by Cheryl A. Bastian
Includes: Activities, Helpful Links and Discussion Questions
High School

A Great American Leader
Based on John Adams by David McCullough
Book of John Adams
Historian David McCullough penned John Adams (Simon & Schuster, 2002), the brilliantly researched, well-written biography detailing the life of our first vice president and later, second president. From primary source documents, McCullough crafted what some people claim to be the most detailed account of one of our nation’s most prominent—albeit often overshadowed by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson—founding fathers. This book offers readers a look into John’s lesser-known accomplishments, his fierce love of patriotism, and his marriage to Abigail. Quoted excerpts from the surviving correspondence between John and Abigail, as well as additional diaries, give readers a unique, accurate vantage point to some of the most significant events in our country’s history.
Discuss & Write
David McCullough unpacks the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two starkly different lives: one a farmer and the other a Virginia aristocrat, one who embraced conflict and the other who avoided it, one humorous and the other not. As different as these men were, they shared a common devotion to their country, working as revolutionaries to bring about freedom. Their lasting friendship survived their competitive 1800 presidential election. Interestingly, the devoted friends died on the same day, July 4, 1826—the fiftieth anniversary of the independent nation they helped defend and lead.
Image of Declaration of Independence
  • Discuss as a family or write a three-paragraph essay comparing and contrasting the lives of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—their upbringing, personality, profession, spirituality, and philosophy.

John Adams played a key role in helping Thomas Jefferson pen the Declaration of Independence. He also took on the role of lead negotiator of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War.

  • Discuss as a family or write a biographical essay highlighting John Adams’s strengths and character and how those qualities contributed to or influenced the Revolution.

John and Abigail Adams had a relationship that is described by some as extraordinary for marriages of the time. It was a union of generosity and a mutual respect evidenced in their personal letters, which John Adams intentionally worked to preserve.

  • Discuss as a family or write a descriptive essay telling of the significance and depth of John and Abigail Adams’s relationship, using and citing quotes from their letters.

Abigail played an incredible supporting role to her husband, especially as the first lady. Some historians say Abigail’s influence shaped the role of the first lady. Research how and why this could be true.

  • Write a descriptive essay telling the importance of Abigail Adams’s role as first lady and how her leadership and actions influenced the first ladies who followed her.
“Quoted excerpts from the surviving correspondence between John and Abigail, as well as additional diaries, give readers a unique, accurate vantage point to some of the most significant events in our country’s history.”
Create a chronological PowerPoint presentation highlighting the major life events of John Adams as well as the historical events of which he was part.

John Adams not only corresponded with this dear wife, Abigail, but also his son, John Quincy. In those letters, John emphasizes the qualities citizens needed to successfully lead the new nation. Excerpts from their correspondence can be found at America in Class Lessons, which you can access here. Read through the letters. Make a poster or digital publication highlighting the leadership and character qualities as well as the civil responsibilities John encouraged his son to consider and develop, for example:

  • Time management skills
  • Respect for others
  • Money management skills
  • A commitment to personal health
  • A commitment to truth and justice
  • An understanding of the political rocess

He also wanted his son to:

  • Value education
  • Journal thoughts and experiences
  • Study military history and political systems of other countries
  • Guard personal thoughts
  • Avoid divisiveness
  • Understand the power and effectiveness of democracy
  • Be aware of what shapes public opinion
  • Understand the personal sacrifice required for public service

Interestingly, John Quincy Adams indeed became a leader, serving as a diplomat, a senator, the secretary of state, and the sixth president of the United States. After serving as president, John Quincy represented his Massachusetts district in the House of Representatives.

A Works Cited page lists the resources used for a research paper written in MLA format. This page is the last page of a paper. Using the MLA style guide, create the Works Cited entry for David McCullough’s John Adams.

Service provides opportunities to learn about oneself while impacting the lives of others. Volunteer experiences also build leadership skills and character. Look for venues—church, public libraries, non-profit organizations, or the senate page program—where your high schooler may be able to develop skills while also providing value service for an organization.
Leadership skills develop and are fostered through experience. Pray for opportunities for middle and high school young adults to mentor—come alongside—younger children. Examples may be offering tutoring, providing guidance through scouting or youth activities, or giving music lessons. Any skill or gifting could be used as a means to encourage and mentor someone.

John Adams has been a favorite biography in our family. Its length can be intimidating, even for an avid reader. Consider allowing your high schooler to listen to the audiobook version or utilize the amazing index in the back of the book to build an independent study into a specific topic or two. A book of this caliber has a multitude of educational possibilities waiting for high schoolers needing their American history or American government credits to be interesting and engaging, alive, and personal.


heryl Bastian has been married to Mike for twenty-eight years and began homeschooling in 1993. A mother of eight children— preschool through adult—Cheryl knows the trials and triumphs of embracing each season of life and is passionate about equipping and inspiring parents who want to nurture a desire for life-long learning in their children.