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Our Flawed Founders

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National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Abigail and John Adams; portraits by Gilbert Stuart, 1800/1815 and circa 1821

In 1818, while he was still mourning the death of his wife Abigail, John Adams received an unexpected announcement from his son, John Quincy, that he intended to write a biography of his famous father. “Tell Mr. A,” Adams wrote John Quincy’s wife, “that I am assiduously and sedulously employed in Exertions to save him trouble, by collecting all my Papers. What a Mass!” He had never before taken full measure of the historical record he and Abigail had preserved, which was so vast that the modern editors of the Adams papers, after sixty years of scholarly effort, still have no end in sight.

I am deeply immersed in researches,” he reported to John Quincy. “Trunks, Boxes, Desks, Drawers, locked up for thirty years have been broken open because the Keys are lost. Nothing stands in my Way.” In his correspondence as well as his conversation, Adams lacked what he called “the gift of silence,” the flair for self- restraint—and for establishing an iconic public image—that he so envied in Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson. He was too candid, too irreverent, too conspicuously himself. “Have mercy on me Posterity,” he wrote his old friend Benjamin Rush, “if you should ever see any of my Letters.”

Almost two hundred years later, Adams’s moment has finally arrived. Although no major monument to honor him currently exists in Washington, one is in the works, adjacent to the White House, which he was the first president to occupy. David McCullough’s 2001 biography, notable for its affectionate portrait of Adams with all his twitches and excesses, has attracted over two million readers; the 2008 HBO miniseries surveying his life has added millions more to an appreciation of his legacy. If there is an American pantheon, he will be one of the first to be admitted with his wife beside him, and the first admitted not in spite of but because of his imperfections.

We can know so much about the public and private tribulations of Abigail and John because they were so often separated, and letters became their major mode of communication. More than 1,200 letters between them have survived, in large part because they preserved them or made copies, believing as they did that posterity could and should find them interesting and having, it would seem, better hopes for its mercy than Adams indicated to Rush. The first volumes of the Adams Papers, housed at the Massachusetts Historical Society, were published in 1961 and praised by John F. Kennedy in The New York Times. Since then the volumes have appeared on two tracks. There are the Adams Papers, devoted to John’s correspondence and public papers, and the Adams Family Correspondence, which gathers together the letters between Abigail and John, as well as the letters to and from their children and relatives.

All the most prominent founders, including Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton, are also the subjects of large-scale editorial projects, most of them initiated in the mid-twentieth century. The Adams and Jefferson projects still have a way to go. Hamilton, who died young, has long since been completed. The net result is a body of documentary evidence more comprehensive and detailed than has ever been gathered for any political elite in recorded history. One of the reasons why so many histories and biographies of the founding generation have appeared and captured the attention of a large readership in the past decade is that there are so many primary sources available, loaded with intimate revelations that have thus far not made it into the history books.1

The most recently published volume of the Adams Family Correspondence, edited by Margaret Hogan among others, sustains the high scholarly standards of its predecessors. The period covered, 1790 to 1793, lands us squarely in John’s vice-presidency, which he was coming to see as a political cul-de-sac (he called it “the most insignificant office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his Imagination conceived”). A great deal of important legislation came before him as presiding officer in the Senate, including the Bill of Rights, Hamilton’s financial program, the location of the national capital, and a treaty designed to avoid Indian removal east of the Mississippi. But he had nothing to do with shaping legislation and could only vote to break a tie. The great orator in the Continental Congress during the run-up to the American Revolution had become a silent cipher, listening to much younger men, like Madison and Hamilton, whom he considered “young, inconsiderate, and inexperienced,” as they took the lead.

Abigail was the point person for the Adams family at the weekly levees, highly orchestrated social occasions full of curtsies and bows, hosted by President Washington and his wife Martha, whom Abigail much admired. The levees were a republican court—a somewhat awkward contradiction in terms—and the major venue in which Abigail and John were on display as ranking members of—another contradiction—republican royalty. The infant American republic was clearly making it up as it went along, and Abigail and John were participants in this great improvisation.

Their correspondence is at its best in allowing us to see how huge policy questions about the very shape of the infant republic were filtered through highly personal concerns about health, aging, and parental frustrations. This is the messy way that history really happens, and the Adams Family Correspondence is unparalleled in providing a peek into the nexus of public and private obsessions.

As it happened, the twenty-seven Creek chiefs who gathered in New York in 1790 to negotiate the model treaty designed to avoid Indian removal were lodged next to the Adams residence at Richmond Hill, a handsome estate then on the outskirts of the city in what is now Greenwich Village. Abigail was fascinated with what she described as “my Neighbours the Creeck Savages who visit us daily.” It was quite a scene. “Last night they had a great Bond fire dancing round it like so many spirits hooping, singing, yelling, and expressing their pleasure and Satisfaction in the true Savage Stile. these are the first savages I ever saw.”

Both Abigail and John were attempting to deal with what is euphemistically termed “middle age.” In John this took the form of an absolute dread about creeping dementia, what he called “dying at the top.” He reported watching his cousin and former colleague in the Continental Congress, Samuel Adams, make a fool of himself when delivering speeches as governor of Massachusetts, and several elderly senators do the same. He asked Abigail to tell him if he crossed the line from sagacity to senility.

There is also a poignant exchange between them about their sexual relationship as they aged. “Years subdue the ardours of passion,” Abigail observed, though adding that “the vital Flame exists.” But when she mentioned in passing John’s advancing years, he retaliated in bravado fashion. “But how dare you hint or Lisp a Word about Sixty Years of Age. If I were there, I could soon convince you that I am not above Forty.”

More letters were written to and about their troubled children than any other topic. Nabby, the eldest and only daughter, had married a handsome, well-credentialed young man named William Stevens Smith, who turned out to be a total failure at everything except producing children and accumulating debt. John Quincy, the child prodigy and heir apparent, was recovering from a broken heart—the girl in question was only fifteen—and was also finding it difficult to earn a living as a lawyer. He felt mortified at having to ask his father for an annual allowance. Charles, the charmer in the family, received almost weekly letters from John, who sold his own horses in order to purchase the most up-to-date law books for the lad. What neither John nor Abigail realized until later was that Charles was becoming a serious alcoholic, so serious that it would kill him at age thirty.

The letters on politics pick up in 1792, chiefly because Abigail, who hated the humid climate of Philadelphia, decided to remain at Quincy, and weekly letters for the next eight months combined parental concerns about Nabby’s fate with dire predictions about the course of the French Revolution. Both of them expressed only bewilderment and disgust at the sudden surge of fiercely partisan politics in the US. Most historians describe this moment as the murky and messy beginning of a two-party system, but Abigail and John regarded it as the arrival of an alien force that destroyed forever the bipartisan political world they both believed in so passionately.

On several occasions in their correspondence John claimed that, in his opinion, Abigail’s letters were better than his. Since he himself was a master letter-writer in an age not lacking for worthy rivals (such as Jefferson and Franklin), this was quite a compliment. But over the generations many scholars have endorsed John’s judgment. Though her spelling and punctuation reflect her lack of a formal education, Abigail’s letters tend to be longer, more meditative, more sprinkled with literary allusions. Her roughly 2,100 letters sometimes eloquently capture her thoughts, and were usually composed at the kitchen table after the children were put to bed.

Short excerpts from the letters have been gathered together by John Kaminski in The Quotable Abigail Adams, a volume designed to present Abigail as a philosopher whose epigrammatic wisdom on thirty-eight topics (e.g., war, love, foreign affairs, religion, politics) is worthy of our attention. These selections are good to have, but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this book is intended to capitalize on the resurgent interest in America’s most conspicuous Founding Mother. One of the quotations Kaminski cites might be regarded as Abigail’s verdict on this entire collection. When two of her old letters were published in a Nantucket newspaper in 1815, she expressed irritation: “What will they not rake up—I believe I will make a bond fire of mine [letters], least they should some hundred years hence be thought of consequence enough to publish.”

Meanwhile, Woody Holton’s Abigail Adams is a major new biography with many fresh insights. Holton is the author of a well-regarded study of the economic motives that influenced several framers of the Constitution, chiefly speculation in western land. Quite incidentally he found himself inquiring into Abigail’s investment in war bonds during the American Revolution. Once inside the huge Adams archive, he found a four-page document Abigail drafted in 1816, two years before her death.

The document was her will, in which she distributed her personal property—money, furniture, gowns, rugs, rings—to her children, grandchildren, loyal servants, and close friends. Holton immediately recognized this as a defiant act, since in Massachusetts and every other state in the union a married woman was not allowed to own or control property. By the legal doctrine called coverture, a wife’s entire identity, including her property, ceased to exist upon marriage, and was subsumed in the identity of her husband. Students of the revolutionary era know about Abigail’s “Remember the Ladies” letter of March 31, 1776, in which she told John that the same arguments he was hurling at Parliament and George III had radical implications for women’s rights as well. But that famous letter was merely a rhetorical rebellion, and in some readings a playful poke at John. The will, on the other hand, was a rebellious act of independence by a woman sufficiently confident of herself to presume that no one in the Commonwealth would dare challenge her authority. In Abigail Adams Holton attempts to understand the woman who wrote that will.

  1. 1

    We seem to be in the midst of a surge of Adams studies. In addition to the books under review here, plus my own forthcoming effort, there are two recent studies of the Adams family: Edith B. Gelles, Abigail & John: Portrait of a Marriage (William Morrow, 2009) and G.J. Barker-Benfield, Abigail & John Adams: The Americanization of Sensibility (University of Chicago Press, 2010). 

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