First Family: Abigail and John Adams

by Joseph J. Ellis

Joseph J. Ellis is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize (FOUNDING BROTHERS) and the National Book Award (AMERICAN SPHINX). In his new book, he examines in detail the lives and careers --- on and off the political stage --- of a legendary foremother and forefather of our country.

By the name order in the title, you can tell that this will be a new slant on a great American couple. Ellis credits Abigail Adams with as much sense, political savvy and true grit as her famous husband. As he states, about one of the many instances when Abigail weighed in on John’s professional interests, "Though she was surely influenced by her husband's opinions, her experience as a woman gave her views...a more floridly moralistic tone and an almost operatic voice."

John and Abigail met when she was a teenager. She was unfashionably slender but came from a good family, and he was already a tad tubby and had made a significant decision --- somewhat in defiance of his family’s wishes --- by studying for the law at Harvard rather than the ministry. By the time the couple, 15 years apart in age, married, he had acreage and a house, she had a wagonload of furniture and an excellent pedigree, and they had amassed a considerable stash of letters that over the course of their five-year courtship had convinced them that each had met a true match. John had been keeping a journal since his teens, and both had a flair for writing, allowing them to chronicle not only their obvious devotion to each other over the years, but also the remarkable activities of the times in which John, as Vice-President, President and father of a President, was so intimately involved. Their more than 1,000 letters are a clear and dramatic history.

The letters often reveal their passion as well as their strongly held opinions. John to Abigail: "I suppose your Ladyship has been in the Twitters, for some Time past, because you have not received a Letter by every Post, as you used to do. But I am coming to make My Apology in Person."

Abigail, as is well known, was a gadfly on the subject of women’s rights. "This world, perhaps, would laugh at me, but you know I have a mind too enlarged and liberal to disregard the sentiment," she told John, and "If we mean to have Heroes, Statesmen and Philosophers, we should have learned women." Such cleverly formulated statements put John on the spot and forced him to be something of a “new man” well before his time, or risk the annoyance of the woman he loved, a dynamic spouse, mother and consummate manager of the home.

The couple was forced to spend protracted periods apart, playing into Abigail’s fears and loneliness. She had a phobia about sea travel, and so it was their son Quincy who accompanied John when he went to Europe on behalf of the new United States. Resentful to some extent that John could so neglect her, she did dally a bit (at least on paper) with a potential suitor, while John evinced extreme embarrassment at the sexual frankness of the French and unfeigned horror at the antics of Benjamin Franklin abroad, thus making it unlikely that he ever would have strayed from his “dear friend” Abigail. Despite her illnesses, she did finally join John in swampy Philadelphia, then the US capital, once he became President.

Reading Ellis’s account of early party politics in America may make the reader sigh. The well-known friendship/hatred/friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson included some misdeeds that would not look out of place on the current nightly news. Jefferson paid an operative to dig up dirt on Adams when they were in their rival phase, then underpaid the scandal monger who turned the tables and, in revenge, revealed Jefferson’s affair with his servant Sally. Nowadays we would say ho-hum and flick the remote, but it is rather discouraging to realize that scurrilous dealings have been part and parcel of American politics from the beginning.

However, if one concentrates instead on the timeless love story between Abigail and John, and the incredible coincidence of old rivals Adams and Jefferson dying on the same day --- each aware of the other’s impending passing, the day in question being July 4th --- one finds more noble and enduring truths.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 22, 2011

First Family: Abigail and John Adams
by Joseph J. Ellis

  • Publication Date: September 6, 2011
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0307389995
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307389992