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Those Sentimental Americans

Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Art Resource
A scene from Tristram Shandy (‘Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman’); painting by Charles Robert Leslie, 1831

Although these two works of history, one by Joseph J. Ellis and the other by G.J. Barker-Benfield, are ostensibly about the same subject—John and Abigail Adams—they could not be more different. Ellis’s First Family: Abigail and John is a narrative account of the life of the couple from their marriage to their deaths. It is the sort of popular book about the Founders that has turned Ellis into one of the nation’s best-selling history writers. By contrast, Barker-Benfield’s Abigail and John Adams: The Americanization of Sensibility is a rich scholarly monograph designed for a limited number of academic readers.

Ellis has written about John Adams before, most fully in his Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (1993). In writing that marvelous book, perhaps the best he’s ever done, he discovered the roughly twelve hundred letters between John and Abigail and concluded that they “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.” He became determined to go back to those letters and tell the full story of the conversation that took place between these two extraordinary Americans.

Ellis is correct in saying that “no other couple [in the Revolutionary era] left a documentary record of their mutual thoughts and feelings even remotely comparable to Abigail’s and John’s.” Martha Washington burned nearly all the letters between her and her husband, and Thomas Jefferson did the same with the correspondence between him and his wife. Apparently, neither John nor Abigail thought of burning their letters; as Ellis points out, “they both recognized, early on, that they were living through a truly propitious moment likely to find a prominent place in the history books.”

In his book on the two Adamses Ellis decided to tell their private story in the setting of the larger public story of the American founding, in effect fusing an “intimate psychological and emotional experience with the larger political narrative.” Since John was deeply involved with the larger political events of the founding era, it is not surprising that the public world might tend to overwhelm the private realm of the Adamses. Although Ellis places Abigail’s name first in his title and affirms his respect for her mind and political sense at every turn, he knows so much about the larger political narrative of the period that he has a hard time keeping his book from becoming simply a biography of John’s public life laced with periodic pauses to catch up on his relations with Abigail. Still, it is the best concise biography we have of John Adams—one that also gives Abigail her rightful place in the story and that is written with Ellis’s usual clarity and verve.

Ellis’s work is bound to be compared to a similar recent book, Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage (2009) by Stanford scholar Edith B. Gelles. Gelles doesn’t know the history of the period as well as Ellis, but she is an expert on Abigail Adams, with two previous studies of this remarkable woman. Her book on the partnership is a bit longer than Ellis’s, and she spends more time on the Adamses’ private life than their public life. Consequently, she tends to give us a fuller picture of Abigail and the marriage than Ellis does, though she lacks his vigorous and readable prose. Although Ellis, for example, describes John’s presentation to George III at the Court of St. James, he slights the anxiety and anger involved in Abigail’s own presentation at the British court—a fascinating subject that Gelles nicely describes.

Although Ellis almost always has a sure hand in describing complicated public events succinctly—for example, his description of the problem posed by the Barbary pirates in the 1780s—in one instance his knowledge of the larger public world doesn’t cut as deeply as Gelles’s. More than once Ellis refers to John Adams as “America’s first ambassador to the Court of St. James,” but Gelles knows better. Because many Americans considered the rank of ambassador to smack of European aristocracy and monarchy, the United States refrained from sending any diplomat abroad with that status for another century, until the administration of Grover Cleveland. This difference between ambassador and minister is a small matter perhaps, but in France, where John was minister before he went to England, it was important, as Gelles points out. Because John had only the status of minister, his wife could not attend court functions at Versailles, which turned out to be a relief to Abigail, who disliked the complicated protocol of the court.

One of the reasons we have so many letters between John and Abigail is the frequency and length of their separations. For much of the time between 1774 and 1778 John was serving in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, and between 1778 and 1784, except for a four-month return to America in 1779, he was in Europe without her. These long separations were a major source of tension in the relationship. John often neglected to write to Abigail, sometimes going months without sending a letter to her. She saw this negligence as a violation of their covenant as a couple. “And,” says Ellis, “his refusal to leave his European post, despite her pleadings to do so, constituted a clear statement that his ambitions were more potent urges than his obligations as a husband.” John, concludes Ellis, was “completely oblivious” to Abigail’s emotional needs.

Ellis believes that Abigail, who was self-educated, was a better and more colorful letter-writer than John, which is saying something since John was one of the best letter-writers of the age. He also correctly thinks that Abigail was the more resilient and more emotionally balanced of the two. She was, as Ellis convincingly demonstrates, one of the most extraordinary women in American history. “She was the first woman that Jefferson came to know well who combined the traditional virtues of a wife and mother with the sharp mind and tongue of a fully empowered accomplice in her husband’s career.” She also “was the only person on the historical record to confront Jefferson with the charge that he was a bald-faced liar.” And she did so, says Ellis, “with a level of controlled anger that John himself could never have mustered.”

Although Ellis makes it clear that Abigail was crucial in sustaining John through the ups and downs of his career, he suggests that John’s long absences on behalf of his “quest for personal fame” may have stunted the emotional growth of the couple’s children. Their daughter Nabby married badly and lived an unhappy life that ended in bankruptcy and premature death from breast cancer. One son, Charles, became a hopeless alcoholic who died at age thirty. Another son, Thomas, failed as a lawyer and moved back home to live off his parents. John Quincy, of course, was a great success publicly, but personally he was a wounded man.

Although Barker-Benfield, a professor of history at the State University of New York at Albany, like Ellis, features Abigail in his title Abigail and John Adams: The Americanization of Sensibility, his interest in the partnership is not at all similar to Ellis’s. He seeks to analyze in sometimes exquisite detail the ways in which eighteenth-century individuals, especially the Adamses, used the language of sensibility to express their feelings.

Since his book is in effect a collection of discrete essays, some of the subjects of these essays are best revealed by a sampling of their titles: “The Metropolitan Sources of the Adamses’ Views of Sensibility,” “The Theory of Gendered Sensibility,” “Young American Women Enter the World,” “Abigail’s Perspective, Public versus Private,” John Adams and the Reformation of Male Manners,” “Raising Children with Sensibility,” and so on.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was Joseph Addison in the Spectator, No. 231, in 1711, who offered the first historical example of the meaning of “sensibility,” which the OED defines as “quickness and acuteness of apprehension or feeling: the quality of being easily and strongly affected by emotional influences.” The fact that Barker-Benfield has discovered two earlier usages in 1698 and 1690 indicates the deep and serious character of his scholarship. He seems to have read everything he could find on the subject of sensibility, in both primary and secondary sources, and especially in the writings by John and Abigail. From these sources he has taken copious notes, and, it seems, included them all in his book.

Barker-Benfield’s work is part of an ongoing conversation that historians and literary scholars of the eighteenth century are having over the subject of sensibility. Over the past half-century or so they have begun paying more and more attention to the issues of politeness and sensibility in the eighteenth-century Western world; more recently, that concern has intensified and focused more closely on the English-speaking world, including eighteenth-century America, three thousand miles from the centers of civilization.

Barker-Benfield himself helped to set the recent discussion going with his book The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain (1992). In America the cult of sensibility was picked up by Andrew Burstein’s Sentimental Democracy: The Evolution of America’s Romantic Self-Image (1999),* and more recently developed by Sarah Knott in Sensibility and the American Revolution (2009), in which she argues that sensibility provided Revolutionary Americans a means for self-transformation and national cohesion.

Many historians have concluded that the more acute sensibility of people in the eighteenth century led to a new and heightened sense of sympathy for the autonomy and well-being of other human beings. Consequently, people developed a new aversion to all sorts of cruelties and barbarities that previous centuries had taken more or less for granted, including the persistence of slavery, torture, and extremely harsh criminal punishments. Suddenly, it seems, people’s keener sensibility, their more finely tuned awareness that other people were the same as they, made them feel the pain of other individuals, which in turn generated a host of humanitarian reform movements.

Unfortunately, Barker-Benfield is not interested in exploring these sorts of connections with sensibility, at least not to any great depth. His chapter entitled “Sensibility and Reform” is very narrowly focused. Instead of ranging over the multitude of humanitarian reforms that the sensibility of the eighteenth century produced, Barker-Benfield devotes the chapter to a lengthy and meticulous textual analysis of Abigail’s famous “Remember the Ladies” letter of March 31, 1776, followed by detailed examinations of John’s reply and of Abigail’s letter to her friend Mercy Otis Warren on her female grievances. He counts dashes in Abigail’s letter and spends pages exploring the history and meaning of her phrase “Remember, all Men would be tyrants if they could.” From there he moves to a discussion of Alexander Pope’s views of women and then jumps several decades to an analysis of the thinking of Mary Wollstonecraft.

  1. *

    See my review of Burstein’s book in The New York Review, October 7, 1999. 

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