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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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.