First Family: Abigail and John Adams

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9780307389992: First Family: Abigail and John Adams

In this rich and engrossing account, John and Abigail Adams come to life against the backdrop of the Republic’s tenuous early years.
 
Drawing on over 1,200 letters exchanged between the couple, Ellis tells a story both personal and panoramic. We learn about the many years Abigail and John spent apart as John’s political career sent him first to Philadelphia, then to Paris and Amsterdam; their relationship with their children; and Abigail’s role as John’s closest and most valued advisor. Exquisitely researched and beautifully written, First Family is both a revealing portrait of a marriage and a unique study of America’s early years.

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About the Author:

JOSEPH J. ELLIS is the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Founding Brothers. His portrait of Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx, won the National Book Award. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, Ellen, his youngest son, three dogs, and a cat.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

PREFACE

My serious interest in the Adams family began twenty years ago, when I wrote a book about John Adams in retirement, eventually published as Passionate Sage. I had a keen sense that I was stepping into a long- standing conversation between Abigail and John in its final phase. And I had an equivalently clear sense that the conversation preserved in the roughly twelve hundred letters between them constituted a treasure trove of unexpected intimacy and candor, more revealing than any other correspondence between a prominent American husband and wife in American history.

I moved on to different historical topics over the ensuing years, but I made a mental note to come back to the extraordinarily rich Adams archive, then read all their letters and tell the full story of their conversation within the context of America’s creation as a people and a nation. The pages that follow represent my attempt to do just that.

The distinctive quality of their correspondence, apart from its sheer volume and the dramatic character of the history that was happening around them, is its unwavering emotional honesty. All of us who have fallen in love, tried to raise children, suffered extended bouts of doubt about the integrity of our ambitions, watched our once youthful bodies betray us, harbored illusions about our impregnable principles, and done all this with a partner traveling the same trail know what unconditional commitment means, and why, especially today, it is the exception rather than the rule.

Abigail and John traveled down that trail about two hundred years before us, remained lovers and friends throughout, and together had a hand in laying the foundation of what is now the oldest enduring republic in world history. And they left a written record of all the twitches, traumas, throbbings, and tribulations along the way. No one else has ever done that.

To be sure, there were other prominent couples in the revolutionary era— George and Martha Washington as well as James and Dolley Madison come to mind. But no other couple left a documentary record of their mutual thoughts and feelings even remotely comparable to Abigail and John’s. (Martha Washington burned almost all the letters to and from her husband.) And at the presidential level, it was not until Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt occupied the White House that a wife exercised an influence over policy decisions equivalent to Abigail’s.

It is the interactive character of their private story and the larger public story of the American founding that strikes me as special. Recovering their experience as a couple quite literally forces a focus on the fusion of intimate psychological and emotional experience with the larger political narrative. Great events, such as the battle of Bunker Hill, the debate over the Declaration of Independence, and the presidential election of 1800, become palpable human experiences rather than grandiose abstractions. They lived through a truly formative phase of American history and left an unmatched record of what it was like to shape it, and have it happen to them.

As I see it, then, Abigail and John have much to teach us about both the reasons for that improbable success called the American
Revolution and the equally startling capacity for a man and woman—husband and wife— to sustain their love over a lifetime filled with daunting challenges. One of the reasons for writing this book was to figure out how they did it.

CHAPTER ONE

1759–74

And there is a tye more binding than
Humanity, and stronger than Friendship.


Knowing as we do that John and Abigail Adams were destined to become the most famous and consequential couple in the revolutionary era, indeed some would say the premier husband-and-wife team in all American history, it is somewhat disconcerting to realize that when they first met in the summer of 1759, neither one was particularly impressed by the other. The encounter occurred in the parlor of the pastor’s house in Weymouth, Massachusetts, which happened to be the home of Abigail and her two sisters. Their father was the Reverend William Smith, whom John described in his diary as “a crafty designing man,” a veteran public speaker attuned to reading the eyes of his audience. “I caught him, several times,” wrote John, “looking earnestly at my face.” Like most successful pastors, he was accustomed to being the center of attention, which apparently annoyed John, who described Reverend Smith prancing across the room while gesturing ostentatiously, “clapping his naked [?] sides and breasts with his hands before the girls."

Abigail, in fact, was still a girl, not quite fifteen years old to John’s twenty-four. She was diminutive, barely five feet tall, with dark brown hair, brown eyes, and a slender shape more attractive in our own time than then, when women were preferred to be plump. John was quite plump, or as men would have it, stout, already showing the signs that would one day allow his enemies to describe him as “His Rotundity.” At five feet five or six, he was slightly shorter than the average American male of the day, and his already receding hairline promised pre-mature baldness. Neither one of them, at first glance, had the obvious glow of greatness.

John’s verdict, recorded in his diary, was that he had wasted an evening. He was courting Hannah Quincy at the time— some say that she was actually courting him— and his first reaction was that neither Abigail nor her sisters could measure up to Hannah. They seemed to lack the conversational skills and just sat there, “not fond, nor frank, not candid.” Since Abigail eventually proved to be all these things, we can only conclude that this first meeting was an awkward occasion on which the abiding qualities of her mind and heart were obscured beneath the frozen etiquette of a pastor’s parlor. And besides, she was only a teenager, nine years his junior, not even a legitimate candidate for his roving interest in a prospective wife.

To say that “something happened” to change their respective opinions of each other over the next three years is obviously inadequate, but the absence of documentary evidence makes it the best we can do. John had legal business in Weymouth that involved the status of the pastoral house occupied by the Smith family, which meant that he was literally forced to interact with Abigail. And he accompanied his then best friend, Richard Cranch, who was courting (and eventually married) Mary Smith, Abigail’s older sister. This, too, prompted interactions. And his flirtatious relationship with Hannah Quincy ended in a mutually declared romantic truce, which made John, once again, eligible.

Time was also a factor. The difference between a fifteen- year-old girl and a twenty-four-year-old man seemed a chasm; the difference between eighteen and twenty- seven was much more negotiable. Though it seems too easy to say, chance and circumstance provided them with the opportunity to talk with each other, to move past the awkwardness of a stuffy Weymouth parlor, thereby initiating a conversation that lasted for almost sixty years.

But talk by itself was not sufficient to explain their mutual attraction. The letters that began to flow back and forth between them late in 1761 contain some explicit expressions of powerful physical and sexual urges, so that the picture that emerges depicts two young lovers conversing about Shakespeare’s sonnets or Molière’s plays in between long and multiple kisses, passionate embraces, and mutual caresses. Their grandson Charles Francis Adams, who published the first comprehensive edition of their correspondence nearly a century later, was either too embarrassed or too much a prisoner of Victorian mores to include any of their courtship correspondence. Here is a sample of what he chose to censor. John to Abigail, addressed to “Miss Adorable”: “By the same token that the bearer hereof [JA] satt up with you last night, I hereby order you to give him, as many kisses, and as many Hours of your company after nine o’clock as he pleases to demand, and charge them to my account.”

Or John to Abigail, explaining that a sudden stormhad prevented a trip to see her atWeymouth: “Yet perhaps blessed storm . . . for keeping one at my distance. For every experimental philosopher knows, that the steel and the magnet, or the glass and the feather will not fly together with more celerity . . . than somebody . . . when brought within striking distance— and Itches, Aches, Agues, and Repentance might be the consequences of contact in present circumstances.”

Then Abigail to John, proclaiming that their mutual attraction was visceral as well as intellectual: “And there is a tye more binding than Humanity, and stronger than Friendship . . . unite these, and there is a threefold chord— and by this chord I am not ashamed to say that I am bound, nor do I [believe] that you are wholly free from it.”

The inevitable “did they or didn’t they” question is impossible to answer conclusively, though their first child, named Abigail, was born eight and half months after their marriage, just barely within the bounds of propriety. But the fact that they were strongly tempted is beyond question, and a crucial indication that their affinity was not solely cerebral. For both of them, love entailed a level of intimacy that no conversation could completely capture and required a physical attraction. And they both felt it. If Abigail referred to it as “the third chord,” we might shift the metaphor and describe it as an emotional affinity that made unconditional trust between them a natural act.

One of the distinctive features of their extraordinary correspondence over a lifetime—more than twelve hundred letters—was also
present from the start, namely, the tendency to banter playfully about serious subjects, thereby creating a certain ambiguity as to whether the issue at stake was cause for concern or laughter. For example, in a note to Abigail’s sister Mary, John jokingly claimed that Abigail was rumored to have a crush on the recently coronated British monarch, George III, and that “altho my allegiance has been hitherto inviolate, I shall endeavor all in my Power, to foment Rebellion.” (Little did he know that his joke would become a prescient prophecy.) Or there is Abigail’s mock criticism of John that then concludes with a doubleedged compliment:

You was pleas’d to say that the receipt of a letter from your Diana always gave you pleasure. Whether this was designed as a
compliment (a commodity I acknowledge that you seldom deal in) or as a real truth, you best know. Yet if I was to judge a certain persons Heart by what the like occasion passes through a cabinet of my own, I should be apt to suggest it as a truth. And why may
I not? When I have often been tempted to believe that they were both cast in the same mold, only with this difference, that yours was made with a harder mettle, and therefore is less liable to an impression. Whether they both have an eaquil quantity of steel, I have not yet been able to discover, but do not imagine that either of them are deficient.

Abigail was apparently more than half serious when, a few months before their wedding, she asked John to deliver on his promise “and tell me all my faults, both of omission and commission, and all the evil you either know or think of me.” John responded with a mock “catalogue of your Faults, Imperfections, Deficits, or whatever you please to call them.” She was, he observed, negligent at playing cards, could not sing a note, often hung her head like a bulrush, sat with her legs crossed, was pigeon- toed, and to cap it off, she read too much. Abigail responded that many of these defects were probably incurable, especially the reading, so he would have to learn to live with them. The leg-crossing charge struck her as awkward, since “a gentleman has no business to concern himself with the leggs of a lady.”

The letters exchanged during their courtship (1761–64) provide the first and fullest window into the chemistry of their relationship, but it would probably be wrong to presume that the correspondence accurately reflected the way they talked to each other when together. Letter writing in the eighteenth century was a more deliberative and self-consciously artful exercise than those of us in the present, with our cell phones, e-mail, and text messaging, can fully fathom. The letters, of course, are all we have to recover the texture of their overlapping personalities. While they constitute a long string of emotional and intellectual pearls unmatched in the literature of the era, they were also self- conscious performances, quasi-theatrical presentations that were more stylized and orchestrated than real conversations. There are some things, in short, that we can never know for sure about their deepest thoughts and feelings, even though they are among the most fully revealed couples in American history.

Two essential ingredients in their lifetime literary dialogue were clear from the start: first, Abigail, 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; second, there was a presumed sense of psychological equality between them that Abigail expected and John found intoxicating. She was marrying a man who loved the fact that she was, as he put it, “saucy,” and he was marrying a woman who was simultaneously capable of unconditional love and personal independence. They recognized from the beginning that they were a rare match. There were so many topics they could talk about easily and just as many things they did not have to talk about at all.

The wedding occurred on October 25, 1764, in the same parlor of her father’s house in Weymouth where they had initially found each other so uninteresting. In her last letter to John before the wedding, Abigail asked him to take all her belongings, which she was forwarding in a cart to their new home in Braintree. “And then Sir, if you please,” she concluded, “you may take me.”8

DOWRIES

What did each of them bring to the marriage? Well, most basically, John brought sixty acres of land and a small house that he had inherited from his father, who died in 1761. Abigail brought a cartload of furniture and a household servant, who was partially paid for by her father. By the standards of New England at that time, these assets, though hardly massive, were not meager. They were starting off with more material resources than most newlyweds.

What about their respective bloodlines? On this score Abigail brought more status than John. Her mother was a Quincy, a name that rested atop the Braintree elite; the family eventually had the town named after them. Their mansion at Mount Wollaston was the closest thing to a baronial estate outside of Boston. Her father was a Harvard-educated minister, while John’s was a farmer and shoemaker without a college education.

But this discrepancy was a bit deceptive, because Deacon Adams, as he was called, was a respected local leader who, at one time or another, had held every office in the Braintree town government. Moreover, as John made a point of emphasizing in his autobiography, the Adams family could trace its lineage back to 1638, making it one of the most long-standing families in Massachusetts, a venerable if not particularly prominent line.

That said, when John graduated from Harvard in 1755, he was ranked fourteenth out of twenty- five students, a ra...

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Descripción Random House USA Inc, United States, 2011. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Reprint. Language: English . This book usually ship within 10-15 business days and we will endeavor to dispatch orders quicker than this where possible. Brand New Book. In this rich and engrossing account, John and Abigail Adams come to life against the backdrop of the Republic s tenuous early years. Drawing on over 1,200 letters exchanged between the couple, Ellis tells a story both personal and panoramic. We learn about the many years Abigail and John spent apart as John s political career sent him first to Philadelphia, then to Paris and Amsterdam; their relationship with their children; and Abigail s role as John s closest and most valued advisor. Exquisitely researched and beautifully written, First Family is both a revealing portrait of a marriage and a unique study of America s early years. Nº de ref. de la librería BTE9780307389992

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