By Don Vitale
Did the Man say one thousand one hundred and sixty letters? Look, can’t we just call it an even thousand? Your nodding says “No.”
Okay, one thousand one hundred and sixty it is.
We’re talking letters, folks. Letters that John Adams and his wife Abigail
wrote each other during their lifetime.
No…..ASTOUNDING is more like it.
Remember, friends, in those days they didn’t write with ballpoint pens. And forget about
sending an email or typing a letter in WORD. We’re talking yesterday, friends, 250 years ago yesterday. Think Pen and Quill.
See what I mean by “Astounding?”
As for the letters themselves, these weren’t 14-character messages tapped
out on the fly. Like “meet me at the pub at 7:30” or “my math teacher said
she’s giving us a test Wednesday” kind of message. These were letters the way
people used to write letters. Lengthy detailed accounts.
But, hey, more important then how the couple actually wrote is….what they wrote.
Their letters offer rare insights of the precipitous times of the revolution.
First-person accounts offer rare insights of an historic time in our country’s
formative years. It would not be an exaggeration to consider them the most famous couple in revolutionary America…if not in all of America’s history.
Over the course of 39 years they exchanged 1160 letters. In addition to their personal comments of the dangers and challenges they faced, a continuous thread of their love runs through the correspondence.
Abigail to her husband John:
My Dearest Friend,
“…should I draw you a picture of my Heart, it would be what I hope
you still would Love; tho it contained nothing new; the early possession
you obtained there; and the absolute power you have ever maintained
over it; leaves not the smallest space unoccupied. I look back to the early days
of our acquaintance; and Friendship, as to the days of Love and innocence;
and with an indescribable pleasure I have seen near a score of years roll
over our Heads; with an affection heightened and improved by time…nor have
the dreary years of absence in the smallest degree effaced from my mind
the Image of the dear little man to whom I gave my Heart…”
John Adams was an aspiring lawyer in Boston at the time he met Abigail Smith.
Abigail was his third cousin, the daughter of a Congregational minister.
She was 14, Adams was 23.
I’m sure you realize that in those days young women did not receive a
formal education, Period. And when I say Period, I mean Period….
it just didn’t happen. Although she did not attend school, Abigail
was tutored by her mother to read and write.
And because Abigail was curious about the world beyond her home,
she made up for her lack of a formal education by using an extensive
library of books. The books in her father’s library along with her
maternal grandfather’s library. An avid reader, Abigail soaked up
knowledge of theology, law, government, philosophy and history,
furthering her understanding of the world.
She has been described as intelligent and broadminded.
They got that right. History seconds the motion.
Despite the difference in age, Abigail was attractive and a woman
of intelligence. While the difference in their age was one thing
when they first met. (She was barely 14 and he was 23) It was
a different story when Abigail was 17 and Adams was 26.
Adams became her suitor….and the couple married after
three years of courtship.
As John Adams’ law practice grew, he joined the growing movement
to separate from Britain. His influence in the affairs of state resulted in
Massachusetts sending him to the first and second Continental Congresses.
After the war broke out, Congress appointed him to represent
the infant nation in France.
During the years in which John and Abigail were separated, the correspondence
between them became a life line that both faithfully maintained. It was a unique set of
circumstances, letters written daily between the two. He’d be in Philadelphia,
she’d be in Quincy (Massachusetts). He’d be in Paris, she’d be in Braintree (Mass).
Abigail looked on herself as John’s equal, especially when issues of women’s rights came up:
“I cannot say that I think you are very generous to the ladies;
for, whilst you are proclaiming peace and good-will to men,
emancipating all nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute
power over wives.
But you must remember that arbitrary power is like most other things
which are very hard, very liable to be broken; and, notwithstanding all
your wise laws and maxims, we have it in our power, not only to free
ourselves, but to subdue our masters, and without violence, throw both
your natural and legal authority at our feet.”
Writing John on the eve of declaring Independence:
“Had a Declaration of Independency been made seven Months ago,
it would have been attended with many great and glorious Effects . .
We might before this Hour, have formed Alliances with foreign States.
We should have mastered Quebec and been in Possession of Canada ..
You will perhaps wonder, how such a Declaration would have influenced
our Affairs, in Canada, but if I could write with Freedom I could easily
convince you, that it would, and explain to you the manner how.”
Abigail fills John in on the local scene:
“Do not you want to see Boston; I am fearfull of the small pox,
or I should have been in before this time. I got Mr. Crane to go
to our House and see what state it was in. I find it has been
occupied by one of the Doctors of a Regiment, very dirty,
but no other damage has been done to it. The few things which
were left in it are all gone. Cranch [Crane?] has the key which
he never deliverd up. I have wrote to him for it and am determined
to get it cleand as soon as possible and shut it up. I look upon it as
new acquisition of property, a property which one month ago I did
not value at a single Shilling, and could with pleasure have seen it in flames.”
While John Adams served as Vice President and then President, Abigail as his wife was First Lady and responsible for the official entertaining required by those positions. In the process she became John Adams’ trusted political adviser.
The couple retired to their home in Quincy in 1801. Since their
first years of marriage they were now able to spend time together
out of the public eye.
Abigail Adams died of typhoid fever at the age of 73. She is buried in Quincy beside her husband who passed away eight years later at the age of 90.–dv