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Letters Not for Burning

In response to:

Those Sentimental Americans from the May 12, 2011 issue

To the Editors:

To make a minor correction to Gordon S. Wood’s discussion of the correspondence between Abigail and John Adams [NYR, May 12], I would like to point out that they did indeed think about burning their letters. At the closing of one letter to John (December 10, 1775), Abigail wrote, “Be kind enough to burn this Letter. Tis wrote in great haste and a most incorrect Scrawl it is….” In another (April 17, 1777), she wrote, “I really think this Letter would make a curious figure if it should fall into the Hands of any person but yourself—and pray if it comes safe to you, burn it.” And on April 11, 1776, Abigail added a more encompassing postscript: “I wish you would burn all my Letters,” to which John affectionately replied, “The Conclusion of your Letter makes my Heart throb, more than a Cannonade would. You bid me burn your Letters. But I must forget you first.”

At one point (February 19, 1779) John actually claimed that he had burned unsent drafts, at least:

I have written three Answers to yours of January 4. This is the fourth. The Three first I have burned. In one I was melancholly, in another angry, and in the third merry—but either would have given you more Pain than Pleasure. I have gone through with several others of your Letters in the same manner.

Luckily for us, Abigail and John—unlike some of their contemporaries—never followed through with any comprehensive epistolary inferno. I came across these examples several years ago when I was working at the Massachusetts Historical Society, helping to scan the over 1,100 extant letters between the couple and put them online for all the world to see, at www.masshist.org/digitaladams.

And I still wonder, what would Abigail have thought of that?

Keith Jenkins
Freeville, New York

Gordon S. Wood replies:

Mr. Jenkins is, of course, correct that Abigail occasionally asked John to burn a letter that she had written. She was often self-deprecating and sometimes embarrassed that her self-education wasn’t up to the formal classical education that John and other elite males received. But unlike Jefferson and Martha Washington, neither of the Adamses ever seriously contemplated burning all their personal correspondence. At some point they knew that their letters were becoming part of the historical record, which is precisely why Abigail occasionally worried about what future readers might think of those of her letters written “in great haste” and in “a most incorrect Scrawl.” She needn’t have worried: her letters are often more colorful and more interesting than John’s.

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