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A Life in Letters

The Story of John and Abigail Adams

By Maggie Riechers | HUMANITIES, January/February 2006 | Volume 27, Number 1

"Statues and monuments will never be erected to me, nor flattering orations spoken, to transmit me to posterity in brilliant colors," wrote John Adams. Defeated and bitter after losing the 1800 election for a second term as president, Adams believed that his rival Thomas Jefferson, among others, would get the lion's share of credit for the creation of a new nation. But as concerned as he was for his reputation throughout his career, Adams would not change his ways for politics or power.

A new film supported by NEH traces the long and sometimes stormy political career of the nation's second president, John Adams. His journey through the Revolution and the new government is retold through his letters--letters that reveal a radical revolutionary, a diplomat, a politician, and a husband who sorely needed the advice of his wife Abigail. Over the course of their fifty-year marriage, much of it spent apart, their letters show that Abigail was sometimes John's war correspondent, his political spy, and always his strongest advocate.

John relied heavily on Abigail's judgment. She was his closest confidante in both personal and political matters. "Abigail Adams was one of the most remarkable, admirable, wise Americans of all time," says historian David McCullough, author of John Adams. "She is a better judge of people than he was. She was a much more insightful politician, if you will."

In 1774, as the Revolution was brewing, Adams was chosen as one of four delegates from Massachusetts to the Continental Congress being held in Philadelphia. Abigail, although unhappy at the prospect of her husband's being three hundred miles away from their farm in Braintree, urged him on.

"You cannot be, nor do I wish to see you, an inactive spectator," she wrote to her husband. "We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them." Adams, however, was filled with self-doubt about his abilities to take on a leadership role. He wrote to Abigail, "There is in Congress a collection of the greatest men upon this continent," and admitted, "I mope, I ruminate. I feel unutterable anxiety, unequal to this business."

Yet Adams became the driving force behind the Continental Congress's vote for independence. He went on to secure loans to keep the army going during the war. He wrote the state constitution for Massachusetts, still in use today and a model for other states. He helped negotiate peace with Britain, and as president, kept the United States from war with France. He was the first vice president and the second president.

He was also ambitious, feisty, and insecure. These emotions come to light in his writings, which include thirteen hundred surviving letters between himself and Abigail. "The letters are a wonderful window into a marriage of true companions--which was also one of the greatest political partnerships in American history," says Elizabeth Deane, writer and producer of the NEH-supported documentary John and Abigail Adams, which will appear on PBS's American Experience in January. In the film, actors portray John and Abigail, but the words they speak are those written by the Adamses.

"We know so much about them through the letters," says Joseph Ellis, Pulitzer Prize winner for his book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. "It is the most revealed relationship in American history. And, it happens to be at the most exciting, important time in American history."

At the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Adams emerged as a leader, pushing delegates to declare a permanent split from Britain. "I am as fond of reconciliation as any man," he told the Congress. "But the cancer is too far spread to be cured by anything short of cutting it out." He mocked those who opposed him and was disliked by many.

"Adams could not strike a pose to save his life," says Deane. "He was irascible and temperamental." McCullough says he could be tactless, abrasive, and opinionated. Adams later labeled his own actions "obnoxious."

Ignoring his critics, John Adams continued to argue for independence until he convinced his colleagues. "The man to whom the country is most indebted for the great measure of independency is Mr. John Adams of Boston," one delegate wrote. "I call him the Atlas of American Independence."

At the same time, Abigail's letters reported on British troop movements and the actions of the local militia. She became John's war correspondent. After the attack on Bunker Hill she wrote, "How many have fallen we know not. The constant roar of the cannon is so distressing that we cannot eat, drink or sleep. Perhaps the decisive day is come on which the fate of America depends."

Despite their common concerns for their country's future, John's and Abigail's lives were separate. At home, Abigail struggled with the farm, the finances, and the children, nine-year-old Abigail, called Nabby, John Quincy, aged seven, and two small boys, Charles and Thomas. "At the end of a long day, which would begin for her at about five o'clock in the morning, in a house that the upstairs is so cold that water freezes in the little wash basins, she sits down at her kitchen table with a quill pen and a candle, and writes some of the greatest letters ever written by an American," says McCullough.

John took her thoughts and advice seriously. "She knows what's going on in the Continental Congress and he values her opinion," says Deane. "One could get the impression that she was the 'loyal little lady' managing the farm and children back home but she was so much more. Credit John Adams for seeing her astuteness and making her his true confidante."

Throughout the war and at the beginning of the new nation, Adams was frequently called upon to represent his country. In the winter of 1778, Adams went to Paris to negotiate an alliance with the French. On arrival he learned he had been upstaged by Benjamin Franklin who had already made an agreement with France. Left with nothing to do and resentful of Franklin's popularity, he returned home.

Abigail cherished this time with the family together. It was not long, however, before John was called away again. He returned to Paris to begin hammering out a peace treaty with Britain. John Quincy and Charles went with him. Although sad to see them go, Abigail urged young John Quincy, the future sixth president of the United States, to recognize the value of the experience. She wrote, "These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues."

Upon arrival in Paris, Adams once again found he had no meaningful role to play because the British refused to see him. Instead of moping, he took another course, and, acting on his own, approached wealthy Dutch bankers for loans to help keep the American war effort alive. After the British defeat at Yorktown, Holland finally agreed to provide the necessary funds.

"He gets the Dutch government to loan our country millions of dollars, one of the most important diplomatic coups of all time," says McCullough. The British soon agreed to begin negotiations. Adams returned to Paris where he, Franklin, and Jefferson, after months of talks, signed the treaty solidifying American independence.

With the war over, Adams had a new role to play-as a diplomat of a valid new government. He stayed in Europe to steady relations with European nations and insisted Abigail and Nabby join him in France. A frequent visitor to the Adams's new home in a villa outside of Paris was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson admired Abigail for her ability to talk about politics and current events, and John Quincy looked upon Jefferson as a favorite uncle.

"I think that this time in Paris in '84, '85, is the time when Adams and Jefferson really bond, when the relationship becomes an emotional relationship as well as a collegial relationship," says Ellis in the film. "Abigail says at the time that Jefferson is the only man that her husband can speak to in confidence without any concern or any restriction. There's a coming together of these two personalities here in a way that is fateful for American history."

Their congeniality would be short-lived as politics overrode friendship. Back in the states, Adams and Jefferson clashed over the direction of the new government; Adams in the Federalist camp and Jefferson opposed. The onset of the French Revolution added fuel to their disagreements.

Adams saw the French Revolution as mob rule, nothing like the American Revolution, during which order was maintained even during the fighting.

"He says on many occasions," comments Ellis, "that this is going to be the classical pattern: a mob rule, violence and terror, and eventually the establishment of a despotic government, ruled by a single person." But when Adams wrote to Jefferson of his concerns, he discovered Jefferson was captivated by the events in France, believing the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution were one and the same. Adams was thunderstruck by Jefferson's response and by late 1793 their friendship had chilled.

In 1796, Adams was elected president after serving two terms as vice president to Washington. His vice president was none other than Thomas Jefferson. The government was divided between the Federalists, the party of Adams, and the Republicans, led by Jefferson. The rift between the two widened as Adams strove to keep America from becoming embroiled in a war with France. Adams's attempt to work out an agreement between the two parties failed when Jefferson refused to go along with him.

"The fact is," says Ellis, "Jefferson wants to have some sort of peace negotiation with France. But Jefferson wants the Federalists to fail, and for the Federalists to fail, Adams has to fail." Politically isolated in Philadelphia, Adams pleads to Abigail to join him in the capitol as his trusted adviser.

She became John's eyes and ears. After a dinner party, where she was strategically seated next to Jefferson, she immediately wrote down their entire conversation for her husband. She attempted to get information from Jefferson and they bantered back and forth as in their days in Paris. What she and John did not know at the time was that Jefferson had hired a professional scandal monger, James Callender, to attack Adams.

"It wasn't until later that Adams found out that, lo and behold, this man who had been calling him everything imaginable, smearing him, was being paid by Jefferson, secretly," says McCullough. "And it broke Adams's heart. Truly broke his heart. And there was a period of almost ten years when they didn't speak to each other."

Adams continued to work for a peace agreement with France, even while the press and his party, led by Alexander Hamilton, attacked him. The election of 1800, between Adams and Jefferson, says Ellis was "dirty." Jefferson again hired Callender to write scurrilous accounts of Adams. Just as Adams lost the election to Jefferson, news came of the peace agreement with France that Adams had struggled for.

Adams returned to Massachusetts defeated and resentful. He believed he had lost any chance of being remembered in history as Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson would be.

Over the years Adams's bitterness waned, and with encouragement from an old friend, Benjamin Rush, in 1812, he sat down and wrote a letter to Jefferson. "You and I ought not die, before we have explained ourselves to each other," he wrote. Jefferson immediately wrote back.

"They began writing to each other--one hundred and fifty letters in all--and it became one of the greatest correspondences between statesmen in American history," says Ellis.

The letters between Adams and Jefferson offer their reflections on the new government, showing that their philosophies had not changed but they were able to discuss them now without rancor. Time had quelled passion and given patience. Adams wrote, "Checks and balances, Jefferson, however you and your party may have ridiculed them, are our only security for the progress of mind as well as the security of body."

Their friendship deepened. Eventually, Jefferson admitted he was wrong about the French Revolution. He wrote to Adams, "Your prophecies proved truer than mine; and yet fell short of the fact, for instead of a million, the destruction of eight or ten millions of human beings has probably been the effect of these convulsions. I did not, in '89, believe they would have lasted so long, nor have cost so much blood."

John replied, "Dear Sir: I know not what to say of your letter of the 11th but that it is the one of the most consoling I have ever received."

In 1818, Abigail was stricken with typhoid fever and died, in October, just short of her seventy-fourth birthday. "God bless you and support you under your heavy affliction," Jefferson wrote. "While you live, I seem to have a bank at Monticello on which I can draw for a letter of friendship when I please," replied Adams.

Both Adams and Jefferson would live nearly another eight years. They died on the same day, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1826. Jefferson went first, hanging on as long as possible; later that day in Massachusetts, Adams died, his last words being, "Thomas Jefferson still survives." Adams was ninety-one and had outlived his wife, friends, and fellow revolutionaries.

After more than two hundred years, Congress has cleared the way for a memorial to John and Abigail Adams. But the correspondence they and their circle left behind is perhaps a truer legacy than any statue. As Adams suggested to Jefferson: "If, one hundred years hence, your letters and mine should see the light, I hope the reader will read it all."

Maggie Riechers is a writer in Potomac, Maryland.

WGBH Educational Foundation received $800,000 from NEH for the production of the documentary John and Abigail Adams. It will be shown as part of PBS's American Experience on January 23.