Five years ago, I was vaguely aware that there had once been a President John Adams, but that was about it. I picked up this book largely because I thought someone else would like it, and read it mostly because that's what I do. I read books.
I was living in Vermont, for work, while my then-boyfriend lived in Maryland, for work. We wrote letters, made phone calls, missed each other, and planned to get together for his birthday, in July.
I saw this book in a bookstore and grabbed it. My guy liked history, and I'd heard vaguely that the letters were romantic, and his birthday was coming up. That was all. And from such humble beginnings, oh, what a romance has blossomed!
Since that day, we've both read this book, seen the HBO mini-series, the A&E two-part special (which isn't very good), toured their house, read a separate biography of John and Abigail each...and I, who read faster, have read a second biography of John, a book about the Revolutionary War, and some of the collected letters of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. We're kind of besotted. Oh, and we've gotten married--I'm not sure if that's related, but maybe the Adamses helped.
There are three reasons I'm recommending this book to everybody in the world. First, doing so gives me an excuse to tell you all that we've just had our first anniversary, and I love my husband dearly. I think the Adamses would approve of my using them as the (something of a stretch) reason to celebrate that. Second, many people saw the HBO mini-series, and it had some shortcomings. If you saw the series, you really should read up on the Adamses. Although this book doesn't cover the part where the series was weak, it's charming enough to get you interested in reading about this family. Third, both John and Abigail Adams did just about everything right that a person can do, and as such they are important role models.
I don't mean that they never made mistakes. John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were patently unConstitutional, wrong, and stupid, and he should have known better. Abigail Adams refused to write publicly, as she considered her writing poor and her opinions less important than her husband's, neither of which was true. She actually begged John to burn her letters, which he obviously did not.
But they were excellent parents, loving partners, great friends, and they changed the world. We could all learn a thing or two.
Abigail--it is impossible not to think of them in familiar terms after reading this book--gets a lot of press as a kind of proto-feminist. She is, certainly, a feminist hero for good reason. She was, for her day, extremely radical in her advocacy for women's rights and in the assertive way in which she lived--especially toward the end of her life. Further, she was a shining example of female excellence. She was a business woman and farm manager in a time when women were expected to be neither, she spoke three languages (English, French, and Latin), she could quote long passages of literature from memory, she could argue coherently about the Constitutionality of party caucuses (among other issues), she raised four children to adulthoood, and in a day when slavery was still legal in every state, she had the gumption to ask General Washington if perhaps his military problems were divine punishment for the sin of slavery. Remember, Washington was a slaveholder. AND she had only a third-grade education.
But she did not believe men and women were, or should be, equals. She might well have been scandalized by the idea of the Women's Movement, if she could have known about it. She was a woman of her time, as he was a man of his time. That means racism and sexism mild only in comparison to what was typical of their day. We must see them wholly if we are to respect them.
But man were they brave. You see that here. John, as a signer of the Declarations of Independance, would have been hanged if the revolution had failed. Abigail spent many nights, early in the war, lying awake listening to cannons. Both lived through the war, and they were both quite old when they died, she of typhus, he of a stroke, but in a very real way they gave their lives to their country with a selflessness and faith few people have. There are writers who see their modesty as a fiction they used to cover their ambition, and certainly they were ambitious in some ways. John, particularly, wanted to be noticed and remembered for his service. But I think the modesty was also genuine. They just really liked this country. They were the real deal.
And in this book, you get to see the ordinariness inside that strength. Philosophy, politics, spirituality, and which kid took a puke this morning and the horribly high price of butter these days. This is the nuts and bolts of greatness. This is how it works.
And it IS romantic, at least sometimes. Like when Abigail says she's spent all morning with John, meaning that she's been rereading his letters, and says that if she can't have real pleasures, at least she can have her thoughts. Or how he often addresses her as "my dearest friend."
Or, when Abigail finishes a letter with;
"Heaven grant that I may continue to receive its blessings. One of its greatest is that I can subscribe myself wholly yours."
Adams, A., Adams, J., (2004). The letters of John and Abigail Adams. Penguin Books: New York, NY.