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Most Affectionately Yours

By Gene Mirabelli

My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams

Edited by Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor

Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 508 pages, $35

 

Other Founding Fathers have their portraits on United States coins or bills, but not John Adams. This country’s romance with Thomas Jefferson has almost blinded us to Adams’ great role in transforming 13 British colonies into a unified nation. Jefferson had silken manners, and his eloquence is watermarked on our political soul. Adams was a flinty New Englander.

But John Adams is back. In 2001, David McCullough’s brilliant, dramatic biography of Adams won six awards, including a Pulitzer Prize. And now Tom Hanks’ production company has translated the book into a seven-part series on HBO. Dumpy, ordinary-looking Paul Giamatti plays John Adams, who was, as a matter or fact, dumpy and ordinary-looking. We have a less precise idea of how Abigail Adams looked in youth or middle age, but her character certainly deserves Laura Linney’s talent.

Viewers of the HBO series might wonder if Linney’s role was enhanced to satisfy the contemporary view of good women as strong, intelligent partners to the men they marry, but Abigail was, in fact, an incredibly strong, intelligent and brave woman. She was also self-educated and capable of just about everything that her complex life called upon her to do.

John and Abigail were married in 1764; during the next 10 years he practiced law and managed the family farm while she took care of household affairs and gave birth to five children, one of whom died at barely more than a year old. Then, in August 1774, John was sent to Philadelphia to represent Massachusetts at the First Continental Congress. They wrote to each other as often as they could, and so began the most remarkable exchange of letters in American history.

John and Abigail wrote more than a thousand letters to each other, and My Dearest Friend contains 289 selections from the body of their lifelong correspondence. The couple met when 23-year-old John was introduced to the minister’s 14-year-old daughter. The first letter we have comes three years later, a playful note to the teenage “Miss Adorable,” a kind of mock invoice, insisting that she owes him numerous “Kisses,” since “I have given two or three Millions at least” and the debt has not been near repaid. The last in this collection is John’s heartbreaking letter to his son John Quincy upon Abigail’s death.

The distance between Braintree, Mass., and Philadelphia meant that the letters spent weeks in transit, compelling the correspondents to write blindly, not knowing what letters had reached their destination. Even worse, the letters were sometimes snatched up by the British or their sympathizers, and in some cases published in British newspapers. In 1778, John Adams was sent to Paris on the first of many foreign missions that kept him far from home for years at a time. At best, it took six to eight weeks to cross the Atlantic; letters and packages were routinely intercepted, or thrown overboard at the approach of a British warship. Abigail began one of her letters with “Three days only did it want of a year from the date of your last Letter . . . ”

The letters are about everything under the sun: political events and political personalities, of course, but also more mundane matters, such as the crops on the family farm, the six-week stay in Boston where Abigail and her family go through their smallpox vacination, the endless wrangling in the Continental Congress, and Philadelphia’s bad beer. There were larger subjects, which it’s clear they had discussed before, such as the education of women and their role in society. The famous passage where Abigail reminds John to “Remember the Ladies” comes in a letter that begins by talking about military, domestic and political affairs, but then she writes:

“I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have not voice, or Representation.” There’s a lightness of tone here, but when John replied in a jocular manner she let him know she was quite serious.

No biography can capture the steady love and admiration revealed in this correspondence. To his contemporaries, John Adams was a cranky New Englander given to occasional outbursts of near insanity. But in these letters we discover a loving and loveable family man, extraordinarily intelligent and patriotic, ambitious, frustrated, filled with wrath and envy and, at last, contented with his place and his lot in life. Contemporary accounts note Abigail’s intelligence, her ability to grasp the large political picture and its details, too. But she was not a public figure, and her letters are our best way to get to know her.

In our e-mail era, it’s curious to read these antique letters written with a quill in sooty ink, the paper folded to make its own envelope, and all sealed with wax. Most amazing, you can read the thousand and more by John and Abigail, in their own neat handwriting, at the web site of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Each letter is available as a full-sized image and an enlarged image. It’s all there. It’s a treasure. Here’s the link: mass hist.org/digitaladams/aea/letter/.


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