The Ballad of Abigail and John
Abigail and John Adams
By Joseph J. Ellis
Knopf, 320 pages
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.
Although John treated Abigail as an equal partner in many ways, his wishes and needs came first, and that meant that the Adamses would be a political family. Political life came at great personal cost. When John rode the legal circuit in the years before 1775, at least he was in the neighborhood and returned regularly. Not so once he went to Congress, and then to Europe in 1778. They were probably apart more than they were together in the first two decades of their marriage. Abigail suffered greatly, pining for her husband on the other side of the ocean: “All things look gloomy and melancholy around me,” she lamented. As is often the case in lengthy marriages, in time John grew ever more dependent on Abigail, and he came to feel their separations more deeply than she did.
Near the start of the book, Ellis suggests that the story is of interest to “all of us who have fallen in love, tried to raise children, suffered extended bouts of doubt about the integrity of our ambitions, watched our youthful bodies betray us . . . and done it with a partner traveling the same trail.” The Adamses’ lives offer a positive example of the “startling capacity for a man and a woman—husband and wife—to sustain their love over a lifetime filled with daunting challenges.” He adds that “one of the reasons for writing this book was to figure out how they did it.”
Ellis’s account is graceful and readable, but overall he could have done a better job of describing the give-and-take of this famously successful marriage and the reflections of the participants in it. In another letter that Ellis does not quote, for example, Abigail notes that she and John each won their share of arguments: “I have sometimes insisted upon my own way. And my opinion has sometimes yielded silently.”
I enjoy Ellis’s books, and often assign them in my classes. But the revelation a decade ago of his habit of lying to his students at Mount Holyoke—claiming that he had served as a paratrooper in Vietnam when in fact he spent his years on duty teaching at West Point—continues to give one pause about how to examine the fidelity of Ellis’s written work to the historical record. There are lapses in First Family that make it necessary to read his work with a critical eye.
When talking about personalities, Ellis sometimes tells better stories than the facts, strictly interpreted, merit. He says John thought he had “wasted an evening” on the night he met Abigail, but in fact his diary entry consists mostly of a long reflection on her father’s character, plus the comment that “Polly and Nabby are wits.” Nabby was Abigail’s nickname, and Polly was that of her sister Mary.
Later, Ellis notes that John’s friend Benjamin Rush invented a “tranquilizing chair” for his mental patients. According to Ellis, “John countered that he already had his own proper chair,” comparing his soothing pleasure in sitting by his fireside to Samuel Johnson sitting in his favorite seat at the tavern. “Abigail suggested in jest,” Ellis writes, “that John could benefit from such seating.” Ellis has elided two stories four years apart, as the Adams–Rush correspondence reveals. It was in 1806 that Adams compared himself with Johnson in his chair; Rush did not mention the tranquilizing chair to him until 1810, the year he invented it. And while Abigail may very well have told John that he could use such a chair, I don’t see the reference in the letters cited.
Greater care in the use of original sources, not to mention a strict adherence to the facts of history, would make Ellis a deeper historian. First Family asserts that popular history can transcend romance. It is too bad its author doesn’t take that noble ambition more seriously.”