History | My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams, Edited by Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, $35, 508 pages.
He was her Lysander, after the Spartan hero. She was his Diana, after the Roman goddess of the moon. She called him "My Dearest Friend." He called her "Miss Adorable" and his "Heroine," who sustained "with so much Fortitude, the Shocks and Terrors of the Times."
He, of course, was John Adams, the brilliant, charming, often irascible Revolutionary patriot who became the second president of the United States. She was Abigail, his spirited, stoic and equally brilliant wife. The two were not just what one television dramatization of their lives all too glibly termed "America's first power couple" at a time when most women were accorded little power or influence. They were also uncommonly well-matched partners who shared a passionate dedication to the Revolutionary cause, as well as a love of books and history, a playful sense of humor, a voluble literary gift and deep and abiding affection for each other.
Because John Adams' work as a critical player in the War of Independence frequently took him away from home, his correspondence with Abigail (some 1,160 letters between them have survived) provides a wonderfully vivid account of the momentous era they lived through, underscoring the chaotic, often improvisatory circumstances that attended the birth of the fledgling nation and the hardships of daily life -- from smallpox to wartime shortages -- in that "Age of Tryal."
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Although the reader frequently wishes that the editors of this collection (Margaret A. Hogan, managing editor, and C. James Taylor, editor in chief, of the Adams papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society) had provided more contextual commentary, this volume has the virtue, unlike earlier collections of their correspondence, of including later material extending into Adams' vice presidency and presidency -- material that reminds us of his often tart assessments of associates like Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
For the contemporary reader, two things about the Adamses' letters stand in relief. One is the extraordinary difficulty of travel and communication in the 18th century -- difficulty that is almost incomprehensible to generations used to commuter airlines, instant messaging and e-mail. Adams' diplomatic missions to Europe resulted in years away from Abigail and their children, and the vagaries of war and trans-Atlantic travel meant that many of their letters never even made it through.
The other striking thing about the letters is just how modern they feel. Aside from the period spelling and the occasional period locution, the Adamses' letters exhibit little of the buttoned-up formality of the day. As his biographer Joseph J. Ellis (who wrote a foreword to this volume) has noted, John Adams was a man whose "feelings seemed to move instantaneously from his soul to his mouth or pen, without passing through any filter in his head," and Abigail was equally outspoken, be it on women's rights, the war against the British or the vicissitudes of human nature.
John tended to be terser and less poetic. At once ambitious and alienated, hungry for fame and fearful of success, he was a decidedly contrary genius who cultivated a position as a solitary outsider and spent most of his life extolling the need for duty and self-denial even as he labored to ensure America's future and his own legacy. He was prescient about the course that American history would take, both during his lifetime and after, predicting early on that war between England and the colonies was unavoidable and warning of the evils of slavery.
Adams had little patience with his colleagues' posturing and pontification, and he complains to Abigail about the tiresome business of politics.
Adams' devotion to "the American Cause" made him aware that his vexations with the political process and his long absences from his "little Farm, and its dear Inhabitants" were a necessary price to pay for helping to ensure the future of the new republic.
This dedication to the cause, combined with Abigail's enduring love, helped sustain him through the anxieties -- he thought the colonies' prospects were promising but worried that there was always "more Noise than Musick" -- and they gave this impatient man the patience to persevere in the face of frustrations and setbacks.