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The untold story of Abigail and John Adams

Created date

January 25th, 2011

She was his dearest Friend, sometimes Miss Adorable, but history knows her as Abigail, the wife of founding father and President John Adams. As a couple, the two were unlike any other in history. John, while vain and volatile, was also ambitious and fully aware of his important role in American history. From the 1770s through 1801, Adams was a key player in declaring independence from Great Britain, wrote the Massachusetts state constitution, served as minister to France and England, and was the nation s second commander in chief. The strong-willed and independent-minded Abigail was his partner through all of it. She was his confidant, the ballast that brought strength and balance to their marriage and John s long career.

An extraordinary union

In his latest book,First Family: Abigail & John Adams(Knopf, 2010), Pulitzer Prize winning author Joseph Ellis sheds new light on this extraordinary union, which lasted over 50 years and helped shape what is the world s oldest enduring republic. When I first began writing the book, I assumed that the focus of the story was more about the history that these people lived than it was about their marriage, Ellis says. And eventually, it occurred to me that I was actually writing a love story in the truest sense of the term that the real story was the 59-year relationship between John and Abigail and the role that it played in the creation of a democratic America.

Long overdue portrayal

Perhaps the most important contribution that Ellis s book makes to the existing literature on the subject is his artful and long overdue portrayal of Abigail as a woman ahead of her time. In one sense she was the traditional New England housewife according to Ellis, a role that was her main pleasure in life. As John practiced law and traveled to Philadelphia with the Continental Congress, Abigail managed their farm and educated the children. Yet she also made potentially life-altering decisions in her husband s absence, including the risky inoculation of her family in the face of a raging smallpox epidemic. What s more, Abigail was uncommonly well read, had strong opinions, and was not at all afraid to express her views traits that John embraced at a time when most husbands discouraged them. She was more than a wife to her husband, the up-and-coming statesman. Abigail was John s most trusted political advisor, editor, and sounding board, always ready to offer counsel whenever she saw fit. For instance, in a letter from March 1776, she famously advised John and his colleagues in the Continental Congress to Remember the Ladies. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies, she warned, we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.


In fact, Abigail was, in Ellis s words, a proto-feminist. She was very active in her husband s life, he explains. During John s embassy years in Paris and London, Abigail was expected to be informed and to be part of the team. When he was president, she was his one-woman cabinet because he couldn t trust anyone in his own cabinet. On top of this, they were two people very much in love. Abigail once wrote, When he is wounded, I bleed. In his book, Ellis harvests the 1,200 letters the couple exchanged and creates a dramatic portrait of a marriage that spanned the birth of a nation. The reason I was able to tell this story was because John and Abigail so diligently saved their letters, in which they wrote candidly about their daily lives and the amazing events that they were a part of, Ellis says. As Americans, we ve matured enough to not want our founders to be perfect. Through their letters, we see John and Abigail as human beings, amazing human beings. But Ellis adds that it wasn t until the late 1960s and early 70s that we began to admit women to the pantheon of national forebears, Abigail Adams being chief among them. Indeed, near the end of her life, she went so far as to claim her own property and write her own will, acts that were technically illegal in the early 19th century. With the benefit of hindsight, though, it s clear that Abigail helped form a new mold for women, and John encouraged it. As a couple, it makes them all the more deserving of the honor that Ellis bestows upon them in the telling of their story.