Our Flawed Founders

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.