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.