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…

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