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John Quincy Adams
By James Traub
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Few figures in American history have held as many roles in public life as John Quincy Adams. The son of John Adams, he was a brilliant ambassador and secretary of state, a frustrated president, and a dedicated congressman who staunchly opposed slavery. In John Quincy Adams, scholar and journalist James Traub draws on Adams’s diaries, letters, and writings to evoke his numerous achievements-and failures-in office. A man of unwavering moral convictions, Adams is the father of foreign policy “realism” and one of the first proponents of the “activist government.” But John Quincy Adams is first and foremost the story of a brilliant, flinty, and unyielding man whose life exemplified admirable political courage.
HE IS FORMED FOR A STATESMAN
The Flame Is Kindled
ON THE MORNING OF JUNE 17, 1775, JOHN QUINCY ADAMS walked with his mother, Abigail, to an orchard atop Penn’s Hill, the highest point near their home in Braintree. The air was filled with the roar and crash of artillery, for at dawn British forces had begun their cannonade of Bunker Hill, which stood at the crown of a peninsula immediately north of Boston. Abigail and her four children had been cowering at home; her husband, John Adams, was three hundred miles away, at the second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. But so much turned on this long-awaited battle that Abigail felt she had to see it for herself. Perhaps she felt that her eldest son, then not quite eight years old, should see for himself the mortal consequences of the fight his father and his fellow colonists had undertaken, or perhaps she was simply very frightened and needed company. It was a clear, hot day, and even from ten miles away Johnny, as his parents called him, could see the flash of cannon fire from British ships in the harbor, the smoke from the colonists’ muskets, and the great wall of flame as the wooden houses and churches of Charlestown, at the very tip of the peninsula, burned beneath a hail of British incendiary shells. The noise was deafening, and the panorama of destruction must have been even more terrifying to the boy than to his mother.
The battles of Lexington and Concord, two months earlier, had been skirmishes; Bunker Hill was the opening encounter of a war. The British lost almost five hundred men in desperate charges straight up the hill and along its flank, but the militias mustered from Boston and the small towns nearby had neither the men nor the ammunition to resist for long and ultimately fled back home over the narrow causeway of Charlestown. Word reached Braintree later that day that Joseph Warren, thirty-three years old, a fiery orator, a military leader, and an admired doctor, had died in the final charge. While others had fled, Warren had chosen to make a last stand amid the ruined fortifications. Warren was the Adams’ family physician.
A moment so rich with elation, fear, reverence, and grief would have made a deep impression even on a boy far less precocious that John Quincy Adams. In a letter written seventy years later, he recalled that he had “witnessed the tears of my mother, and mingled them with my own, at the fall of Warren, a dear friend of my father, and a beloved Physic to me.” Warren was a friend, but he was also a hero, a brave man who had died defending the cause of American liberty—the same cause, as his mother never failed to remind him, his own father had gone to Philadelphia, under the most trying circumstances, to advance. Every night during these months, his mother instructed him to repeat, along with the Lord’s Prayer, an ode to martyred soldiers written by the British poet William Collins: “How sleep the brave who sink to rest / By all their country’s wishes blest!” In the letter, Adams wrote out all twelve lines of the ode and observed to his correspondent that even after all those years he hadn’t forgotten a word.
John Quincy Adams understood, as a very young boy, that his life belonged not merely to himself, but to his country and its cause. He would never forget that a life properly lived required commitment to principle, sacrifice, and suffering.
ABIGAIL ADAMS GAVE BIRTH TO A SON ON JULY 11, 1767. AT THE request of her mother, Elizabeth Smith, she and John named him after Elizabeth’s own father, Colonel John Quincy, then very close to death. (Both the family name and the town were pronounced “Quin-zee.”) The Quincys, who traced their roots in England back to the era of William the Conqueror, had arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony soon after its founding; they had owned the land on Mount Wollaston, the family compound, since 1635. They had given their name to the town in which they lived. Abigail was raised in the finest house for miles around. And the Quincys were as respectable as they were prosperous. Elizabeth married a minister, William Smith, who served for forty-five years as pastor to the nearby town of Weymouth. They had three daughters—Mary, Abigail, and Elizabeth—all of whom also married well. Only the one boy in the family proved to be a mortifying failure: William Jr. died a wastrel, leaving behind a wife and children whom John and Abigail would take into their household.
The Adamses were every bit as venerable as the Quincys, if less grand. The family had arrived in Massachusetts in 1632 and had served quietly as deacons and selectmen and sheriffs in and around Braintree ever since. John Adams’ father, known as Deacon John, had married Susanna Boylston, from a family no less illustrious than the Quincys. Still, the Adamses had not attended college; Deacon John was a farmer and a shoemaker. But John Adams was immensely proud of his family—not of their social position but of their moral uprightness. In one of his bristlingly defensive moods, he wrote a friend that his family had lived in Braintree for 160 years, and during all that time “no bankruptcy was ever committed, no widow or orphan was ever defrauded, no redemptor intervened and no debt was contracted with England.” For a man like Adams, a descendant of New England’s Puritan founders, “standing” was not a social but a moral attribute. The Adamses, like the Quincys, had been upright figures since Englishmen had arrived on the continent. They were the aristocracy of the new world, and John Adams’ extensive exposure to the aristocracy of the old world later on in life only deepened this conviction.
John Quincy Adams was born in a modest wood-frame cottage about a mile from the village of Braintree and two miles from the ocean. Next door was the house in which his father had grown up and his grandmother still lived. On its ground floor the Adams’ house had four rooms wrapped around a steep staircase: a small, square parlor; a narrow kitchen running the length of the house in the rear; a dining room; and another front parlor, which John had turned into his law office. The staircase led to two bedrooms in the front of the house and two tiny rooms squeezed under the eaves in the rear—the house was steeply gabled. The upstairs would have been very crowded at night, since all four children lived there: Abigail, known as Nabby, born in 1765; John Quincy; Charles, born in 1770; and Thomas Boylston, born two years later.
Johnny and his brothers and sister grew up on a modest ten-acre farm. The Adamses kept chickens, sheep, and cows as well as horses for plowing; grew their own fruit and vegetables; and chopped down their own trees for firewood. The family’s income came from John’s law practice, but the farm supplied most of their needs; they were self-sufficient, as city folk were not. John worked on the farm, and while Abigail had a servant, there was little the servant did that Abigail couldn’t, and didn’t, do herself.
Beyond the Adams property lay other small farms with their orchards and fields, their stables and sheds and cider mills. Braintree rolled toward the ocean in gentle hills, though at its southwestern edge a steep hill of granite served as the quarry for the region and furnished the stone from which many of the fine homes of Boston were built. The life of Braintree revolved around the church, Puritan until 1750 and Unitarian thereafter. The only other building in the village not devoted to farming was the store, from which Abigail could buy anything from a carton of pins to a glass of rum, as the sign in the window read. And yet the great city of Boston, with a population of perhaps fifteen thousand, lay only ten miles away down the coastal road. The people of Braintree were modest farmers, but they were not yokels.
No one among them had pressed more eagerly into the larger world than John Adams, a figure of great gifts, boundless energy, focused ambition. As a Harvard student, he identified the other bright young men, got to know them, read what they read. As a lawyer, he combined tireless preparation with passionate advocacy. Adams had a strict, Calvinist sense of morality and propriety. But as a young man he was scarcely the dour figure conjured up by the word “Puritan.” He had, by his own admission, an “amorous disposition” and loved nothing more than spending an evening in the company of ladies. But he never committed an indiscretion, for which he thanked his own parents, whom, he said, “held every species of Libertinage in such contempt and Horror, and held up constantly to view such pictures of disgrace, of baseness and of ruin, that my natural temperament was always overawed by my principles and Sense of decorum.” That was Adams—passion kept in check by principle, like the wooden staves of a barrel held together by copper hoops.
John Adams was voluble, buttonholing, argumentative, headlong. He could talk and write a blue streak. In one of his first letters to Abigail, in 1761, when they were pledged to one another but not yet married, the twenty-five-year-old attorney wrote, “I mount this moment for the noisy, dirty town of Boston, where parade, Pomp, Nonsense, Frippery, Folly, Foppery, Luxury, Politicks and the soul-Confounding wrangles of the law will give me the Higher Relish for Spirit, Taste and Sense at Weymouth, next Saturday.” Adams had a dim view of his fellow man but did not yet suffer from the splenetic temper of his later years. He published a series of mock-rural letters, in country vernacular, under the name Humphrey Ploughjogger. He wrote little sketches of the people he met at inns and in the courts for Abigail’s amusement.
But Adams was also a politically conscious man, and in 1764, when the English began to impose a series of onerous taxes on the colonies, culminating in the Stamp Act, Adams responded by publishing a legal essay titled A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law. Soon afterwards, in the Braintree Instructions, he gave voice to the townspeople’s decision to defy the Stamp Act as a violation of their rights as Englishmen not to be taxed without representation. Forty other towns, including Boston, adopted the instructions, thus catapulting the fiery young lawyer into the first ranks of patriotic activists. Adams soon found that he had to choose between opportunities to capitalize on his legal gifts and his patriotic convictions. And he never hesitated. In 1768, with his family growing, he was offered a lucrative post in the Court of Admiralty. He immediately refused, as he had refused such offers in the past, owing to “my Scruples about laying myself under any restraints, or Obligations of Gratitude to the Government for any of their favours.” When he explained that he held opinions contrary to those of His Majesty’s government, he was told that he would remain perfectly free to express those views. He still said no.
Politics inexorably drew Adams away from the quiet life of a prosperous lawyer. When a detachment of British soldiers in Boston fired on a mob of young men on March 5, 1770, killing three and wounding two—the riot that came to be known as the Boston Massacre—Adams agreed to defend Thomas Preston, the senior British officer. Abigail burst into tears when he told her that he would take the case—or so Adams wrote much later in his Autobiography—for he appeared to be bent on destroying the finest legal prospects in Massachusetts. Nevertheless, she agreed that he could not act otherwise. The right to counsel was precisely the kind of principle enshrined in England’s unwritten constitution, which the colonists insisted must apply to themselves. Beyond that, the sacrifice of interest in the name of principle lay at the very core of the moral order John and Abigail held dear. Many of Adams’ friends were bewildered by his decision but ultimately embraced it as an act of exalted patriotism. Thanks to Adams, Thomas Preston was acquitted; only two of the eight other soldiers were found guilty, and they on reduced charges.
In June 1774, Adams was appointed by the state legislature as one of the five Massachusetts delegates to the first Continental Congress. He would be away for much of the next three years, leaving Abigail to raise four children and run the family farm largely on her own.
Abigail and her sisters had been educated at home, as was the custom. “Female education,” she wrote in her old age, “in the best families, went no further than writing and arithmetic, in some few and rare instances, music and dancing.” The Reverend Smith had instilled an air of piety in the household that was, in turn, reinforced by Elizabeth Quincy Smith, a paragon of New England modesty and rectitude. But it was a bookish home as well, with a library that held the English classics as well as the Bible. When John’s friend Richard Cranch began courting Mary, he appointed himself tutor to all three, reading Shakespeare, John Milton, and Alexander Pope with them. Abigail was a highly intelligent young woman who had more exposure to literature, and thus to serious thought, than was normal even for a well-born woman of New England.
Abigail was a tiny woman with dark, piercing eyes under fine, arched brows; one early portrait, admittedly by an amateur, makes her look quite lovely, though later ones painted by more talented artists are not quite so flattering. Even at fifteen, when she first met John, Abigail was forceful and intellectually self-assured in a way that Adams must have found remarkable, and thrilling, in the cloistered female world of small-town New England. Adams took her seriously, which she must have found flattering; he was a worldly and ambitious man with an exceptional mind and a playful spirit. The famous letters between them overflowed with love and desire from the very first. “I hereby order you to give him as many Kisses and as many hours of your company after 9 o’clock as he shall be pleased to demand,” John wrote, pretending to be the “bearer” of a debt. Abigail, much younger and more prim, wrote back of “a tye more binding than Humanity and stronger than friendship, and by this chord I am not ashamed to say that I am bound.” She began to sign her letters “Diana,” the beautiful huntress of Greek myth, and John was delighted to address her so.
Within her own necessarily circumscribed sphere, Abigail proved to be an extremely competent and resourceful young woman. In her husband’s absence she managed the family farm and made a small income on the side by selling whatever products he was able to send her, first from Philadelphia and later from Europe. Though confined to home and hearth for the first forty years of her life, Abigail had a far-reaching mind. She once wrote to a cousin that “I would have been a rover if of the other sex,” but instead depended on men to indulge her curiosity. Very few women of her time succeeded in living a public life, and she was thrilled and fascinated by those who did. She carried on a long and intimate correspondence with Mercy Otis Warren, a historian and playwright and wife of James Warren, a Massachusetts patriot, and with Catherine Macaulay, a British historian who championed the cause of the colonies. She envied them their intellectual freedom and their ability to advance the cause of liberty, as men did. Of Macaulay, she wrote to her cousin, “I have a curiosity to know her Education, and what first prompted her to engage in a study never before Exhibited to the publick by one of her own Sex and Country.”
Abigail was, in fact, the intellectual equal of the women she most admired. She had committed a vast amount of English poetry to memory, and her letters brim with long citations from Milton, as well as from Pope and the other Augustans. She read a great deal of classical history, though in translation, for girls were not taught Latin or Greek. And she shared her husband’s ardor for knowledge. Years later, when Abigail overcame her resistance to crossing the ocean in order to join her husband in London, where he had been appointed minister, she reported in a letter home that she had signed up for a series of lectures and attended talks, including experiments, on “Electricity, Magnetism Hydrostatics optics pneumatics. . . .” The experience, she wrote, “was like going into a Beautiful Country, which I never saw before, a Country which our American Females are not permitted to visit or inspect.”
The first stirrings of revolution roused the same passion in Abigail as it did in John. In the days leading up to the Boston Tea Party, in December 1773, she wrote to Mercy Otis Warren, “The flame is kindled and like lightning it catches from soul to soul. Great will be the devastation if not timely quenched or allayed by some Lenient Measures.” Like John, she was an early convert to the cause of independence: in February 1775 she wrote that she had concluded “that we cannot be happy without being free, that we cannot be free without being secure in our own property, that we cannot be secure in our own property if without our consent others may take it as of right.” Abigail despised the British generals who had quartered themselves in the homes of her friends and dined off their crockery. And she revered George Washington. Abigail met General Washington when the Continental Army reached Boston in the summer of 1775. “You had prepared me to entertain a favourable opinion of him, but I thought the one half was not told me,” she wrote John. She was reminded of a line from Dryden: “He’s a temple sacred by birth, and built by hands divine.”
Abigail did not shrink from the necessity of war. In early 1775, when many patriots still hoped for a peaceful settlement with England, she wrote to Mercy Otis Warren that “the Sword is now our only, yet dreadful alternative.” And though she cowered before the awful bombardment of Bunker Hill, she soon learned to accept, and even welcome, those thunders. In February 1776, with General Washington shelling the British on nearby Dorchester Heights, she walked up to Penn’s Hill once again, listened to the cannonades, and reported to John, “The sound I think is one of the Grandest in nature, and is of the true Species of the Sublime.” Whatever suffering might come, Abigail never doubted that the Lord would smite the British and protect the patriotic cause.
Few couples were more exquisitely matched than the Adamses: each was restless, brilliant, high-minded, eager for self-sacrifice. John was the more abrasive, Abigail the more sententious—which is only to say that the one was a man of his time, the other a woman of her time. They were, in fact, remarkably similar in temperament. By a strange twist of fate, John Quincy Adams would spend his childhood and youth in the company of either his mother or his father, but almost never both. His mother had sole charge of him from ages seven to eleven, his father from eleven to sixteen. The two so completely reinforced each other that it would not be easy to trace his character as an adult to one as opposed to the other. What is clear, in any case, is that both poured themselves into the raising of their eldest son and that he dutifully, indeed reverently, absorbed their lessons and their example. He became what they wished him to be.
Both John and Abigail regarded the upbringing of children as a sacred and solemn obligation. They did not embrace the French Enlightenment view of humans as inherently rational creatures and education as the encouragement of natural propensities. Though deeply steeped in that tradition, John and Abigail were heirs to a Puritan culture that saw human beings as fallen creatures who must be redeemed from sin through the most conscientious acts of cultivation. “Education has made a greater difference between man and man, than nature has made between man and brute,” John wrote Abigail in 1775. “It should be your care, therefore, and mine to elevate the minds of our children and exalt their courage; to accelerate and animate their industry and activity; to excite in them a habitual contempt of meanness, abhorrence of injustice and inhumanity, and an ambition to excel in every capacity, faculty and virtue.” Abigail and John would have recoiled at the idea that intellect could be taught in the absence of morality, for they believed that the goal of education was to produce both goodness and usefulness.
John was quite content to leave Nabby’s education up to Abigail, but the boys had to be prepared to help forge a new world in which the colonists would prove themselves fully equal to the Englishmen who now treated them as subjects. The time had come, he wrote Abigail, when the boys were four, six, and nine, to “think of forming the Taste, and Judgment of your Children. . . . Have no mercy on an affected Phrase, any more than an affected Air, Gate, Dress or Manner.” He suggested she instruct them to write descriptions—“of a Battle, a Storm, a siege, a Cloud”—as well as to declaim speeches on various topics. As a young man, John Adams had seen to his own education in the most laborious manner possible, copying sentences he wished to memorize, writing out the definition of every difficult word in Latin, carrying his quill pen and a tablet of paper everywhere he went in order to memorialize any new thought or observation or wise expression he happened upon. He had left nothing to chance, and now he would give the children the benefit of his own method.
John Adams had pronounced ideas about education, but they were not his alone. The men who were to found the United States understood that while a nation of masters and servants needed only to elevate the one and abase the other, a nation of free men needed to cultivate the gifts of all its citizens. “Every man in a republic is public property,” as the physician and patriot Benjamin Rush put it. A monarch could compel acquiescence, but a free people could be governed only through consent. A republic would work only if citizens could be trained to overcome their natural selfishness, pettiness, and factionalism. The virtues that John Adams prized in himself were those that needed to be inculcated in the next generation—disinterestedness, a contempt for meanness, an abhorrence of injustice.
The civic virtues that John and Abigail wished to instill in their son rested on a foundation of Christian virtues. A child must learn—for it would not happen by itself—to seek the good and abhor the bad. In one of her letters to her husband, Abigail explained why she had decided not to send Johnny to Braintree’s primary school. “I have always thought it of very great importance,” she wrote to John, “that children should in the early part of life be unaccustomed to such examples as would tend to corrupt the purity of their words and actions that they may chill with horror at the sound of an oath, and blush with indignation at an obsene expression.” The nursery itself had to be kept pure. In later years, when Nabby herself became a mother, Abigail recommended Isaac Watts’ “Moral Songs for Children,” an immensely popular Christian tract that, she wrote, taught “brotherly love, sisterly affection, and filial respect and reverence.” Nursery rhymes like “Jack and Jill,” Abigail sniffed, had “neither a rule of life, nor sentiment worth retaining.”
In the absence of school, Abigail put John Thaxter, one of Adams’ idle law clerks, to work as John Quincy’s tutor. But as a woman who read widely, wrote with great force and pungency—if erratic spelling—and had large amounts of literature at her fingertips, Abigail was a teacher whom very few men could match. And she thought as deeply as he husband did about the forming of children’s minds. In her very first letter to Mercy Otis Warren, written in July 1773 after a visit to Mrs. Warren’s home at Plymouth, she recalled that she had told her new friend of a work on child rearing, On the Management and Education of Children: A Series of Letters Written to a Niece, by a British author—and a woman—Juliana Seymour. Abigail had been very much taken with Mercy’s children, and she wanted to know if the program laid out by Mrs. Seymour “corresponds with the plan you have laid out for yourself.” Abigail made her own preferences clear when she described education as “rearing the tender thought”—not instilling commandments but nurturing the immature mind. She ended her letter with lines of verse describing the parent who seeks to learn “What Bias Nature gave the mind.” The teacher seeks not to uproot that bias but to shape it through careful cultivation—and through love. What delight, the poet observes,
Each Boisterous passion to controul
And early Humanize the Soul
The noblest Notions to inspire,
Her offspring conscious of her care
Transported hang around her chair
Abigail spent long hours reading to her son as he sat at her feet before the hearth. But Abigail would never have thought that loving attention, from either mother or son, was enough. She expected Johnny to read aloud to her, so that she could critique him and help him along. She reported to her husband that she had gotten the seven-year-old boy to read to her every day from Charles Rollins’ Ancient History of the Egyptians, Carthaginians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Macedonians and Grecians, a best seller published six years earlier that, one scholar points out, “seamlessly melded classical themes with Christian ends.” It was, of course, written for adults. And she encouraged the boy to write. In his first letter to his father, October 13, 1774, the seven-year-old Johnny wrote, “Sir—I have been trying ever since you went away to lern to write you a Letter.” He apologized for his meager effort—an exaggerated sense of his own insufficiency which a lifetime of achievements would barely make a dent in—and concluded, “I hope I grow to be a better boy and that you will have no occasion to be ashamed of me when you return.”
On his own, Johnny read fairy tales and adventure stories and The Arabian Nights, slaying dragons and rescuing damsels in his imagination. At age ten, poking through a closet in his mother’s bedroom, he found copies of the Shakespeare comedies. He fell under the magical spell of The Tempest. Half a century later, he recalled how quicksilver Ariel and monstrous Caliban “made for me a world of revels, and lapped me in Elysium.” He also found an edition of Paradise Lost. This, he knew, was grown-up literature, and he was determined to read what his parents read. Perhaps going outside for safety, he smoked his father’s pipe and read his parents’ Milton—and felt sick at the one and frustrated to tears at the other. He gave up Milton until he was older, though he never stopped smoking.
- "A splendid new biography.... Reliably thorough, blissfully bereft of jargon, and nicely paced."—Joseph J. Ellis, New York Times Book Review
- "James Traub does justice to both the man and his times, with a historian's sense of complexity and a writer's eye for drama and detail."—Sean Wilentz
- "By rights, John Quincy Adams should be one of America's most famous presidents. His life story is remarkable, the son of one of the nation's founding presidents, the only one to serve in an elected office after leaving the White House, and a man of vast intelligence and political courage who died while debating in the House of Representatives. Yet he's an obscure figure. James Traub has rectified this in a book worthy of its subject."—Fareed Zakaria, Fareed Zakaria GPS
- "Traub's work is a reminder to Americans that politicians can be devoted to national issues, promote their principles, and still maintain their integrity."—Choice
- "Well-written and highly readable biography...highly accessible work."—Chronicles
- "[An] excellent biography.... [John Quincy Adams'] life is worth meditating on, and Traub's biography is an indispensable resource for doing so."—Washington Free Beacon
- "James Traub has admirably captured the man inside the public figure, giving us a view of a typical New England grandee, puritanical at his core, molded as a traditionalist republican with no love for pure democracy, convinced that governing was intended for the class born and bred for it."—The Arts Fuse
- "Traub thoroughly, even quite engagingly, follows Adams through the years during which he served in the diplomatic corps, building up the reputation as the new republic's best representative abroad."—Booklist,starred review
- "[An] essential biography of a complex man.... Traub shows that without imperiling national unity, Adams's persistent, perspicacious opposition to slavery 'shattered the overweening confidence of the South' and confirmed his place in America's history."—Publishers Weekly,starred review
- "Traub depicts a fully fleshed character, an extraordinary man driven by his birthright principles, a voluminous diarist, scholar, poet, polymath, eccentric, and iconoclast. The author also offers a masterly portrait of Adams' wife, Louisa. An impassioned biography of 'a coherent and consistent thinker who adhered to his core political convictions across his decades of public service.'"—Kirkus
- "James Traub's new biography of John Quincy Adams is exceptionally strong. Adams was a complicated hero, a patrician visionary but also, as Traub puts it, a militant spirit, one of the most important diplomats in all of American history and, finally, slavery's greatest enemy in American politics."—Sean Wilentz, author of The Rise of AmericanDemocracy: Jefferson to Lincoln
- "John Quincy Adams was a great statesman and a heroic crusader for freedom, whose finest hours, ironically, came both before and after his time as president. James Traub does us a service by bringing him to life again for a new generation. With a journalist's touch, Traub paints a vivid portrait of the man in all his complexity."—Robert Kagan, author of Of Paradise and Power
- "In lucid prose and with canny insight, James Traub illuminates the life and political career of John Quincy Adams. Driven by grim purpose and consistent values, Adams was hard to love but demanded respect as he matured into a champion of liberty for all. Traub admires Adams [and is] tinged with sadness for the absence of his type in our own times."—Alan Taylor, author of The Internal Enemy:Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832
- On Sale
- Oct 10, 2017
- Page Count
- 656 pages
- Basic Books