Palo Alto Weekly

- February 12, 2010

Passion and power

Historian looks at public impact on private lives of Abigail and John Adams

"Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage," by Edith B. Gelles; HarperCollins Publishers; 339 pp.; $26.99

by Charlotte Muse

When the ambitious young Massachusetts lawyer John Adams first noticed Abigail Smith, she was only 15 years old — 10 years his junior — and he was still in love with a woman who'd married someone else. But he continued to tag along to the Smith parsonage with his close friend Richard Cranch, who was courting Abigail's older sister, until gradually, the witty, intelligent, high-spirited yet sensible Abigail drew his attention.

Slowly at first, then with deepening ardor, the young couple began the dance of courtship. When at last John Adams married Abigail Smith, the two made one of the most remarkable and heart-wrenching love matches in American history.

Through her compelling joint biography, "Abigail and John," Palo Alto historian Edith Gelles brings us into 18th-century colonial America, where the Adams' stories unfolded and the nation itself was formed.

Gelles, who was trained as a colonialist at Cornell, Yale and U.C. Irvine, can be said to have lived with the Adamses for nearly 40 years. In the 1970s, she began looking for a way to write the history of women during the colonial era and became interested in Abigail Adams. Many of her letters had been preserved, with their wealth of detail and emotional immediacy.

Gelles wrote a full chronological biography of Abigail, but, she said, it turned out to be about John. The public events of the time obscured the private world of women. For this newest book, however, Gelles hit upon the idea of writing a biography of both concurrently, so that we see both great historical events and their impact on private life.

John and Abigail, descendants of Puritan stock, believed in service and sacrifice for a greater good. Almost from the beginning of their marriage, after they moved into their small house in Braintree where John set up his law practice in the front room, there were long separations. When Abigail gave birth to their first child in the bedroom above the parlor, John, waiting anxiously below, tried to distract himself by writing a pamphlet extolling the wisdom of his Puritan forebears, and drawing distinctions between their American vision of government and that of the mother country's.

The new little Abigail, called Nabby, was born safely, and John Adams' pamphlet gained him praise and the beginning of fame. He was often asked to travel and to speak.

"It seems lonesome here, for My Good Man is in Boston," Abigail wrote to her sister, in a lament that would become all too familiar as events progressed.

The country was becoming more and more discontented under British rule. In 1765, the courts were closed. Because of Britain's mounting debt, George Grenville, the prime minister, proposed to tax the colonies. When Parliament levied a stamp tax on all paper goods used within the colonies, John Adams was galvanized. His law practice was directly affected, and his livelihood threatened. Gradually, as Gelles shows us, John was drawn into public service. More and more often, he left Abigail and their family, which grew to five children who survived to adulthood, alone.

"Abigail didn't do 'poor me,'" Gelles said. She had convictions of her own about the country's need for independence and the importance of John's role in bringing it about. Together, she and John wove a kind of family myth of John's indispensability to the revolution.

In the meantime, she raided his library, and taught herself from its books. They kept up a daily — sometimes twice daily — correspondence, in which each offers advice and counsel to the other, as well as love and complaints and news.

As the war began, John grew even busier. He was elected delegate to the First Continental Congress, and to the Second. He rarely went home at all. Abigail was left to raise the children, provide the income, pay the bills, manage the farm and see to all the details those responsibilities entailed. When she gave birth to a stillborn daughter, he did not return. When her mother died, and a good many others he knew, in a dysentery epidemic, he did not come. Abigail coped, and accepted her situation.

They loved one another. They were committed patriots, not plaster saints. Their lives included extraordinary sorrows and extraordinary successes, which brought them across the ocean to the courts of the old world, and to the pinnacle of power, the presidency, in the new. They regretted their separations, but each time reunited with gratitude and lack of rancor.

Edith Gelles, in clear, masterly prose, lets us see their lives. She gets out of the way of her characters, allowing them to tell their own stories wherever possible. The book is exciting. Abigail and John were those rare people who faced so much life that they themselves became fully alive. They are worthy subjects of such a fine biographer.

To write her book, Gelles read their letters on microfilm over a period of 10 years and copied portions of them by hand. "They went into my hand, into my brain," and finally, she said, "into my heart."

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