Praising John Adams

The U.S. had its fair share of kingmakers and quasi-aristocrats in its early years, but the venerable John Adams seems not to have been among them. That didn’t stop his opponents from labeling the force behind the Declaration of Independence a royalist!

From a farm in Braintree, Massachusetts and working as a lawyer in Boston and environs, Adams stood up for what was right and faced down those with whom he disagreed, most vociferously at times and sometimes to the annoyance of others – many others.

However, an aristocrat he was not and seemed not to have been riddled by the double standards that plagued Jefferson and others. He is fast becoming one of my favorite patriots of the revolutionary period.

I draw these conclusions from the masterful biography, John Adams, written by David McCullough. I know that it doesn’t do to rely only on one book to try to understand an historical figure, but I was struck by the fairness of McCullough’s approach to Adams, his friends, and his enemies.

The author treats his subjects as men with all their flaws, but doesn’t deny that they were extraordinary men in extraordinary times. Especially touching is the skillful way he weaves in the relationship between John and Abigail Adams and that of their extended family. Their vast letter writing capacity despite years and years of separation proves that a happy marriage isn’t based solely on the physical, but requires a strong intellectual attraction as well.

I strongly recommend this book as a basic primer on Adams. McCullough’s very approachable style of writing turns a somewhat lengthy book into a compelling page-turner. If you are trying to sink your teeth into history, this is a good place to start. I will admit that it slows as the narrative follows Adams life to its close, but perhaps that is because the 1770’s in America were so packed with action that the 1820’s seem placid in comparison.

For the interested historian John Adams is a fabulous resource of excerpts from letters and written works by Adams and others. A good author knows how and when to use a source directly rather than a paraphrase and this book is proof of that. Hearing the subject in his own words helps us draw a better picture of the man, more so because Adams was a straightforward individual (agree with him or not) and free of rank political duplicity.

Great book, great man, great marriage – great history.

– Amanda Stiver

Gateways to History: Getting Started

What makes a person like history?

Is it just a quirk of personality that leads them to be insatiably curious about the past?

Is it a family member who shared his or her own love of history?

Is it just a coincidence of factors: good books, great teachers, a need to know?

All of these things can contribute to the creation of an avid historian, but what if you didn’t have the benefit of such circumstances – are you doomed to dislike history?

Not at all! There are other gateways to history and finding yours is the challenge!

Image: Amanda Stiver

Image: Amanda Stiver

More than one way to… study history

History is stereotypically fed to students via the textbook and a class lecture. A good textbook can spur an interest in students, but more importantly a good teacher can spur a lifelong love of the subject.

I had two particularly memorable high school history teachers. They each had a different approach to teaching, but were equally successful.

One teacher taught by lecture. The good thing was that he was one of the best lecturers I have ever heard. He gave us clear instructions from the start, if you want to get a good score on the Advanced Placement U.S. history test at the end of the year, then read the textbook twice. His expectation that we would do our reading and come to class with a clue about the day’s subject freed him up to add extra material from his vast store of historic knowledge during the lecture. He could tell a great story.

The other teacher had a different approach, but was also a gifted storyteller. She was a multi-media historian. We watched videos, read textbooks, read primary source excerpts, viewed art history slides and maps, did re-enactments, had class discussions, and completed writing assignments. She illustrated to me the importance of a variety of sources and approaches that make the subject vibrant and alive!

I had other great teachers, but I think this makes clear that the best gateway to a love of history is a fantastic teacher.

Find your gate, take the path

If you don’t like history because you had bad teachers, all is not lost. Try this: go watch a movie that has an historic setting or read an historical novel. How many people who went to see 300 or Braveheart consciously thought they were going to study history – surely not many.

Movies and historical fiction aren’t perfect, but they are a kind of gateway. Ideally they should spur a curiosity into an area of history that draws you to your local library and a good book on the subject. They are highly interpretive, so by all means, if something sounds far-fetched in a book or movie – go prove the author or directors wrong by researching the subject yourself.

Let a productive curiosity be your gateway into history. Maybe you want to know more about family genealogy – research the era in which your relatives immigrated! Maybe the history of a national or religious holiday has always made you wonder about its origins – go find out! Perhaps you read a short article that was so well written it made you want to know more.

Best of all, if you are planning a trip, don’t leave until you have at least one book under your belt about the area you are going to visit. When you get there, go see some of the places you read about, make the story come alive.

Once you cross the threshold, keep your curiosity alive. Make it a challenge to find the thread that connects each historical era or subject you study or come across. Or my personal favorite, when you’re at the store and you get the total cost of your purchases, take four of the digits and try to remember what happened in that year in history. If you can’t think of anything, go home and use a search engine to find out!

Take the plunge, it’s more exciting that you ever imagined!

Do you remember when…?

The details of the past are accessible by a single question. Being an historian only takes that one question and someone with a story to tell.

There are so many assumptions about history – primarily that it is inaccessible and boring. It really isn’t. It just takes someone young asking an elder what they know about the past.

History passed down in this way is referred to as an oral record. Often, people who yearn to research their personal genealogy become the default guardians of this historical record in their family. They were the ones who cared enough to find out about the family history before the bearers of that record were no more.

Sometimes we assume that once we’re tagged as the “family historian” we’re expected to write a book, which is a great achievement, but simply being able and willing to one day share those same stories with a younger generation is a great achievement, too.

Be the link – learn the history – pass it on.

That takes me back…


We all have a history and so does the world.

History happens every day. Think of it as one long, ongoing museum display – each day new images are created, new events occur, new biographies are lived – and with technology we see more of it, or ignore more of it than ever before.

Strange though it may seem, history is actually cyclical. What happens in the past will affect the future, and what happens in the future will affect how we view the past. Crazy, but true.

Join me on this web log for a journey into the past, the present, and the future. One historical event at a time!