First Family

Abigail and John Adams

by Joseph J. Ellis

Knopf, 320 pp., $27.95

Before her death in 1802, Martha Washington took care to burn all but two of the letters she had exchanged with her husband, the greatest man in American history. That act deprived George Washington’s critics of unguarded moments to be used as raw material for casting his actions in the worst possible light—a cottage industry to this day—but it robbed the rest of us of priceless insights into the private life and personal reflections of this now eternally aloof and godlike figure.

So we are forever fortunate that a similar fate did not befall the correspondence of John and Abigail Adams, which Joseph J. Ellis aptly calls “a treasure-trove of unexpected intimacy and candor, more revealing than any other correspondence between any prominent American husband and wife in American history.” Their 1,016 surviving letters to each other constitute a marvelously literate, loving, and detailed look into their lives and times—fodder for Adams haters, to be sure, since John all too often stewed over his prejudices and wounded pride, but a nonetheless fascinating look into two compelling people and the world-shaking events they hastened.

In an age obsessed with private lives, and one that increasingly recognizes women’s crucial influence on history, these letters have precipitated a kind of mania for John and Abigail in recent years. There was David McCullough’s luminous biography of John Adams and the entertaining HBO series it spawned. There have been other relatively new and excellent biographies and studies of John (James Grant’s John Adams: Party of One and C. Bradley Thompson’s John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty) and Abigail (Abigail Adams by Woody Holton and Dearest Friend by Lynne Withey) as well as a rich collection of their letters, My Dearest Friend, published by Belknap Press. Ellis contributed his own classic study, Passionate Sage, which looked at John Adams’s life through the prism of his declining years.

Is there any point, then, in Ellis’s adding to the pile? There is, because Ellis is a beautiful writer, knows his material intimately, and tells a story with sensitivity, balance, and insight. As much as I have read about these two, I came away from this account feeling I know them better. First Family follows the two Adamses from their initial glimpse of each other (1759) in the stuffy parlor of Abigail’s father, the Rev. William Smith, in Weymouth, Massachusetts. Abigail was 14 years old and John 24. John was short, even for his time, and already getting bald and round, while Abigail was on the scrawny side, with dark brown hair and brown eyes.

“Neither one of them, at first glance,” Ellis notes, “had the obvious glow of greatness.” What they did have were sharp tongues and minds, and the desire to use them. From the start, John loved that Abigail was (his word) “saucy.” And Abigail, writes Ellis, “despite the lack of any formal education, could match John with a pen, which was saying quite a lot, since he proved to be one of the master letter writers in an age not lacking in serious contenders.”

Of course, the often-exhausting act of writing forces the writer to wrestle ideas to the ground before he or she can express them clearly, exercise that greatly sharpens the mind. Indeed, Abigail was in some ways John’s superior, something that remained apparent during their 54-year marriage.

Together with his gargantuan ambitions and overlapping vanities, he brought massive insecurities to the relationship: a nervous, excitable, at times irritable temperament rooted not so much in self-doubt—he was completely confident of his abilities—but rather uncertainty that the world would allow him to display his talents.

John was determined never to be “a base weed and ignoble shrub.” Abigail was his “ballast,” steadying him, reassuring him, providing him sage political advice. It is a keen historical irony that we owe the intimate record of this extraordinary marriage to the fact that the two were forced to be apart for most of John’s 27 years of public service—from 1774, when he went off to serve in the Continental Congress, to 1801, when he returned to Quincy after a storm-tossed term as president. In what Ellis calls the “paradox of proximity,” we know less about John and Abigail the closer they are to each other—and much more about them, through their letters, when they are distant, lonely, and driven to write.

These letters often crossed in the mail, so it was difficult for John and Abigail to respond to one another. Eighteenth-century letters “were less an ongoing conversation than a time-bound exchange of ruminations, more thoughtful and self-consciously composed than our Internet communications, but also less interactive,” Ellis writes. He powerfully conveys Abigail’s feelings of loneliness and betrayal, as John pursues his ambitions as a European diplomat for revolutionary America while she fights to maintain the family home in Braintree. Abigail sinks into depression and despair, “sitting in my solitary chamber, the representative of the lonely love,” describing her fate as her “cruel destiny.” She agonizes over whether she is the partner who loves and cares more, and whether John no longer feels what he once did—an all-too-common torment in a marriage, never mind one separated by an ocean and widespread war in an age of dangerous travel and poor communications.

Abigail’s fierce devotion to John, in the face of all this, is one of the stirring aspects of the letters and the marriage. When a cabal forms against John in Congress, she brands Benjamin Franklin a “False, insinuating, dissembling wretch” for his role in it. And as much as she is certain that John is in the right, she explains to a member of Congress: “Yet, it wounds me, sir. When he is wounded, I bleed.”

For his part, John deeply admired Abigail and her letters for the rest of his life: “They give me more entertainment than all the speeches I hear,” he wrote, when he served as Washington’s vice president and suffered the acute agony of presiding silently over Senate windbags. “There is more good Thoughts, fine strokes and Mother Wit in them than I hear in a whole Week.” And after Abigail’s death, John confessed to his son—and later president—John Quincy Adams that he no longer worried about dying: “The bitterness of death is past. The grim spider so terrible to human nature has no sting left for me.”

Edward Achorn, deputy editor of the editorial pages at the Providence Journal, is the author of Fifty-nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had.

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