"First Family:Abigail and John Adams"
By Joseph J. Ellis
Alfred A. Knopf, 320 pages, $27.95
The lustful letter, like most things in these digital days, isn't what it once was. Never mind the dissipated form or the Tweeting generation's grammatical crimes. Here is a genre so vulnerable to interception that it's a wonder people haven't yet learned to keep their lascivious thoughts well away from their company-owned BlackBerrys. Some things, though, never seem to change: most communiques of the carnal variety, from the bawdy scrawls of Samuel Pepys to the sex texts of former Detroit mayor Kwayme Kilpatrick, leave little to the imagination.
Yesterday's vulgarisms may be today's quaint euphemisms, but only up to a point. Twenty-seven-year-old John Adams was hardly dabbling in quantum cryptography when he wrote to 18-year-old Abigail Smith of his yearning for "many kisses . . . after nine o'clock" or when he augured that "many Itches, Agues, and Repentance might be the consequences of contact in present circumstances." It wasn't for nothing that Abigail and John Adams's grandson, Charles Francis Adams, excluded this letter from his 1841 volume of the couple's correspondence.
In his engaging new book about early America's most knowable duo, "First Family," the historian Joseph J. Ellis informs readers that Abigail and John Adams, no less, perhaps, than any of us, endured their share of sexual frustration. This should come as little surprise to any vaguely reflective member of the human race. But, as Ellis knows all too well, America's founding generation is hard to get close to. "We are doomed to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner," Simon Schama once observed about the historian's efforts to make those long dead live upon the page. This holds especially true for men such as Jefferson and Washington, who, at least for most Americans, seem permanently installed on Mount Olympus.
Thanks in large measure to the persuasive power of Ellis's superb books on Jefferson and Washington, among others, an entire generation of readers, many of them college students, now knows the men behind the curtain better than their parents and grandparents ever did. With "First Family," Ellis brings to seven the number of deep excursions he has had made into founders' land. And, once again, he has returned bearing gifts.
As on so many occasions before, ventures where others have traveled before. The last year alone witnessed the publication of two major books Woody Holton's hefty biography of Abigail and Edith B. Gelles's "Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage." But as in his psychologically deft life of Washington, "His Excellency," Ellis here writes with admirable economy and dispatch of events and personalities seemingly tailor-made for sprawling, unfocused books.
"First Family" differs from Ellis's previous efforts chiefly in its sharp focus on the life of the heart. The apparent predicament of unmarried Abigail and John Adams - to do it or not to do it? - will invite a chorus of approval from modern readers. Times, after all, have changed since Charles Francis Adams thought better of publishing the more suggestive contents of his grandparents' courtship letters. But love is more opaque than lust and, for that reason, more difficult to write about without resorting to platitudes and maudlin appeals to its universality. There's a reason why historians generally prefer ideas to feelings, and why college history professors, if they discuss the history of emotions at all, find it easier to treat love and sex as instruments of power rather than as legitimate objects of study.
College students, no less than any of us, generally find the past more genial when they can discern aspects of themselves in its shadows.And Ellis gets this. For him, the love and physical intimacy shared by Abigail and John Adams provide a remarkable window into the soul of Revolutionary America. This pair, he writes, "have much to teach us about 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." Indeed, Ellis adds, "One of the reasons for writing this book was to figure out how they did it."
Whatever the lessons of Abigail and John's marriage for 21st-century couples, "First Family" serves up a thoughtful rumination on love in a time of war and great political turmoil. Like those before him, Ellis sought out Abigail and John in the 1,100-odd letters they exchanged for more than half a century. He takes his signature episodic approach, arranging his narrative around well-chosen vignettes that show Abigail and John moving in real time: caught up in the mad rush of events that dominated their adult lives, struggling to establish a family and to nurture their common inner life.
The Revolution brought considerable drama and terror to households throughout the rebelling colonies. Women, especially, shouldered heavy burdens. Abigail, who found herself caring for the couple's children during John's frequent absences, suffered terribly on two fronts: she yearned for John and for the public role that convention alone denied her. From a hilltop in Braintree, Mass., she looked on as British warships shelled Boston; she witnessed, too, the Battle of Bunker Hill. To be sure, she observed far more than most, and presided over the ascent of a brilliant man who regarded her as an intellectual equal. Ellis emphasizes, no doubt correctly, that Abigail relished her role as John's trusted counselor on weighty matters. But there can be little doubt that she resented her exclusion from his world. "Here I serve my partner, my family and myself and enjoy the satisfaction of your serving your country," she wrote to him during the war.
Ellis does a marvelous job of capturing Abigail and John at their boldest and most vulnerable, particularly during those heady post-war years, when both ventured on to the international stage. In London and Paris, where John served in diplomatic posts, the couple grew dramatically closer and received "an unmatched education in courtly etiquette at the highest levels of refinement." Away from Braintree, in circles grander than any they had known, Abigail and John seem to have refined a good deal more than their manners. They refined, too, their almost religious sense of the family's dynastic destiny. Mounting fame and influence did not soften Abigail and John as it did others; it intensified their quest for perfection.
One gets the impression that Abigail and John tended to lose sight of those around them, and none more so than their children. "The history of my family is not a pleasant one to remember," their grandson Charles Francis would write. "It is one of great triumphs in the world, but of deep groans within, one of extraordinary brilliancy and deep corroding mortification." By that he meant the sorrow, mental instability, dissolution, and alcoholism that had afflicted several of his grandparents' children- and their heirs.
How one's children turn out may not be the fairest indicator of a marriage's success, but it's not an irrelevant one. Abigail and John were each absentee parents in their way, neglectful at best, cruelly demanding at worst. Ellis doesn't neglect these darker corners of the family's history. Abigail and John, he says, wondered sometimes about the terrible effect their lives on the international stage might have on their four children. Abigail, fairly enough, fretted that John's time away would wreak havoc on their three boys most of all. But she- unlike John, who truly agonized about being a bad father - stopped just short of acknowledging her own complicity in whatever misfortune might befall them.
"Greatness was the goal," Ellis writes. With the dazzling exception of John Quincy Adams, by many accounts an unhappy man, none of the Adams children came remotely close to achieving it. But that's another story. Suffice it to say, Abigail and John discovered in one another a refuge from a world full of people unlike them - less intelligent, less discerning, less intense. Everyone, including their beloved children, stood outside the high walls they had erected around their lush interior garden. Disappointment and heartbreak must, at times, have been spread evenly between parents and offspring, all of them heirs to a Puritan ethos that regarded children differently than we do. Still, the triumph of Abigail and John remains. Subjected to pressures greater than most of us will bear, they nonetheless achieved an extraordinary alliance founded on mutual admiration.
It is, more than anything, a failure of the imagination that prevents even the most accomplished historians from acknowledging their subjects' basic humanity, but Joseph Ellis 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."
Kirk Davis Swinehart teaches history at Wesleyan University.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun