The Magazine

Epistolary Marriage

An intimate glimpse of the Adams household.

Jun 2, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 36 • By EDWARD ACHORN
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My Dearest Friend

Letters of Abigail and John Adams

Edited by Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor

Harvard/Belknap, 528 pp., $35

As their letters make clear even to the most cynical of readers, John and Abigail Adams tenderly loved and needed each other, and yearned to be together. It is one of the keen ironies of history that they were apart for most of the 27 years of John's public service: from August 1774, when he set off to serve in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, to 1801, when he returned to Quincy from Washington, after one tempestuous term as president that ended with a painful defeat for reelection.

The cannon blasts, bloody wounds, and frostbitten feet that we associate with the Revolution make it easy to overlook the sacrifice that the Adamses made to the cause. But it was immense. They faced, without the sustaining presence of a partner nearby, loneliness, constant financial worry, political backstabbing, hard work, illnesses, and the difficult tasks of raising their young. They lived with the dread that British soldiers might apprehend Abigail and the children, or crush the rebellion and hang John as a rebel. For a number of years, they were separated by an ocean.

"Posterity! You will never know, how much it cost the present Generation, to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make good use of it," John Adams wrote in April 1777, adding wryly, "If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it."

In helping to found a country where their children (and ours) could grow up free, John and Abigail Adams bestowed an extraordinary blessing on all of us. Yet one of their greatest legacies was an unintended one, a consequence of their long separation and constant need for one another. They left behind marvelously detailed, literate, and loving letters to each other--1,016 survive--that add immeasurably to our understanding of this remarkable couple and their tumultuous times. Some 289 of them have been gathered into this new and fascinating collection, compiled by the editors of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Adams, an ambitious man with an eggshell ego, fretted that history would give him short shrift. "Statues and monuments will never be erected to me, nor flattering orations spoken, to transmit me to posterity in brilliant colors," he lamented. He knew full well that he was too short and round, too vain, too quick to anger, and too eager to speak out--incurable bluntness was his besetting political weakness--to seem very impressive in marble or bronze. And for most of the past two centuries, his glum prediction held true.

In recent years, though, Adams's star has risen prodigiously, thanks largely to the prose of David McCullough, author of the celebrated biography John Adams (2001), recently given the lavish treatment of a seven-part television series. Yet poor John can never quite shake the tendency to come off as rather ridiculous. Critics have variously compared the actor Paul Giamatti, playing a grouchy Adams with shaved head and powdered wig, to Shrek and Ebenezer Scrooge.

All the same, Adams's writings--particularly the letters--have preserved his greatness, perhaps better than any statue or solemn tome could do. With all his foibles there in full view, he seems more like us, angry and self-pitying and confused, than any of his fellow Founders. When those austere and iconic men wrote letters, not unlike most educated people of the 18th century, they tended to keep their emotions well under wraps. John and Abigail were entirely different: They pour their hearts onto the page, revealing awkward details that proved costly to him, both in their day and ours. British newspapers published some of Adams's intercepted letters, including information about his feelings and family, causing him great embarrassment. (He and Abigail took to writing under assumed names.) In our day, some historians have just as aggressively used Adams's heartfelt prose against him, mining the letters for evidence of his flaws. His contemporaries, who seemed to display godlike restraint by comparison, had the good sense to neglect to record their failings for posterity with such incredible persistence.

Still, the letters also reveal a man who, for all his flaws, showed stupendous courage, creativity, stubborn devotion to duty, and keen insight into the nature of power.

As great as he is, Abigail is easily his match. It is clear from these letters that, in addition to keeping the family's farm going in his absence (a difficult task calling for hard-headed business savvy), she often shows shrewder political instincts. Intensely curious about politics, she clamors for details and advises her husband about what steps to take. As he put it himself, she was his ballast, steadying the ship and keeping him moving forward, and he would not have become the great man he did without her. A flavor of that can be found in her very last surviving letter to him, as he mulls over judicial appointments before leaving office as president: "Adieu my dear Friend. I wish you well through the remainder of your political journey. I want to see the list of judges."

The crude stuff of life is here, illuminated with the lightning flashes of history. The letters remind us that these were two people who were groping in the darkness, unsure what would become of their lives and their new country. The loneliness and boredom, particularly in Abigail's life, seem palpable: With almost animal intensity, she craves John's letters and writes of them as "a feast to me" that "cheerd me in my most painfull Moments." They write back and forth about letters they have and have not received, thanks to the vagaries of war and 18th-century communications. Sickness and death are always lurking, ready to strike a family member without warning. Abigail writes about getting seaweed hauled up from the beach after storms to fertilize the fields. (The search for an ideal manure was an obsession with John Adams.) We learn of the dangers and headaches of travel, in jostling carriages over rutted roads or in ships prone to sink and drown all aboard. Their letters open a window to their age like few other documents. That alone makes them invaluable.

But they are also fun reading, bubbling with the charm, intelligence, pungency, and passion of these two, who were compelling and entertaining writers, one as good as the other. Many of the passages are well known. In the earliest surviving letter to Abigail, two years before their marriage, John playfully submits to her a "bill" requiring "as many Kisses, and as many Hours of your Company after 9 OClock as he shall please to Demand."

As John sets about crafting new laws, Abigail famously advises him to "Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could." John responds: "We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems. Altho they are in full Force, you know they are little more than Theory. We dare not exert our Power in full Latitude. We are obliged to go fair, and softly, and in Practice you know we are the subjects."

As the first president to stay in the White House, still unfinished in November 1800, he writes: "I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof."

This is the third edition of the letters of John and Abigail transcribed from the original manuscripts. Their grandson Charles Francis Adams, Henry Adams's father and Lincoln's ambassador in London during the Civil War, produced a bowdlerized edition in 1876, leaving out some of the more mundane and unpleasant facts about their lives. In 1975 The Book of John and Abigail appeared, a fine edition of 201 letters with modernized spelling and punctuation. This new, lengthier edition leaves the reader mostly on his own, for better or worse. Spelling and punctuation are left as they were, and the editors generally eschew footnotes and do little to help the reader identify exactly what and whom John and Abigail are talking about.

"It is our belief that Abigail and John said it best," the editors write. Maybe. But this nonspecialist could have used a little more hand-holding during the long journey. Still, even the general reader cannot fail to be intrigued by the Adamses and their complicated lives. One of the great comic moments comes in 1783 after Abigail, treading on tiptoe, informs John as gingerly as possible about one Royall Tyler, a potential suitor for their daughter Nabby's hand. She notes that he has lost much of his fortune in a dissolute youth, but has worked hard to reform, is studying law, and loves poetry. You can almost hear the top of Adams's head explode in response, posted from Paris where a preliminary peace agreement has just been signed.

"I don't like your Word 'Dissipation' at all," he sputters, working himself into an Adams lather. "My Child .  .  . is not to be the Prise, I hope of any, even reformed Rake. A Lawyer would be my Choice, but it must be a Lawyer who spends his Midnights as well as Evenings at his Age over his Books not at any Ladys Fire side. .  .  . A Youth who has been giddy enough to Spend his Fortune or half his Fortune in Gaieties, is not the Youth for me, Let his Person Family, Connections and Taste for Poetry be what they will. I am not looking for a Poet, nor a Professor of belle Letters." Poor Abigail, too, comes under fire: "I dont like this Method of Courting Mothers," John grumbles.

Many of their letters are suffused with a darker mood. "Stern Winter is making hasty strides towards me," Abigail writes, "and chills the warm fountain of my Blood by the Gloomy prospect of passing it alone, for what is the rest of the World to me?" They suffered this way because they wanted to preserve freedom, something that can only be earned through sacrifice. I wonder if Adams, looking down on the America of 2008, ever does "repent .  .  . the Pains" that he and his dearest friend took?

Edward Achorn is deputy editor of the
editorial pages at the Providence Journal.