy the Professor's work. I got a more intelligent view of Adams than I had previously. While there are longer biographies of Adams, this had me understand his intellectual life best. We got to see both his virtues and his flaws. A very quick read, I was carried along by the author, and had trouble putting this one down. I very much enjoy the Professor's work. I got a more intelligent view of Adams than I had previously. While there are longer biographies of Adams, this had me understand his intellectual life best. We got to see both his virtues and his flaws. A very quick read, I was carried along by the author, and had trouble putting this one down.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Norm Konzelman

    The author may know "about" John Adams. That is not the same as "knowing" John Adams. Modernistic tripe I regret beginning. Barely got past the prologue into the first chapter, but I am finished with it. The author may know "about" John Adams. That is not the same as "knowing" John Adams. Modernistic tripe I regret beginning. Barely got past the prologue into the first chapter, but I am finished with it.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jamie Beach

    I didn't finish this book. I didn't finish this book.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Brian Bergman

  11. 4 out of 5

    Thomas R. Wall

  12. 4 out of 5

    Luke Hunter

  13. 5 out of 5

    Kevin Parsons

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jessica P

  15. 5 out of 5

    Robert Brucato

  16. 5 out of 5

    Eliz

  17. 4 out of 5

    Mr. Book

  18. 4 out of 5

    Bill

  19. 5 out of 5

    Val Crofts

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jack

  21. 4 out of 5

    Alex

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

  23. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Moreland

  24. 4 out of 5

    Liquidlasagna

  25. 5 out of 5

    Thomas Miller

  26. 5 out of 5

    Paragon

  27. 4 out of 5

    John

  28. 4 out of 5

    Harrison Recht

  29. 4 out of 5

    Charles Egeland

  30. 4 out of 5

    Melissa

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