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Abigail and John Adams

Written by Joseph J. EllisAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Joseph J. Ellis


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On Sale: October 26, 2010
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-307-59431-0
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In this rich and engrossing account, John and Abigail Adams come to life against the backdrop of the Republic’s tenuous early years.
Drawing on over 1,200 letters exchanged between the couple, Ellis tells a story both personal and panoramic. We learn about the many years Abigail and John spent apart as John’s political career sent him first to Philadelphia, then to Paris and Amsterdam; their relationship with their children; and Abigail’s role as John’s closest and most valued advisor. Exquisitely researched and beautifully written, First Family is both a revealing portrait of a marriage and a unique study of America’s early years.



My serious interest in the Adams family began twenty years ago, when I wrote a book about John Adams in retirement, eventually published as Passionate Sage. I had a keen sense that I was stepping into a long- standing conversation between Abigail and John in its final phase. And I had an equivalently clear sense that the conversation preserved in the roughly twelve hundred letters between them 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.

I moved on to different historical topics over the ensuing years, but I made a mental note to come back to the extraordinarily rich Adams archive, then read all their letters and tell the full story of their conversation within the context of America’s creation as a people and a nation. The pages that follow represent my attempt to do just that.

The distinctive quality of their correspondence, apart from its sheer volume and the dramatic character of the history that was happening around them, is its unwavering emotional honesty. All of us who have fallen in love, tried to raise children, suffered extended bouts of doubt about the integrity of our ambitions, watched our once youthful bodies betray us, harbored illusions about our impregnable principles, and done all this with a partner traveling the same trail know what unconditional commitment means, and why, especially today, it is the exception rather than the rule.

Abigail and John traveled down that trail about two hundred years before us, remained lovers and friends throughout, and together had a hand in laying the foundation of what is now the oldest enduring republic in world history. And they left a written record of all the twitches, traumas, throbbings, and tribulations along the way. No one else has ever done that.

To be sure, there were other prominent couples in the revolutionary era— George and Martha Washington as well as James and Dolley Madison come to mind. But no other couple left a documentary record of their mutual thoughts and feelings even remotely comparable to Abigail and John’s. (Martha Washington burned almost all the letters to and from her husband.) And at the presidential level, it was not until Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt occupied the White House that a wife exercised an influence over policy decisions equivalent to Abigail’s.

It is the interactive character of their private story and the larger public story of the American founding that strikes me as special. Recovering their experience as a couple quite literally forces a focus on the fusion of intimate psychological and emotional experience with the larger political narrative. Great events, such as the battle of Bunker Hill, the debate over the Declaration of Independence, and the presidential election of 1800, become palpable human experiences rather than grandiose abstractions. They lived through a truly formative phase of American history and left an unmatched record of what it was like to shape it, and have it happen to them.

As I see it, then, Abigail and John have much to teach us about both the reasons for that improbable success called the American
Revolution and the equally startling capacity for a man and woman—husband and wife— to sustain their love over a lifetime filled with daunting challenges. One of the reasons for writing this book was to figure out how they did it.



And there is a tye more binding than
Humanity, and stronger than Friendship.

Knowing as we do that John and Abigail Adams were destined to become the most famous and consequential couple in the revolutionary era, indeed some would say the premier husband-and-wife team in all American history, it is somewhat disconcerting to realize that when they first met in the summer of 1759, neither one was particularly impressed by the other. The encounter occurred in the parlor of the pastor’s house in Weymouth, Massachusetts, which happened to be the home of Abigail and her two sisters. Their father was the Reverend William Smith, whom John described in his diary as “a crafty designing man,” a veteran public speaker attuned to reading the eyes of his audience. “I caught him, several times,” wrote John, “looking earnestly at my face.” Like most successful pastors, he was accustomed to being the center of attention, which apparently annoyed John, who described Reverend Smith prancing across the room while gesturing ostentatiously, “clapping his naked [?] sides and breasts with his hands before the girls."

Abigail, in fact, was still a girl, not quite fifteen years old to John’s twenty-four. She was diminutive, barely five feet tall, with dark brown hair, brown eyes, and a slender shape more attractive in our own time than then, when women were preferred to be plump. John was quite plump, or as men would have it, stout, already showing the signs that would one day allow his enemies to describe him as “His Rotundity.” At five feet five or six, he was slightly shorter than the average American male of the day, and his already receding hairline promised pre-mature baldness. Neither one of them, at first glance, had the obvious glow of greatness.

John’s verdict, recorded in his diary, was that he had wasted an evening. He was courting Hannah Quincy at the time— some say that she was actually courting him— and his first reaction was that neither Abigail nor her sisters could measure up to Hannah. They seemed to lack the conversational skills and just sat there, “not fond, nor frank, not candid.” Since Abigail eventually proved to be all these things, we can only conclude that this first meeting was an awkward occasion on which the abiding qualities of her mind and heart were obscured beneath the frozen etiquette of a pastor’s parlor. And besides, she was only a teenager, nine years his junior, not even a legitimate candidate for his roving interest in a prospective wife.

To say that “something happened” to change their respective opinions of each other over the next three years is obviously inadequate, but the absence of documentary evidence makes it the best we can do. John had legal business in Weymouth that involved the status of the pastoral house occupied by the Smith family, which meant that he was literally forced to interact with Abigail. And he accompanied his then best friend, Richard Cranch, who was courting (and eventually married) Mary Smith, Abigail’s older sister. This, too, prompted interactions. And his flirtatious relationship with Hannah Quincy ended in a mutually declared romantic truce, which made John, once again, eligible.

Time was also a factor. The difference between a fifteen- year-old girl and a twenty-four-year-old man seemed a chasm; the difference between eighteen and twenty- seven was much more negotiable. Though it seems too easy to say, chance and circumstance provided them with the opportunity to talk with each other, to move past the awkwardness of a stuffy Weymouth parlor, thereby initiating a conversation that lasted for almost sixty years.

But talk by itself was not sufficient to explain their mutual attraction. The letters that began to flow back and forth between them late in 1761 contain some explicit expressions of powerful physical and sexual urges, so that the picture that emerges depicts two young lovers conversing about Shakespeare’s sonnets or Molière’s plays in between long and multiple kisses, passionate embraces, and mutual caresses. Their grandson Charles Francis Adams, who published the first comprehensive edition of their correspondence nearly a century later, was either too embarrassed or too much a prisoner of Victorian mores to include any of their courtship correspondence. Here is a sample of what he chose to censor. John to Abigail, addressed to “Miss Adorable”: “By the same token that the bearer hereof [JA] satt up with you last night, I hereby order you to give him, as many kisses, and as many Hours of your company after nine o’clock as he pleases to demand, and charge them to my account.”

Or John to Abigail, explaining that a sudden stormhad prevented a trip to see her atWeymouth: “Yet perhaps blessed storm . . . for keeping one at my distance. For every experimental philosopher knows, that the steel and the magnet, or the glass and the feather will not fly together with more celerity . . . than somebody . . . when brought within striking distance— and Itches, Aches, Agues, and Repentance might be the consequences of contact in present circumstances.”

Then Abigail to John, proclaiming that their mutual attraction was visceral as well as intellectual: “And there is a tye more binding than Humanity, and stronger than Friendship . . . unite these, and there is a threefold chord— and by this chord I am not ashamed to say that I am bound, nor do I [believe] that you are wholly free from it.”

The inevitable “did they or didn’t they” question is impossible to answer conclusively, though their first child, named Abigail, was born eight and half months after their marriage, just barely within the bounds of propriety. But the fact that they were strongly tempted is beyond question, and a crucial indication that their affinity was not solely cerebral. For both of them, love entailed a level of intimacy that no conversation could completely capture and required a physical attraction. And they both felt it. If Abigail referred to it as “the third chord,” we might shift the metaphor and describe it as an emotional affinity that made unconditional trust between them a natural act.

One of the distinctive features of their extraordinary correspondence over a lifetime—more than twelve hundred letters—was also
present from the start, namely, the tendency to banter playfully about serious subjects, thereby creating a certain ambiguity as to whether the issue at stake was cause for concern or laughter. For example, in a note to Abigail’s sister Mary, John jokingly claimed that Abigail was rumored to have a crush on the recently coronated British monarch, George III, and that “altho my allegiance has been hitherto inviolate, I shall endeavor all in my Power, to foment Rebellion.” (Little did he know that his joke would become a prescient prophecy.) Or there is Abigail’s mock criticism of John that then concludes with a doubleedged compliment:

You was pleas’d to say that the receipt of a letter from your Diana always gave you pleasure. Whether this was designed as a
compliment (a commodity I acknowledge that you seldom deal in) or as a real truth, you best know. Yet if I was to judge a certain persons Heart by what the like occasion passes through a cabinet of my own, I should be apt to suggest it as a truth. And why may
I not? When I have often been tempted to believe that they were both cast in the same mold, only with this difference, that yours was made with a harder mettle, and therefore is less liable to an impression. Whether they both have an eaquil quantity of steel, I have not yet been able to discover, but do not imagine that either of them are deficient.

Abigail was apparently more than half serious when, a few months before their wedding, she asked John to deliver on his promise “and tell me all my faults, both of omission and commission, and all the evil you either know or think of me.” John responded with a mock “catalogue of your Faults, Imperfections, Deficits, or whatever you please to call them.” She was, he observed, negligent at playing cards, could not sing a note, often hung her head like a bulrush, sat with her legs crossed, was pigeon- toed, and to cap it off, she read too much. Abigail responded that many of these defects were probably incurable, especially the reading, so he would have to learn to live with them. The leg-crossing charge struck her as awkward, since “a gentleman has no business to concern himself with the leggs of a lady.”

The letters exchanged during their courtship (1761–64) provide the first and fullest window into the chemistry of their relationship, but it would probably be wrong to presume that the correspondence accurately reflected the way they talked to each other when together. Letter writing in the eighteenth century was a more deliberative and self-consciously artful exercise than those of us in the present, with our cell phones, e-mail, and text messaging, can fully fathom. The letters, of course, are all we have to recover the texture of their overlapping personalities. While they constitute a long string of emotional and intellectual pearls unmatched in the literature of the era, they were also self- conscious performances, quasi-theatrical presentations that were more stylized and orchestrated than real conversations. There are some things, in short, that we can never know for sure about their deepest thoughts and feelings, even though they are among the most fully revealed couples in American history.

Two essential ingredients in their lifetime literary dialogue were clear from the start: first, Abigail, despite the lack of any formal education, could match John with a pen, which was saying quite a lot, since he proved to be one of the master letter writers in an age not lacking in serious contenders; second, there was a presumed sense of psychological equality between them that Abigail expected and John found intoxicating. She was marrying a man who loved the fact that she was, as he put it, “saucy,” and he was marrying a woman who was simultaneously capable of unconditional love and personal independence. They recognized from the beginning that they were a rare match. There were so many topics they could talk about easily and just as many things they did not have to talk about at all.

The wedding occurred on October 25, 1764, in the same parlor of her father’s house in Weymouth where they had initially found each other so uninteresting. In her last letter to John before the wedding, Abigail asked him to take all her belongings, which she was forwarding in a cart to their new home in Braintree. “And then Sir, if you please,” she concluded, “you may take me.”8


What did each of them bring to the marriage? Well, most basically, John brought sixty acres of land and a small house that he had inherited from his father, who died in 1761. Abigail brought a cartload of furniture and a household servant, who was partially paid for by her father. By the standards of New England at that time, these assets, though hardly massive, were not meager. They were starting off with more material resources than most newlyweds.

What about their respective bloodlines? On this score Abigail brought more status than John. Her mother was a Quincy, a name that rested atop the Braintree elite; the family eventually had the town named after them. Their mansion at Mount Wollaston was the closest thing to a baronial estate outside of Boston. Her father was a Harvard-educated minister, while John’s was a farmer and shoemaker without a college education.

But this discrepancy was a bit deceptive, because Deacon Adams, as he was called, was a respected local leader who, at one time or another, had held every office in the Braintree town government. Moreover, as John made a point of emphasizing in his autobiography, the Adams family could trace its lineage back to 1638, making it one of the most long-standing families in Massachusetts, a venerable if not particularly prominent line.

That said, when John graduated from Harvard in 1755, he was ranked fourteenth out of twenty- five students, a ranking based solely on family status rather than academic achievement. (Academically, by the way, he was one of the top three students in his class, and the status-based system of ranking became a casualty of the American Revolution.) There is indirect evidence to believe that Abigail’s mother opposed the marriage, convinced that her daughter was marrying down and could do better. Such social calibrations were swept away by Abigail’s uncompromising insistence that she had found her man and was determined to have him.

In terms of providing for a family, John’s prospects were excellent. He had that Harvard degree, had studied with some of the leading lawyers in the colony, had passed the equivalent of the bar exam in 1761, and had begun to develop a reputation as one of the up-and-coming attorneys in the Boston area. Indeed, he had chosen to delay marriage until he was twenty- nine, three or four years later than the norm for males in New England at that time, in order to ensure that his income could provide for a wife and family.

Abigail brought equivalently sturdy strengths. From early childhood she had been exposed to the mundane but essential duties of managing a household. Though the Smith family had four servants, two of them slaves, all the daughters were required to perform the cooking, cleaning, spinning, and gardening duties that were expected of a New England wife. She could manage servants, to be sure, but she could also perform the various tasks they were assigned alongside them, to include maintaining a permanent fire in the fireplace for cooking, scouring heavy kettles and pots, feeding and killing chickens, and performing elemental carpentry repairs of cabinets and cupboards. In a pinch, she could also split logs for the fire.

Then there were the less tangible assets that both brought to the union— the ambitions, insecurities, obsessions, excesses— all the mental and emotional ingredients that had begun to congeal in their respective personalities. John had nine more years of experience to distill, and the fact that he began keeping a diary soon after graduating from college means that the record of his interior life as a young man is much fuller than anything we have for Abigail. Many New Englanders of the time kept diaries, but most of them are about the weather. When John recorded which way the wind was blowing, however, he was usually being metaphorical, referring to the gusts surging through his own soul.

In one sense John’s early diary entries are reminiscent of an introspective tradition as old as New England Puritanism. He was forever making lists of daily tasks to perform, books to read, ways to discipline his day. But he invariably failed to meet his own standards. One day, for example, he vowed to rise before sunrise but then slept until seven o’clock and, as he put it, “Rambled about all Day, gaping and gazing.” He kept imposing moral tests on himself that he consistently failed. Instead of reading his law books one day, he spent all his time “in absolute idleness, or what’s worse, gallanting the Girls.” Like the classic Puritan diary, his was a record of imperfection.

Unlike the aspiring Puritan saint, however, who was preoccupied with the question “Am I saved?” John’s obsession was more secular: “What is my destiny?” In some respects this secularization of the Puritan ethic resembled the list of disciplined habits Benjamin Franklin made famous in his “The Way to Wealth,” which took for granted that worldly success, not eternal salvation, was the proper goal of life. But John’s introspective philosophy, if he had ever given it a title, would have been called “The Way to Virtue.” Mere worldly success in terms of wealth was never enough for him; indeed, it was actually dangerous, since wealth inevitably corrupted men and nations by undermining the disciplined habits that produced the wealth in the first place. Making wealth your primary goal, as he saw it, was symptomatic of a second- rate mind destined to die rich but unfulfilled.

John’s ambitions soared to a greater height, a place where fame rather than fortune was the ultimate reward. When he read Cicero’s orations against Catiline out loud in front of a mirror, he confided to himself that “it opens my pores, quickens the circulation,” as he imagined himself an American Cicero delivering an equivalently dramatic speech. Or when he read Shakespeare, he asked himself how he could replicate the bard’s genius at creating characters he had never experienced directly: “Why have I not genius, to start some new thought, something that will inspire the World, [and] raise me at once to fame?” For a country lawyer, he was aiming very high, looking to lash himself to a cause larger than himself.

One of the most consequential decisions he ever made, second only to his decision to marry Abigail, was to become a lawyer rather than a minister. Though he tortured himself with guilt- driven questions for a full year after his graduation from college, knowing that his father hoped he would choose the pulpit, the outcome was never in doubt. Once the intellectual elite of New England, the ministry had drifted to the sidelines by the middle of the eighteenth century, caught up in increasingly pedantic theological quarrels and burdened by what John called “the whole cartloads of trumpery, that we find Religion incumbered with in these Days.” He had no desire to languish in obscurity, splitting theological distinctions at night and preaching harmless homilies to parishioners on Sunday. (Abigail’s father, it turns out, was a sterling example of what he did not wish to become.) He was determined to become a major player in this world, not an erudite guide to the next one.Whether she knew it or not, Abigail was marrying one of the most ambitious men in New England.

He spent three years (1755–58) teaching school and reading law in Worcester. During this formative phase he let all his friends know that his teaching job was a mere way station that allowed him to support himself while he prepared for grander things, that “keeping this school any length of time would make a base weed and ignoble shrub of me.” He recorded a daydream in his diary in which he imagined his classroom as a little commonwealth, casting himself in the role of dictator, a sort of Cromwell of the kindergarten:

I have several renowned Generals but three feet high, and several deep- projecting politicians in petticoats . . . Some rattle and
Thunder out A, B, C, with as much Fire and impetuosity, as Alexander fought . . . At one table sits Mr. Insipid flopping and fluttering, spinning his whirligig, or playing with his fingers as gaily and wittily as any frenchified coxcomb. At another sits the polemical Divine, plodding and wrangling in his mind about Adam’s fall in which we sinned all as his primer declares. In short
my little school, like the great World, is made up of Kings, Politicians, Divines, Fops, Buffoons, Fidlers, Sycophants, Fools, Coxcombs, chimney sweeps, and every other character drawn in History or seen in the world.

Finally, he began what was to become a lifelong conversation with his internal demons. “Vanity I am sensible, is my cardinal folly,” he lectured himself, “and I am in constant Danger, when in company, of being led an ignus fatuus by it without the strictest caution and watchfulness over my self.” He was too candid, too conspicuous in his ambition, too talkative. He would come home after an evening of conversation with the local elite at Worcester and pour out his lamentations, especially his irresistible urge “to shew my own importance or superiority, by remarking the Foibles, Vices, or Inferiority of others,” which invariably alienated the very people he sought to impress.

More ominously, he often felt overwhelmed by his own passions—be they vanities, ambitions, or envies— acknowledging that in those moments he was wholly out of control, like an erupting volcano. On one occasion he described his emotions as “Lawless Bulls that roar and bluster, defy all Control, and sometimes murder their proper owner.” On another occasion they became thunderstorms: “I can as easily still the fierce Tempests or stop the rapid thunderbolts,” he chided himself, “as command the motions and operations of my own mind.”

Eventually John’s dialogue with his own boisterous passions informed his understanding of all politics, gradually projecting onto the world his incessant emotional turmoil and thereby envisioning all societies as cauldrons of swirling, inherently irrational drives that it was the chief business of government to control. For the time being, however, his internal eruptions, raging bulls, or violent thunderstorms, whatever one wished to call them, defied his best efforts at control. And he knew it. (His own sense of being unbalanced was one reason he made balance the beau ideal of his political philosophy.) As he saw himself, he was a gifted young man with appropriately lofty ambitions, all of which could be ambushed by his erratic, overly excitable, at times explosive instincts. “Ballast is what I want,” he lectured himself; “I totter with every breeze”—though the breezes were all blowing inside himself. Whether the source of John’s periodic bursts of vanity, insecurity, and sheer explosiveness was mental or physical— there is some scholarly speculation that he had a thyroid imbalance— remains a mystery. There is no question, however, that he was susceptible to swoonish emotional swings, especially when under extreme stress, and
he would struggle with this problem throughout his life.

Whether she knew it or not, and there is some evidence she did, Abigail’s chief role as John’s wife was to become his ballast. She
needed to create a secure domestic environment in which he felt completely comfortable, a calm space where his harangues and mood swings were treated as lovable eccentricities, the butt of jokes that would allow him to laugh at himself. He needed to be bathed in love, to be regarded not as an emotional liability but as a passionate asset. This was obviously a huge order. As it turned out, it came naturally to Abigail.

Why that was so is difficult to document, since Abigail did not keep a diary, and few letters before her courtship with John have survived. We are therefore forced to tease out of the scattered evidence some kind of plausible glimpse of her personality at the threshold of her marriage, inevitably influenced by the much more plentiful evidence from her more mature years, then connect the dots backward to her youth.

On the one hand, we know she was raised to be a conventional New England woman, and groomed to live the life of a traditional New England wife: marry at around twenty and produce children every two years until her fertility faded, which meant that she expected to spend her twenties and thirties either pregnant or recovering from delivering a child. She presumed that she would run the household, educate the children at least to a level of literacy, and subsume her own ambitions within the life and work of her husband. These traditional expectations were always unquestioned presumptions for Abigail, and taken together, they constitute the primary reason that she does not fit comfortably into a modern feminist paradigm.

On the other hand, while her mother encouraged her to adopt the traditional female virtues of the day, her father and grandmother encouraged her instincts to be opinionated. Reading was the chief form of rebellion. Her father owned an impressive library containing most of the classics in literature, history, and religion. Her interest in Milton, Pope, Dryden, and Shakespeare became a source of pride rather than a worrisome concern. (If she had been raised in Virginia, her reading habits would have been considered slightly scandalous and her tart tongue a liability that required correction.) Although she never received any formal schooling, she was “homeschooled” more like a boy than a girl. And while she was never exposed to Latin and Greek, she was learning to read French when she met John. Her later letters, even more than John’s, are littered with literary references that reflect the habit of reading acquired in her youth.

There are also frequent references to her obstinacy and stubbornness, which her father and grandmother Quincy found endearing. She preferred her hair to be done this way, not that, or to wear this dress rather than that one. She had strong views about how to manage the servants and whether the congregation responded properly to her father’s weekly sermon. And, in the end, she knew her own mind well enough to reject her mother’s advice that John was not her ideal mate. This independent streak was not the result of her reading; indeed, her passion for reading was its consequence. Like a beautiful woman’s beauty, it was simply there, something she came by naturally and that no one tried to stamp out. On the contrary, as Grandmother Quincy once told her, “wild colts make good horses.”

Logically, Abigail should have felt torn between her two sides as a traditional New England woman and a fiercely independent personality. But she did not. The apparent contradiction felt to her like a seamless continuity. She could mend a hem while engaging you in a discussion of Macbeth’s fatal flaw. If that caused trouble for some people, that was their problem. One of the reasons she felt so confident about her marriage to John was that he loved the edgy combination and took great delight at the literary allusions sprinkled throughout her letters. She was simultaneously a dutiful wife and an intellectual equal, a lover and a friend, a heart and a mind.

In fact, on the heart side of the equation, Abigail was John’s superior. Together with his gargantuan ambitions and overlapping vanities, he brought massive insecurities to the relationship: a nervous, excitable, at times irritable temperament rooted not so much in selfdoubt—he was completely confident of his abilities— but rather in uncertainty that the world would allow him to display his talents. To be sure, John was hoping to play a bigger game on a much larger public stage, while Abigail’s focus was the much smaller arena of the family. But within that orbit she was supremely and serenely confident, totally immune to the demons that bedeviled him, the even keel to his wild swings, the safety net that would catch him when he fell. In psychological terms, he was neurotic and she was uncommonly sane. His inevitable eruptions would not threaten the marriage, because she was the center who would always hold.

Abigail’s bottomless devotion was put on display in April 1764, seven months before their marriage, when John decided to undergo
inoculation against smallpox. An epidemic was raging in Boston, and John correctly calculated that inoculation, though risky, was much less so than catching the smallpox in “the natural way.” (In March 1764 Boston reported 699 cases of smallpox acquired in “the natural way,” causing 124 deaths.) John’s letters while he was quarantined were models of bravado— he was “asHappy as a Monk in his cloister or an Hermit in his Cell.”

Abigail had wanted to join him so they could undergo the inoculation process together. But John reasoned that as long as she remained in Weymouth or Braintree, the epidemic in Boston would not threaten her, so the risk of inoculation was greater than the risk of exposure. She sent him several parcels of tobacco so that he could “smoke” the daily letters she expected him to write, thereby removing any contamination. “I don’t imagine you will use it all for that purpose,” she joked, given his preference for a cigar as a companion to take her place.

Though they were only engaged, Abigail already thought of herself as his wife. “I am very fearful that you will not, when left to your own management, follow their directions,” she cautioned, “but let her who tenderly cares for you both in Sickness and Health interest you to be careful.” She felt guilty at not being there to take care of him. Even though she could not visit him in quarantine, she said she wanted to go to Boston anyway so she could just “look at him through the window.” She was completely smitten.

From the Hardcover edition.
Joseph J. Ellis|Author Q&A

About Joseph J. Ellis

Joseph J. Ellis - First Family

Photo © Erik Jacobs

JOSEPH J. ELLIS is the author of many works of American history including Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize; and American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, which won the National Book Award. He recently retired from his position as the Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College and lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife and their youngest son.

Author Q&A

Q: You wrote about John Adams many years ago in Passionate Sage and, of course, he plays a role in Founding Brothers and American Creation as well as in your biographies of Washington and Jefferson. When and why did you decide to turn your attention specifically to John and Abigail?
As you say, my scholarly relationship with John Adams is longstanding.  And if you hang around the Adams Papers long enough, you eventually realize that the “Family Correspondence” is the crown jewel.  In earlier books I kept coming back to it for bits and pieces of evidence, and eventually decided that it was a story in itself that wanted me to tell it.

Q: How do you go about writing a biography of a couple, and their marriage, differently than you do writing a single subject biography?
Biographers of both John and Abigail invariably write about the other partner, but the partnership itself is a different kind of animal. I recall being impressed by a book by Phyllis Rose entitled Parallel Lives about five Victorian marriages.  Perhaps that book gave me an idea that had been floating about in my subconscious for the last twenty years or so.  Writing about them as a team also forces you to link the large political events they were living through with very personal issues like child-rearing, aging together, and health.  In my judgment, that’s how most of us actually experience history.  I very much wanted to capture that fusion of the public and the personal.

Q: How did they meet and was it love at first sight?
They met in the parlor of Abigail’s father, when John accompanied his best friend, who was courting Abigail’s sister.  Abigail left no record of her first impression, but John did.  He thought she was a boring, uninteresting, opinion-less young woman, not worth a second thought.  It was definitely not love at first sight.

Q: You call the roughly 1200 letters between John and Abigail a “treasure trove of unexpected intimacy and candor, more revealing than any correspondence between a prominent American husband and wife in American history,” and, “the most comprehensive and intimate portrait of a prominent family living through America’s founding.” How is it that so many of their letters have survived?
Well, early on, by 1776, John and Abigail both developed a keen sense of the historical significance of their times and decided to preserve their letters for posterity and in John’s case to make copies whenever possible.  In that sense, they were writing to us as well as to each other.  Moreover, they were apart for such long stretches that they wrote more letters than most prominent couples of the era, or any era.  So we know more about their most intimate thoughts, ironically, because of the distance between them.  Thank the gods there were no cell phones back then.

Q: While, as you write, “from a historians point of view the geographic distance between them proved a godsend,” from a marital point of view it was an incredible hardship.  It’s hard in this day and age to even imagine the kinds of absences they endured.  How did it affect them?
Lacking emails or cell phones, space and time were experienced differently. Our presumption of instant communication makes it difficult for us to comprehend their world, where distance was non-negotiable.  As I mentioned earlier, distance made letters necessary, a godsend for the historian.  But it also generated a psychological and emotional space that required Abigail to become more independent than she might have otherwise, and John to become a second-hand parent and husband for long stretches.  They had to imagine what the other was thinking or feeling more than most modern couples.

Q: Abigail and John launched their marriage at the same time the British ministry launched its legislative initiative to impose parliamentary authority over the colonies.  You say this coincidence is worth contemplating.  How so?
It meant that John was ready to play a prominent role in the run-up to the American Revolution because his marriage to Abigail gave him what he called “ballast.”  And it meant that the cause of independence and the Abigail-John partnership would be forever linked throughout their lives.

Q: You write that both John and Abigail defied rigid gender categories. In what ways?
Each of them occupied the traditional roles, to be sure, John as the breadwinner and public figure, Abigail as the wife and mother.  But both defied the gender boundaries as well.  They shared parenting responsibilities and they consulted routinely about political issues.  Instead of occupying separate spheres, they kept overlapping and, if you will, completing each other.

Q: You mention a letter Abigail wrote in the spring of 1776 as “her most famous.”  What was in that letter?  
This was the famous “Remember the Ladies” letter of March 31, 1776 in which Abigail somewhat mischievously noted that the arguments John was hurling against Parliament’s authority over the colonies had obvious implications for the authority of husbands over wives in a patriarchal society.  John tried to turn the exchange into merely playful banter, but Abigail’s responses show that she was quite serious.

Q: How influential was Abigail in shaping John’s views and what were the issues on which they most agreed? And disagreed?
Well, you have to read the book to know the full answer, but they were in complete agreement on the question of American independence.  They disagreed in the 1780s about John’s relative responsibilities as a father and husband versus as a statesman.  And during his presidency, Abigail was a more ultra-Federalist who harbored no reservations about the passage of the Alien and Sedition Act.  I think that was the one political occasion when she failed him.

Q: Much has been written about John’s relationship with Thomas Jefferson but you really shine a light on Abigail’s remarkable friendship with Jefferson.  Can you tell us a little about their relationship?
Well, just to tease you a bit, Jefferson carried these clearly delineated gender categories in his head.  And Abigail violated them by moving gracefully from conversations about silk gloves or silverware to observations about interest rates at the Bank of Amsterdam or recent speeches in Parliament.  She was the first woman he came to know well that 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. Jefferson had never before known a woman who could do that.

Q: You write at length about John and Abigail experiencing “the emergence of a highly partisan brand of party politics,” and, “the arrival of a political culture almost designed to torment him until his dying days.”  John assumed the office of President in a most turbulent and nasty atmosphere.  Do you think he and Abigail were prepared for this?
They thought they were, because they had witnessed the savage attacks on George Washington during his second term.  But they had no way of knowing how much more passionately partisan it would get during John’s presidency, and both of them viewed the arrival of party politics as incompatible with their conception of virtuous political leadership.  They saw themselves as the last members of a lost generation.

Abigail harbored a more moralistic, at times almost operatic view of politics than John.  It was always the forces of light against the forces of darkness.  She viewed the political factions of the 1790s through those categories, and came to regard all the Republican critics of her husband as traitors deserving jail time.  While John lived to express regret about signing the Alien and Sedition Acts, Abigail never did.

Q: Of their retirement years you write, “The image of Abigail and John living out their last chapter together in secluded serenity was a complete distortion.  Their retirement home was also a hotel, an orphanage, a child-care center, and a hospital.” Can you talk a little about their final years together?
The Quincy household during the retirement years was a boisterous and often chaotic place, and instead of some sentimental novel about domestic bliss, we should think of Eugene O’Neill’s dramatic depiction of a dysfunctional family.  Abigail and John tried to make themselves into the calm center of an always raging domestic storm, populated by alcoholics, juvenile delinquents, hypochondriacs, and wounded creatures.

Q: For a couple passionately focused on legacy, the fate of the Adams children  is not a happy story—one that involves unfortunate marriages, alcoholism, and suicide.  Tell us a little about the Adams children and their fates.
Nabby, the eldest and only girl, married badly and lived an unhappy life that ended up in bankruptcy and premature death in her father’s arms from breast cancer.  Charles became a hopeless alcoholic and drug addict who died at thirty.  John refused to forgive him or even recognize him as his son at the end.  Tommy failed as a lawyer and eventually moved back to Quincy for a lifetime of booze and prevailing incompetence.  John Quincy, of course, enjoyed remarkable success as the preeminent statesman of his era, the poster-child of the second Adams generation, but he was a deeply conflicted man as well, who regarded his personal life as an abject failure.

Q: It certainly seems with the Obamas in the White House, the focus on and fondness for the first marriage, and first family, is as at a peak.  Does their partnership in any way remind you of John and Abigail’s?  
Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton changed the longstanding pattern of First Ladies as social ornaments who played no substantive role in shaping policy.  Michelle Obama, like Hillary, had a professional career as a lawyer, and currently leads the national campaign to combat obesity.  But she also is committed to playing the conventional role as wife and mother who remains in the background.  Abigail was the first First Lady who gracefully straddled those two roles.  In that sense, Michelle Obama is following in Abigail’s footsteps perhaps more than any other First Lady.

Q: At the opening of First Family you write, “Abigail and John have much to teach us, both about the reasons for that improbable success called the American Revolution, and the equally starting capacity for a man and woman—husband and wife—to sustain their love over a lifetime filled with daunting challenges.  One of the reasons for writing this book was to figure out how they did it.”  So, how did they do it?
They were intuitively and instinctively aligned from the start, compatible emotionally and intellectually, learned how to grow together rather than grow apart, developed incredible powers of resilience and recuperation in the face of personal pain and tragedy, and enjoyed the luxury of living out their time together within the protective canopy of unconditional love, which was always just there.

From the Hardcover edition.



“Written with the grace and style one expects from Ellis. . . . John Adams could not have a better biographer.”
The Los Angeles Times

“Authoritative. . . . Ellis employs his narrative gifts to draw a remarkably intimate portrait of John and Abigail’s marriage as it played out against the momentous events that marked the birth of a nation.”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“A brilliant book. . . . Provocatively interpretive, carefully researched, and gracefully written.”
Providence Journal
“Ellis has made himself into a sort of bard of our early Republic, and First Family is a fitting addition to his repertoire.”
The Miami Herald

“A stirring portrait of a marriage. First Family reminds us that in certain presidencies (FDR and Clinton spring to mind), there is no closer adviser than a brilliant spouse, improving the thoughts of her husband, often before he has even conceived them.”
The Boston Globe
“Engaging. . . . Ellis does a marvelous job of capturing Abigail and John at their boldest and most vulnerable. . . . He possesses a rare understanding of human nature. In First Family, he has given us the story of a marriage worth emulating and, not least, a subtle reflection on ‘the perils of parenting.’”
Chicago Tribune
“Richly detailed. . . . Erudite as well as eloquent, First Family proves that bedfellows can make superior politics.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Ellis dips into the rich pool of the couple’s letters to each other . . . to show how inextricably linked the Adams presidency and the Adams marriage were. . . . He enables his readers to make fresh judgments about the second president’s tenure.”
The Dallas Morning News
First Family invites you into a sustaining marriage that survives revolution, personal tragedies and the vicious politics of the moment. . . . Valuable reading.”
“Ellis’s supple prose and keen psychological insight give a vivid sense of the human drama behind history’s upheavals.”
Publishers Weekly
“The author’s fluid style penetrates a correspondence studded with classical references, political dish, felicitous turns of phrases and unvarnished pleadings of affection and anxiety. America’s first power couple enjoyed, teased and rescued each other during 54 years of marriage.”
The Star-Ledger (Newark)
“Ellis is that rare professional historian who can eloquently convey both information and insight with remarkable clarity. . . . He has once again given us a consistently engaging dual biography and love story as well as an insightful exploration of early American history.”

Joseph J. Ellis

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