Impertinent Questions

Impertinent Questions with Margaret A. Hogan

On the letters and lives of John and Abigail Adams

HUMANITIES, May/June 2008, Volume 29, Number 3

As the managing editor of the Adams Papers and primary editor for Adams Family Correspondence, Margaret A. Hogan has an all-access pass to the lives of John, Abigail, John Quincy, and the rest of the Adams dynasty. The Massachusetts Historical Society, which sponsors the editions project, holds more than a quarter million Adams-related documents. Hogan, with her colleague C. James Taylor, recently published My Dearest Friend (Belknap Press), a new compilation of letters between John and Abigail Adams. Here Hogan reflects on the verities of the Adams family and the scholarly life.

What was John Adams's most marked characteristic?


What could modern political wives learn from Abigail Adams?

Be grateful for telephones, e-mail, and airplanes.

Which person did John most admire?

George Washington.

Which person did John most despise?

In order by chronology, last name, or level of disdain?  How about one for each day of the week?   If it's Tuesday, it must be Hamilton.

What was John's greatest extravagance?

Books and land. He couldn't get enough of either, which drove Abigail crazy. She wanted to invest their money in securities—an early bond speculator.

John and Abigail: love at first sight or slow burn?

Slow burn. His earliest description of her was “Not fond, not frank, not candid.” Things could only improve from there.

What pet names did John have for Abigail?

Miss Adorable. The Great Goddess Diana.

What pet names did she have for him?

My Dearest Friend.

What is the quality that John most liked in a woman?

Intellect and common sense.

What is the quality Abigail most liked in a man?

Integrity, intellect, and a sense of duty.

Which words or phrases did John most overuse?

“In my opinion. . . . ”

When and where were John and Abigail the happiest?

Their retirement years at Peacefield. They faced their fair share of tragedies during that time but at least, at long last, they were together.

When were they most miserable?

The years when John was in France and Abigail was at home in Braintree. Abigail was horribly lonely-she went months without hearing from John; he was frustrated and bored. John wrote to Abigail that his position was a “disgusting and provoking Situation. . . . I had rather be employed in carting Street Dust and Marsh Mud.”

What was Abigail’s most treasured possession?

Her letters from John.

If the election were held today, who would win: John Adams or Thomas Jefferson?

Jefferson. Adams just wouldn’t have had the stomach for it.

What modern politician is most like John Adams?


What is still a mystery about John Adams?

Not much. He didn’t hold back.

Why study John and Abigail?

They’re the original great American couple—present at so many significant events—and they had something to say on pretty much any topic imaginable. Their letters are insightful; they both write so eloquently but also with so much candor. Their humanity just shines through.

Who are your favorite writers?

Elizabeth Peters, Margaret Atwood, J. R. R. Tolkien, Louisa May Alcott.

What is your favorite archive?

The archives at the motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catharine in Springfield, Kentucky. The archivist put me up, fed me, made sure I took a walk outside each day to get some fresh air, and had the sisters pray for the success of my dissertation. What more can you ask for?

Footnote or endnote?

As a historian, footnotes (easier for the reader). As an editor, endnotes (easier for the typesetter).

E-mail or letter?

Letter. You cannot work with such remarkable ones from the eighteenth century all the time and not want to leave some (and receive some) yourself.

Which talent would you most like to have?

To be a really great cook.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

When I can bring happiness to my family.

What is your favorite occupation?

Editor. (I love what I do—and my boss might be reading this.)