Twenty years ago, while I was researching a book on John Adams in retirement that became Passionate Sage, I first encountered the letters between John and Abigail. I realized that I was entering a life-long conversation near its end, an extraordinarily candid conversation, perhaps the most revealing correspondence between a prominent husband and wife in American history.
I made a mental note to one day go back and read all the 1200 letters and tell their story. Several books later I finally got around to doing just that. The result is First Family: Abigail and John Adams.
My instincts as a historian predisposed me to assume that Abigail and John afforded a special window into the major events of the American founding: the coming and winning of the war for independence, the creation of the first large-scale republic, the emergence of political parties, the torments and tragedies of the Adams presidency.
About half-way through the book I realized that I was actually writing a love story. The historical landscape over which Abigail and John travelled was, to be sure, important, but it was really the background scenery for a tale of a man and woman, husband and wife, who sustained a partnership for nearly sixty years of intense intimacy and honesty. It was about mutual trust, growing together, raising children, aging, the changing colorations of love, enduring pain together. Indeed, when Abigail’s sister asked late in life if she would do it all again, she responded by saying that she and John had suffered so much together she could not imagine doing it with anyone else.
It is the interwoven and interactive public and private sides of the story that strike me as special. At the same time that John was defending Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence, for example, he was more emotionally invested in the fate of Abigail and the children, who were undergoing inoculation for smallpox in Boston. When he received word of his defeat in the election of 1800, he was more depressed by news of his son Charles’ premature death from alcoholism.
As historians, we ignore the symbiosis between the public and private experience at our own peril, because that is how all of us, including such prominent figures as John and Abigail, actually live our lives. The letters they left us, then, are an incomparable record of how it looked and felt to have a box seat as history was happening all around them, doing it all together.
Editor's note: discussed his book First Family: Abigail and John Adams at the National Constitution Center on November 9, 2011. Listen to the podcast: [audio: http://www.constitutioncenter.org/media/audio/joseph_ellis_11-09-11/joseph_ellis_11-09-11_(64).mp3]
Joseph J. Ellis is the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of numerous books on the revolutionary era, including First Family: Abigail and John Adams.
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