The Adams love affair, in word and deed.
Jul 4, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 40 • By EDWARD ACHORN
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.