New book offers personal look at John, Abigail Adams

Email|Print| Text size + By Jay Lindsay
Associated Press Writer / November 18, 2007

BOSTON --In a flirtatious courtship letter to his future wife, Abigail, John Adams addresses her as "Miss Adorable." After she died 56 years later, Adams writes his son of a grief so exhausted that death "has no sting left for me."

In between, the remarkable relationship between one of early America's most important couples is chronicled in more than 1,100 letters.

A new book, "My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams," compiles 289 of the letters in a book its editors hope sheds new light on the couple and the first days of the country they helped found. The book includes about 75 newly published letters from the period following the American Revolution.

On Monday, U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, Gov. Deval Patrick and former Gov. Michael Dukakis will join their wives to read portions of the book at Fanueil Hall. Kennedy said he and his wife, Vicki, feel privileged to celebrate the Adamses' contributions.

"Their loving partnership in service to our country is a remarkable story and one that merits re-telling over and over again," he said.

The book was a two-year project of editors C. James Taylor and Margaret Hogan of the Massachusetts Historical Society, where The Adams Papers are kept.

The project started when Harvard University Press asked the society's help in reissuing a collection of Adams letters that were printed for the bicentennial. But that collection didn't contain post-Revolutionary War letters, and Taylor and Hogan decided they were essential for a complete view of the couple and their times.

That period saw Adams ascend to the vice presidency, then what turned out to be a difficult presidency, before being defeated by Thomas Jefferson in 1800. Abigail, who remained at the family home in Quincy, is his most trusted and involved adviser to the end of his term, even demanding to see the list of judges he plans to nominate in one of his last presidential duties.

"You get a sense of (John Adams') role in what's going on in the creation of the nation," Taylor said.

Hogan and Taylor separately read each of the 1,160 letters, considering both their historical and literary value, then hashed out their differences to make final selections.

Hogan said the Adamses are unique among the founders for preserving their correspondences -- the Jeffersons and Washingtons destroyed their letters -- and for the honest way with which they wrote about everything from the trials of their country and family to mundane personal worries.

"All the founders have had complicated, emotional lives, but we don't have them talking about it," Hogan said.

"My Dearest Friend," named after the salutation with which both John and Abigail often began their letters, offers a look at the span of their relationship.

It starts with John's love-struck courtship letter in 1762, in which he orders her, with mock formality, to give him "as many Kisses, and as many Hours of Your Company after 9 o'clock as he shall please to Demand," and ends with his grief over her death in 1818.

The letters often express the pain of separation. After John was appointed to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Abigail wrote on Aug. 19, 1774: "The great distance between us makes the time appear very long to me. ... The great anxiety I feel for my country, for you, and for our family renders the day tedious and the night unpleasant. The rocks and quicksands appear upon every side."

After the war begins, Abigail provides a fearful account of the Battle of Bunker Hill in a June 18, 1775 letter: "How many have fallen we know not. The constant roar of the cannon is so distressing that we cannot eat, drink, or sleep. May we be supported and sustained in the dreadful conflict."

In a postwar, Jan. 5, 1796 letter, John considers pursuing the presidency after learning George Washington would not seek a third term. He warns Abigail of the costs: "Either we must enter upon ardors more trying than any ever yet experienced; or retire to Quincy farmers for life."

In a letter written on March 5, 1797, the day after his inauguration, Adams imagines Washington gloating that his days as president are done: "He Seem'd to me to enjoy a Tryumph over me. Methought I heard him think Ay! I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which one of us will be happiest."

The later letters are the major contribution, said Mary Beth Norton, an early American history professor at Cornell University who has read the book. Among their revelations: John Adams found Jefferson untrustworthy, which may have been shocking at the time, she said.

"It gives you a lot of insight into the beginnings of the first partisanship in the nation," she said.

Caroline Keinath, deputy superintendent of the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, said the book adds richness to the often dry facts of history because the Adamses are so open and personal.

"You really get a sense of ... what it was really like during the Revolution, emotionally, physically, intellectually," she said. "It makes John and Abigail real."

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