Classic Book of the Month – John Adams

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, October 6th. You’re listening to WORLD Radio and we are so glad you are! Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Well, it’s the first Tuesday of the month and that means it’s time for our Classic Book of the Month.

And for that we welcome back Emily Whitten. Good morning, Emily.


REICHARD: What should we talk about today?

WHITTEN: One of my favorite books. John Adams by David McCullough. 

MR: Ah, yes.

WHITTEN: HBO made the book into an award-winning TV series back in 2008. I’d like to play a short clip of actor Paul Giamatti as John Adams before he became president. Here, Adams is a young, ambitious lawyer. He lives in Boston with his growing family, and a conflict we call the Boston Massacre leads to the death of several Americans by British soldiers. Despite threats to his safety, Adams takes the case. 

GIAMATTI: Disregard these uniforms. Consider them men. Consider yourselves in such a situation, whether a reasonable man would not fear for his life. Facts are stubborn things. See whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence. 

Mary, during a 2014 Q & A at the Library of Congress, the interviewer asked author David McCullough how he would sum up John Adams. McCullough answered by pointing to that courtroom scene in the book and the movie. 

MCCULLOUGH: Adams said, if we really believe everybody deserves legal defense in a trial, we better live up to what we say we believe. I’ll defend them. He did so certain it was going to ruin him. To the credit of the people of that time, it made him. Because they realized he was right. And he got them off because of a very clear and fair and convincing argument.

REICHARD: McCullough speaks in an understated way, but I’ve got goosebumps over here!

WHITTEN: Me too, Mary. And Adams doesn’t just yell and stomp off, he knows what’s right and he states in a way that persuades the other side. Despite a lot of pressure, Adams sticks to his principles, and he carries the day. And you see those same traits again when he helps found our country.  

REICHARD: Such an inspiring story. Emily, tell us more about David McCullough and how he came to write this book?

WHITTEN: Sure. Born in 1933, McCullough grew up in Pittsburgh. He later went to Yale to become a writer, not a historian. After graduation, he worked at several magazines, including Time and American Heritage. One day he visited the Library of Congress and saw some striking photographs of the Johnstown Flood. And that inspired him to want to know the story of those affected. So, he wrote his first book about them. 

MCCULLOUGH: History is about people. History is human. ‘When in the course of human events,’ Jefferson wrote. The operative word is human. You have to get to know the people. And remember, none of them knew how it was going to come out anymore than we know how it’s gonna come out in our time.

We live in a time when history seems to be the handmaiden of ideology. 

REICHARD: I want to stop you there. That’s a great line: “We live in a time when history seems to be the handmaiden of ideology.” Quite a statement.

WHITTEN: I think of the biased treatment of the New York Times 1619 project. In contrast, McCullough provides a well-researched look at John Adams and his fellow patriots.

McCullough quotes from public speeches, letters, and diaries. He helps readers see Adams as a fallible human being who really walked this earth. Whenever possible, McCullough stood where Adams stood and tried to see what he would have seen. That kind of humble scholarship, along with the clear writing, helps us see John Adams the man.

REICHARD:  McCullough won a Pulitzer Prize for this book, didn’t he?

WHITTEN: That’s right. In fact, it was his second Pulitzer. And of course, McCullough won many other awards, including two National Book Awards. He won the Presidential Medal of Freedom. So, I’m not the only one who enjoys his work!

REICHARD: Prolific writer. What else should we know about the book John Adams?

WHITTEN: McCullough emphasizes relationships. For instance, Adams’ relationship with his wife takes center stage for most of the book. She raises children and serves as a gracious hostess. But she also matches Adams intellectually and serves as his closest political adviser. Here’s McCullough again:

MCCULLOUGH: And he had a terrific wife. He’s the only founding father—most people don’t know this, but I think it’s so important—he’s the only founding father who never owned a slave as a matter of principle. And his wife felt the same way. She thought slavery was a sin, evil, unjust, unAmerican. And they never changed that view whatsoever.

Here we see a Christian wife and husband who really worked as a team. In many ways, they helped each other live out their Christian principles. Which as you know, Mary, isn’t always easy to do.

REICHARD: Right? So, would you call this a Christian book?

WHITTEN: No. I don’t think McCullough necessarily means to promote Christian beliefs. He does report honestly what Adams says and thinks. Occasionally Adams’ faith shines through.

REICHARD: That sounds like a book we could all benefit from right now! 

WHITTEN: Right. And I know some of us may be disheartened by the state of politics today. If that’s you, I hope this book will encourage you. John and Abigail Adams lived during a time of tremendous violence and political chaos. McCullough shows that their sacrifices mattered to many people. It mattered to the British soldiers we talked about at the beginning, and it matters to us today. We have a say in our government because of what they did. That’s worth remembering.

REICHARD: I love a good biography. Thank you for the recommendation today, Emily. 

WHITTEN: You’re very welcome, Mary. Happy reading!

REICHARD: For October, Emily recommended John Adams by David McCullough. For more classic book ideas, just search for Classic Book of the Month at

(Photo/Worthington Galleries) John Adams by David McCullough

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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