The Pulitzer Prize-winning Professor of History on the Ford Foundation at Mount Holyoke College, Joseph Ellis has written nine highly-praised books, including American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, His Excellency: George Washington, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, and more. He also won the National Book Award for American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson in 1997.
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.
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