Partially bald man with white hair in black suit sits
John Adams by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1815, oil on canvas – National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

The following is a list and discussion of important scholarly resources relating to John Adams.


Vice Presidency, Presidency and Federalist Party

Books on the Founders

Political thought

Other specialized studies

Primary sources


External videos
video icon Booknotes interview with Joseph Ellis on Passionate Sage, September 5, 1993, C-SPAN
video icon Presentation by McCullough on John Adams at the Library of Congress, April 24, 2001, C-SPAN
video icon Presentation by McCullough on John Adams at the National Book Festival, September 8, 2001, C-SPAN

Adams' grandson Charles Francis Adams Sr. edited the first two volumes of The Works of John Adams, Esq., Second President of the United States. These were published between 1850 and 1856 by Charles C. Little and James Brown in Boston. The first seven chapters were produced by John Quincy Adams.[1]

The premier modern biography was Honest John Adams, a 1933 biography by the noted French specialist in American history Gilbert Chinard, who came to Adams after writing his acclaimed 1929 biography of Jefferson. For a generation, Chinard's work was regarded as the best life of Adams, and it is still an important text in illustrating the themes of Adams' biographical and historical scholarship. Following the opening of the Adams family papers in the 1950s, Page Smith published the first major biography to use these previously inaccessible primary sources; his biography won a 1962 Bancroft Prize but was criticized for its scanting of Adams' intellectual life and its diffuseness. In 1975, Peter Shaw published The Character of John Adams, a thematic biography noted for its psychological insight into Adams' life. The 1992 character study by Joseph Ellis, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, was Ellis's first major publishing success and remains one of the most useful and insightful studies of Adams' personality. In 1992, the Revolutionary War historian and biographer John E. Ferling published his acclaimed John Adams: A Life, also noted for its psychological sensitivity.[1] David McCullough authored the 2001 biography John Adams, which won various awards and was the basis for a 2008 TV miniseries.[2]

Bernard Bailyn on the Adams Papers

Two years after a review on the Jefferson Papers, historian Bernard Bailyn published "Butterfield's Adams: Notes for a Sketch" (1962), a review of the first four volumes of the Adams Papers, including the Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, edited by Lyman Butterfield as well as editorial assistants Leonard Faber and Wendell Garrett. Butterfield released the volumes on September 21, 1961, to great fanfare in newspaper reviews, advertisements, Massachusetts Historical Society receptions, American Academy of Arts dinners, and a Washington, D.C. luncheon with President John F. Kennedy. Bailyn prefaced his own review with support for publication and readership, but explicit disdain for the "vagueness of the impression left" by the publicity and hype, as well as a cautionary observation that the "vagueness" could counterintuitively add the volumes to the "great slag-heap of unread scholarship."[3]

In Bailyn's sketch for this William and Mary Quarterly review, John Adams embodied a jumble of ambitions, fears, desires, irrationalities, and integrities. In the first four volumes of his Papers, at least, Bailyn assessed Adams as a man who constantly engaged in "dramatic objectification of himself and the world he saw," with bombastic "humor" that "flowed naturally." But it was the "problems and tensions" that ostensibly caught Bailyn by surprise---"between ambition and integrity, between the desire to appear knowing and sophisticated and the inability to be so, between the longing to retreat into a sensitive inner world of feeling and the need for self-mastery." Adams experienced an "extended adolescence" that came to an abrupt end "around his thirtieth year," close to the time he courted and wed Abigail Adams née Smith. Both the Diary and Autobiography, according to Bailyn, evinced this change, which was a crucial facet in or "our early national history." Change, however, was not transformation. The "problems and tensions" prior to this shift, in Bailyn's sketch, "continued to shape his, and in part the nation's, history." Adams was still a man of "stubborn" and "flamboyant, integrity...and he never lost his sensuous, physical response to the things and the people around him." Adams almost perpetually guarded his vulnerable "self-esteem" with frequent "self-assertion," a defensive posturing that eventually became "paranoiac" during the last quarter of the eighteenth century.[3]

As Bailyn's fledgling interpretations of the Stamp Act Crisis and the "meaning of certain of the ideals and ideas of the American Revolution" engulfed this world of John Adams, conspiratorial thought abounded.[3] For Bailyn's sketch, the perception and conception of conspiracy in the John Adams Diary became both cause and consequence of "abstractions---glittering generalities," bound to a "concreteness," a "sensuous imagination and tactile grasp of 1774 he was convinced that he was witnessing the culmination of a deliberate conspiracy 'against the public liberty...first regularly formed and begun to be executed in 1763 or 4.' The result, unless the plot were exposed and destroyed, would be tyranny---not some vague, unfamiliar historical tyranny but one imposed by people he knew, executed by hands he had shaken." For the Adams in Bailyn's sketch, Massachusetts Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson clearly had deployed "influence to advance not only his own career but that of his personal following 'to the exclusion of much better men.' " When Hutchinson and his "place seeking" collided with the apocalyptic duties and acts imposed by King-in-Parliament after the French and Indian War, "Adams's social animosities took fire and became the source of a flaming hatred of state authority."

Bailyn's conclusion to the review turned John Adams psychologically inward and then constitutionally outward---gasping, grasping, writing, and theorizing for "control." After "long years of raking self-examination and an extraordinary sensitivity to other people's feelings and motivations," Bailyn's sketch envisioned an Adams who "saw more darkness than light" and "powerful irrationalities" in the "human passions" that were his own, yet also grappled with this "flaming hatred of state authority." As result, "his political theory was an effort to express in the constitutional language of his day the implications of this dark, introspective psychology." In this regard, Bailyn averred, Adams seemed more akin to "Calvinist forebears and of the twentieth century than of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment." Bailyn's comparisons to "political theory," resting on "dark, introspective" psychological implications "of the twentieth century," requires further scholarly inquiry. In any case, this "political theory" made Adams into "a passionate advocate of the separation of powers---governmental and social---and of maintaining a competitive balance among them." Adams the constitutional architect believed that "behavior by the favored few would continue to exist; it could not be eliminated; but it might be controlled, to some extent at least, by confining its expression...allow the aristocracy, however it might be defined [class or rank?], a legal, constitutional role in government, but limit it to a special institution, the traditional middle chamber." Conversely, or perhaps self-critically, Adams proposed another chamber to "control" and mutually counterweigh, in state authority, "the force of the many as well as of the few…the popular element of the constitution must also be constrained, sealed off, confined. It too must be subject to law interpreted by a fully independent judiciary and enforced by a powerful, impartial, in effect disciplinarian, executive." In the final analysis, Bailyn's sketch of Adams depicted a man who feared in humanity, and perhaps more in himself, "those elements of ambition, of irrationality, and of sensuous satisfaction with which he had fought so fiercely and so knowingly...He knew no peace, and saw no peace for mankind, until they too were brought under control."[3]


  1. ^ a b Ferling, Select Bibliography.
  2. ^ Catlin, Roger (March 11, 2008). "HBO miniseries gives John Adams his due". The Courant. Hartford, Connecticut: Hartford Courant. Archived from the original on May 10, 2014. Retrieved May 10, 2014.
  3. ^ a b c d Bailyn, Bernard (1962). "Butterfield's Adams: Notes for a Sketch". The William and Mary Quarterly. 19 (2): 238–256. doi:10.2307/1921925. ISSN 0043-5597. JSTOR 1921925.