Wednesday, March 26, 2008

My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams

Now that the lives of Abigail and John Adams are all the rave on the web, I thought I might mention a book that I read a while back. It is a compilation of the correspondence between John & Abigail Adams, which is edited by historians Joseph Ellis and Margaret Hogan. The book gives some wonderful insight into the personal life of John and Abigail Adams. Their marriage is without question the most publicized and well-known of all the Founding Fathers.

Though a little mundane in parts, I found this book to be a wonderful fountain of information on the Adams Family. Having the insight and commentary of Ellis and Hogan was also very advantageous. Sometimes it is hard to put into context what John and Abigail are talking about, and Ellis is extremely helpful in this regard.

In their critique of this book, the New York Times Book Review had this to say:

From John’s salutation in the first letter — “Miss Adorable” — to the epilogue and his final signature in a letter to his son John Quincy about Abigail’s death — “your Aged and Afflicted Father” — the Adamses’ correspondence gives modern Americans an extraordinarily personal view of our country’s founding. Intermingled with comments on the great events of the day — the Battle of Bunker Hill, the vote for independence, the inauguration of Washington as president — are discussions of daily life, stories of neighbors and relatives, complaints about the high cost of living and laments over such family tragedies as a stillborn daughter and the deaths of parents. Their courtship letters are especially delightful. A few months before their marriage John playfully addressed to Abigail a “Catalogue of your Faults” that included such flaws as neglecting card-playing, being too modest and spending too much time “Reading, Writing and Thinking.” Abigail’s response adopted the same jocular tone: “I was so hardned as to read over most of my Faults with as much pleasure, as an other person would have read their perfections.” Amusingly, a series of letters details a mix-up in September 1776 when some prized tea that John dispatched from Philadelphia to Abigail was misdirected to Samuel Adams’s wife, who then proudly invited Abigail to drink “a very fine dish of Green Tea” she thought had been sent by her “Sweet Heart.” (Abigail ended up with only “about half” the tea, for it had been “very freely used” before the error was corrected.)

Abigail and John wrote unreservedly to each other, despite knowing that their correspondence might be intercepted and read by unfriendly eyes — as indeed some of it was (one such letter, published in 1775 in a loyalist newspaper, is included in this collection). Upon learning that his former friend Jefferson intended to resign as secretary of state in late 1793, John observed, “Instead of being the ardent pursuer of science that some think him, I know he is indolent, and his soul is prisoned with Ambition.” Reporting on Jefferson’s departure from Philadelphia a few days later, he told Abigail, “good riddance of bad ware.” Three years later, Abigail was somewhat more positive: “Tho wrong in Politicks, tho formerly an advocate for Tom Pains Rights of Man and tho frequently mistaken in Men and Measures, I do not think him an insincere or a corruptable Man. My Friendship for him has ever been unshaken.” But her affection for Jefferson did not extend to other Southern “real and haughty Aristocrats”; she contrasted them to the “Real and true Republicans” like her husband, expressing her hope that “their Negroes will fight our Battles.”

In addition to quotidian details, political commentary and descriptions of notable events, readers will find a variety of pithy remarks here. John’s comment on the First Continental Congress, for example, might resonate with viewers of C-Span today: “Every Man in it is a great Man — an orator, a Critick, a statesman and therefore every Man upon every Question must shew his oratory, his Criticism and his Political Abilities.” And feminists might well applaud Abigail’s praise of female rulers: “History informs us that of the few Queens who have reigned for any length of Time as absolute Sovereigns the greatest part of them have been celebrated for excellent Govenours.”

Because Joseph Ellis has been an outspoken critic of social and women’s history, he appears a peculiar choice to write the foreword, despite his many publications on the Revolutionary era. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he treats Abigail here more as her husband’s adjunct and supporter than as her own woman. Neither Ellis nor, for that matter, the editors call the reader’s attention to the ways in which Abigail boldly challenged John: how, when he complained about the poor education of America’s sons, she responded with even more vociferous criticisms of the education offered its daughters; or how, most famously, she admonished him to “Remember the Ladies” in the “New Code of Laws” the nation would have to adopt, because “all Men would be tyrants if they could.”


Brad said...

Sounds like a great book. I'll have to put it on my "to read" list.

klkatz said...

in reading McCullough's John Adams and parelleling it with HBO's miniseries, this would be the obvious next one on my list...

just the higlights from McCullough's book, are enough to peak my curiosity... in a diffferent time, perhaps Abigail would have been our second president.

if Hillary wins the election, would the Clinton's take over as "First Couple"? or would the Adams' still take the cake?

Lindsey Shuman said...

This is an excellent book, klkatz. I am sure you'll love it. It even puts McCullough to shame. Nobody tells history better than those who participated!

Anonymous said...

A far better collection is
The book of Abigail and John : selected letters of the Adams family, 1762-1784 / edited and with an introd. by L. H. Butterfield, Marc Friedlaender, and Mary-Jo Kline.
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1975. Its editors were the editors of the Adams papers.

Andy said...

I wrote a piece about Abigail and John Adams and how they intended to raise their children.