Independence tore households—as well as nations—apart. As he toiled at the Continental Congress, delegate John Adams was agonized by the long separations from his family. He neared physical and emotional collapse in Philadelphia, while his wife, Abigail, and their children endured the sound of cannon fire and the devastation of smallpox at home outside Boston. Sticking close to the diaries and letters of his principals, Pulitzer Prize winner McCullough resists the biographer's temptation to make up dialogue. Instead, he points out history's quirky gaps: The final ratification of the Declaration of Independence was all but ignored in the newspapers of the day.
The Revolution cost Adams his close friendship with Thomas Jefferson, who considered him insufficiently radical. After serving as Adams's vice president, Jefferson defeated him in the race for Commander in Chief. The tension between them is just one of many great historical dramas played out in McCullough's engaging and thorough account. (Simon & Schuster, $35)