First Family: Abigail and John Adams
Joseph J. Ellis
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In this rich and engrossing account, John and Abigail Adams come to life against the backdrop of the Republic’s tenuous early years.
Drawing on over 1,200 letters exchanged between the couple, Ellis tells a story both personal and panoramic. We learn about the many years Abigail and John spent apart as John’s political career sent him first to Philadelphia, then to Paris and Amsterdam; their relationship with their children; and Abigail’s role as John’s closest and most valued advisor. Exquisitely researched and beautifully written, First Family is both a revealing portrait of a marriage and a unique study of America’s early years.
that the end was near.22 On the morning of July 4 John lay in his bed, breathing with difficulty, apparently unable to speak. But when apprised that it was the Fourth, and the fiftieth anniversary of Independence Day, he lifted his head and, with obvious effort, declared: “It is a great day. It is a good day.”23 Late in the afternoon he stirred in response to a severe thunderstorm—subsequently described in eulogies as “the artillery of Heaven”—and was heard to whisper, “Thomas Jefferson
with the Blood of thy children.” Intricate constitutional questions were irrelevant within this framework, since the core issue at stake was a question of power, and the British were obviously prepared to exercise that power arbitrarily. If for John that meant slavery, for Abigail it meant physical violation, in short, rape. These were the ultimate ignominies for a man and a woman, so in that sense John and Abigail agreed that the British ministry was committed to a course that justified their
and most fervent prayers,” he wrote to Jefferson, who was still ensconced in Paris. “But whether I shall have anything more to do with it, besides praying for it, depends on the future suffrage of freemen.”7 That was not technically correct. John’s fate depended on electors chosen by each state, mostly by the respective state legislators, who themselves were determined by the “suffrage of freemen.” When these electoral votes were counted in February 1789, Washington had won unanimously,
John reached the presidency. (Abigail referred to him as an “old oak” who might be torn up by the roots but would never bend, whereas Jefferson was “the willow” who would shift with the wind.) At the policy level, he was completely clear about the direction in which American history needed to flow: neutrality abroad, unity at home, and peace at all costs. By sending an American delegation to Paris, he had planted his standard, which he was prepared to defend to the death, no matter how few
requests—Pickering on American policy toward the slave insurrections in Santo Domingo; McHenry on rank squabbles in the army; requests for guidance from the newly appointed secretary of the navy, Benjamin Stoddert, on the deployment of recently commissioned frigates. All this routine business, he insisted, could be done from Abigail’s bedside.46 Although he was unwilling to acknowledge it, perhaps even to himself, there were other motives for his extended absence. Once he finally realized that