Not-so-strange bedfellows

Joseph Ellis traces a pairing of equals through loving, candid letters

John Adams wrote more than 1,200 letters to his wife, Abigail, over their remarkable lifelong partnership. John Adams wrote more than 1,200 letters to his wife, Abigail, over their remarkable lifelong partnership. (Boston Athenaeum (Left), Adams National Historical Park)
By Ted Widmer
Globe Correspondent / November 21, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

John Adams, the first of our five presidents from Massachusetts, has become the patron saint of lost administrations. His single term was widely viewed as a failure, capped off with a hearty and humiliating rejection by the voters in 1800.

Yet Adams has simply refused to die. He lived on a magnificent 26 years, long enough to achieve apotheosis on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, along with Thomas Jefferson (the greatest stage exits in American history). And over the years Adams has staged a revival, crawling back inch by inch, first to respectability, then to something like greatness, and finally to the popularity that eluded this prickly character in his lifetime.

He can thank talented biographers (David McCullough) and inspired actors (Paul Giamatti) for some of this, but mostly he deserves the credit himself, for leaving to future scholars one of the great masses of writing in our history, a body of scribbling that revealed a mind perpetually at work. The Adams-Jefferson correspondence is justifiably famous for its moving display of two of the original Argonauts (Jefferson’s term), once enemies, eventually reconciled and reflective. But there was another correspondent to whom he opened his heart even more fully, and that was his wife, Abigail, to whom he wrote more than 1,200 letters over a remarkable lifelong partnership.

Joseph Ellis, the renowned Mount Holyoke College historian, has written about Adams before in different formats. But now he has delved into those letters, preserved at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the result is 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. “It may be called the telegraph of the mind,’’ Abigail wrote to explain their connection. Sometimes it seemed that they shared the same body (“When he is wounded, I bleed,” she wrote), and Ellis takes obvious pleasure in exploring their physical connection as well.

He was 11 years older, far more choleric, and yet their partnership worked as much for their differences as their similarities. Throughout a lifetime of turbulent politics, she calmed and focused him. One month into his roiling administration, which began to go south as soon as it began (literally — the capital moved to Washington), an embattled President Adams wrote to Abigail, “I can do nothing without you.’’ It is remarkable how absent women are, generally, from the story of the founding fathers, whose very name implies an impenetrable male fraternity. Adams is the exception, for his entire career rested on his “friend,’’ to use the term they shared in their private letters.

Ellis has more than passing familiarity with his subject; he even refers to his protagonist as “John.” But he does not let his knowledge of the facts bog down a good story. At times the letters are intensely personal. She to him: “My pen is always freer than my tongue, for I have written many things to you that I suppose I never would have talked.’’ At other times, one of the writers disappoints the other. Usually he is the culprit: “I suppose your Ladyship has been in the Twitters, for some Time past . . . because you have not received a Letter by every Post, as you used to do.’’ That is likely the only time prior to the Obama administration that a president used any form of the word “twitter.’’

The underlying drama is not only that of a force of nature, willing the nation into existence, despite considerable flaws in his character. It is also the story of a career that came at a great cost. Without delving too much into the causes, which were probably as elusive to John and Abigail as to us, Ellis tells the tragic story of their offspring, who (with the obvious exception of John Quincy Adams) accomplished little, married badly, and presented a lifelong burden to the couple.

Adams never conquered his emotions — “Lawless Bulls that roar and bluster, defy all Control, and sometimes murder their proper owner.’’ He hated his friends nearly as much as his enemies, and that is saying something. For all his stoutness (he would later be lampooned as “His Rotundity’’), he was surprisingly vulnerable — “Ballast is what I want,’’ he wrote. “I totter with every breeze.’’ That ballast, of course, came from Abigail. She maintained emotional and financial equilibrium, suffered his long absences with relative though not total equanimity, and was the caregiver to a brood of household dependents growing up in Quincy, sometimes in wartime conditions.

Ellis takes most of the founders down a peg — none more so than Hamilton, whose errors are described with more enthusiasm than his virtues. But in so doing, he reasserts the essential point that these were flawed human beings, whose achievement is all the more remarkable for that fact. If the government that the founders launched rested upon a set of self-correcting mechanisms, it’s clear that John Adams learned those healthy principles from the moment he met the great counterweight of his life. For Adams, checks and balances began at home.

Ted Widmer is the director and librarian of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He can be reached at

FIRST FAMILY: Abigail and John Adams By Joseph J. Ellis

Knopf, 299 pp., $27.95