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The Ballad of Abigail and John

- Abstract

In First Family, Joseph J. Ellis tells the story of John and Abigail Adams from their first meeting in her father’s parlor in 1759 to Abigail’s death in 1818 with John at her side, lamenting, “I wish I could lie down beside her and die too.” The tale of this extraordinary marriage of minds and hearts then splits in two.  First there are the outlines of John’s ascent to the American Founding and the presidency. There is also the story of the marriage, raising an (often troubled) family with long separations and happy reunions, culminating in the retirement years, when the couple at long last lived regularly under the same roof. As the years pass, the stories blend. Ellis is a fine teller of the tale; he is less rigorous as a historian.

“Saucy” was a favorite word for John to use in describing his “dearest friend.” That quality comes through most clearly in her famous letter from the spring of 1776, bidding John to “remember the ladies” as he considers the coming independence of the United States, for “all men would be tyrants if they could.” John barely took Abigail’s point seriously, and he responded playfully: “in Practice you know We are the subjects. We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would compleatly subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat, I hope General Washington, and all our brave Heroes would fight.” Abigail was not amused by his clever condescension, but she did not rebel; she knew that change takes time, and time did change John’s perspective on the seriousness of women’s rights. A more thorough scholar than Ellis would have quoted the letter in which John chastised one of his grandsons for laughing off the idea of women’s suffrage.

About the Author

Richard Samuelson is an assistant professor of history at California State University, San Bernardino.