By Joseph J. Ellis (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010). Pp. 299. Cloth, $27.95.
Book Review by Kylie A. Horney, The University of Georgia
First Family: Abigail and John Adams offers a new twist on a familiar story. Joseph J. Ellis recounts the tale of John and Abigail’s lives in conjunction with “the larger political narrative” (x). Utilizing the vast correspondence left by the Adams family, Ellis traces John and Abigail from their first meeting to John’s passing on July 4, 1826. Major proceedings, such as the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the on-again, off-again relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, dot the landscape of the Adams’ experience. Ellis illustrates the strength of John and Abigail’s relationship and the power of their love through examination of their long separations, as well as the trials and tribulations of both John’s political career and more intimate family struggles.
Ellis’ narrative commences not from the beginning of John and Abigail’s lives, as most biographies do, but rather from the birth of their relationship in the summer of 1759 (3). Readers may be amused to discover that John and Abigail did not find each other attractive in either appearance or personality at their first encounter. Ellis chronicles how, luckily for posterity, these views changed over time for both parties. First Family devotes the majority of its pages to the months and years of separation John and Abigail endured. Ellis particularly explores John’s time as a Massachusetts delegate in the Continental Congress, his service on the American Delegation in Paris, and his later years as Vice President and then President of the United States.
These tenures of separation are illuminating moments in the Adams’ family saga as Abigail and John increasingly exchanged letters while they were apart, with not only each other, but with relatives and friends as well. These letters, viewed collectively, offer a rare glimpse into the emotions and activities of a family living in the thick of the Revolutionary and Early Republic periods. Ellis combs this well-trodden correspondence for evidence of the unique relationship which existed between John and Abigail. He notes how John “was susceptible to swoonish emotional swings” and how it was only Abigail, serving as John’s “ballast,” which kept him on a course for greatness (12). It was Abigail’s love, support, and confidence in John, Ellis contends, that made John capable of achieving the public distinction he so desired.
Yet, oftentimes in Ellis’ account, John’s quest for prominence overshadows Abigail’s fundamentally important domestic existence. The children, particularly Nabby, Charles, and Thomas — the less famous of the Adams children — are mentioned infrequently and it is mainly with their tragic, final years that Ellis emphasizes their broader familial significance. At times, Ellis presents Abigail as a needy, depressed, and angry woman — especially when John failed to write as frequently as she would have liked. Though the main focus of First Family is the “unconditional commitment” of their relationship, Ellis occasionally allows John to take center stage in the making of history, while portraying Abigail as only a witness, “lurking in the background” (ix, 30). To his credit, Joseph J. Ellis takes on the immense challenge of writing a dual biography or, perhaps more appropriately, the biography of a relationship. That said, while John’s life and experiences — almost inevitably — provide the framework of the narrative, First Family succeeds in painting the picture of a devoted man and woman who let neither time, nor distance, nor war, nor death affect their love for one another.
Though a number of volumes already exist concerning John, Abigail, or both, First Family: Abigail and John Adams is a valuable addition to this canon of literature. Ellis’ elegant prose and his ability to interweave both the personal and public affairs of the Adams family make this a worthy and enjoyable read for fans of historical biography or any person interested in this amazing Revolutionary family.