Happy birthday, Abigail Adams

I grew up in a house where stories of the American Revolution were all around us. A living history. I grew up in a town where Washington actually slept. My family hails from Boston. I have cousins in Quincy. We’d drive past the Adams house on our way to Thanksgiving and it’d be like, “Oh, hey, there’s John and Abigail’s house” – as though they were our contemporaries, or family members whom we’d be seeing later at dinner. My O’Malley grandfather adored Abigail (my grandmother used to say she was jealous of only one woman, and that was Abigail Adams.)

So there’s the background. In the early years of my site, I wrote more about the Founders than I did about anything else. Our “current situation” is devastating to me, a betrayal of people like John and Abigail and all the rest of them, a trashing of what was so carefully set up, so ferociously fought for.

John Adams and Abigail Smith were wed in 1764. They were married for 54 years. They hailed from colonial Boston, spend most of the American Revolution apart, they lived in Paris, in London, and also in the brand-new muddy swampy capital of Washington D.C. They retired to Quincy after Adams’ disastrous term as the second President.

We should be grateful that these two extraordinary individuals were forced to spend so much time apart – as wrenching as it was for the both of them. The sacrifices they made in their marriage was – in terms of history – worth it, not just in terms of the events of the era, but because of the unprecedented and copious correspondence they left behind. Extraordinary in-the-moment historical document.

I’ve read their letters more times than I can count. Every time I go back to them, I find something new.

Their relationship breathes off the written page. Adams was a warm, temperamental, emotional guy. He poured his heart out to his wife. There was true intimacy between them. He is revealed here, in all his wounded vanity, his pettiness, his humor, his bawdiness. Adams in his letters is very unlike Thomas Jefferson who was much more reserved and formal in his correspondence. Jefferson wasn’t intimate with ANYONE the way Adams was intimate with Abigail. And so Jefferson remains sphinx-like (an “American Sphinx,” as Joseph Ellis calls him in the book titled American Sphinx), and Adams still feels very much alive.

In 1778, John Adams was sent as a delegate to France, to join Ben Franklin and Silas Deane. Ben Franklin was living the high life (John Adams describes in his journal – with haughty puritanical scorn – Franklin’s leisurely schedule). Adams was overwhelmed by the politeness of the French, and by how eager they were to please the Americans. On his second or third night in France, he was at a dinner – and had the following exchange with a French woman, who asked him a “brazen question”. John Adams blushed his way through the conversation, not being used to women who had such open and free airs, but his answer is a perfect description of sexual and romantic chemistry.

— John Adams’ Journal entry, 1778 April 1 Wednesday

One of the most elegant Ladies at Table, young and handsome, tho married to a Gentleman in the Company, was pleased to Address her discourse to me. mr. Bondfield must interpret the Speech which he did in these Words “Mr. Adams, by your Name I conclude you are descended from the first Man and Woman, and probably in your family may be preserved the tradition which may resolve a difficulty which I could never explain. I never could understand how the first Couple found out the Art of lying together?”

Whether her phrase was L’Art de se coucher ensemble, or any other more energetic, I know not, but Mr. Bondfield rendered it by that I have mentioned.

To me, whose Acquaintance with Women had been confined to America, where the manners of the Ladies were universally characterised at that time by Modesty, Delicacy and Dignity, this question was surprizing and shocking: but although I believe at first I blushed, I was determined not to be disconcerted. I thought it would be as well for once to set a brazen face against a brazen face and answer a fool according to her folly, and accordingly composing my countenance into an Ironical Gravity I answered her.

“Madame My Family resembles the First Couple both in the name and in their frailties so much that I have no doubt We are descended from that in Paradise. But the Subject was perfectly understood by Us, whether by tradition I could not tell: I rather thought it was by Instinct, for there was a Physical Quality in Us resembling the Power of Electricity or of the Magnet, by which when a Pair approached within a striking distance they flew together like the Needle to the Pole or like two Objects in Electrical Experiments.”

When this Answer was explained to her, she replied, “Well I know not how it was, but this I know it is a very happy Shock.”

I should have added “in a lawfull Way” after “a striking distance,” but if I had her Ladyship and all the Company would only have thought it Pedantry and Bigottry.


John and Adam speak openly in their letters of yearning for one another. She lets slip at one point that she’s sick of living in a nunnery, and they have an ongoing joke about saltpeter (to curb their aching libidos). It’s amazing. Here are a couple of yearning excerpts from their letters:

— John to Abigail:

“Is there no way for two friendly souls to converse together, although the bodies are 400 miles off. Yes, by letter. But I want a better communication. I want to hear you think, or to see your thoughts. The conclusion of your letter makes my heart throb more than a cannonade would. You bid me burn your letters. But I must forget you first.”

— Abigail to John, 1793:

“Years subdue the ardor of passion but in lieu thereof friendship and affection deep-rooted subsists which defies the ravages of time, and whilst the vital flame exists.”

— John to Abigail:

“Your letter is like laudanum.”

— John to Abigail:

“You apologize for the length of your letters. They give me more entertainment than all the speeches I hear. There are more good thoughts, fine strokes, and mother wit in them than I hear in the whole week.”

— John to Abigail:

“I am warm enough at night, but cannot sleep since I left you.”

He found equilibrium when he was with her. When he was President, she remained back in Quincy for some time, managing their property, until finally he begged her to join him. He needed her there. (His colleagues and cabinet members also thought: Dammit, someone get Abigail down here, NOW. He’s LOSING IT without her.) Abigail, at home in Quincy as the war heated up, wasn’t just “keeping the home fires burning,” but living in considerable danger, and making sure their farm continued on in his absence so that they would not be left destitute.

— Letter from Abigail to John, August 19, 1774: John had left for Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress:

“The great anxiety I feel for my Country, for you and for our family renders the day tedious, and the night unpleasant. The Rocks and quick Sands appear upon every Side. What course you can or will take is all wrapt in the Bosom of futurity. Uncertainty and expectation leave the mind great Scope. Did ever any Kingdom or State regain their Liberty, when once it was invaded without Blood shed? I cannot think of it without horror.

Yet we are told that all the Misfortunes of Sparta were occasiond by their too great Sollicitude for present tranquility, and by an excessive love of peace they neglected the means of making it sure and lasting. They ought to have reflected, says Polibius, that as there is nothing more desirable, or advantages than peace, when founded in justice and honour, so there is nothing more shameful and at the same time more pernicious when attained by bad measures, and purchased at the price of liberty…

I want so much to hear from you. I long impatiently to have you upon the Stage of action. The first of September or the month of September may be of as much importance to Great Britan as the Ides of March were to Ceaser.”

— Letter from Abigail to John, October 16 1774:

Many have been the anxious hours I have spent since [the day you left for Philadelphia] — the threatening aspect of our publick affairs, the complicated distress of this province, the Arduous and perplexed Business in which you are engaged, have all conspired to agitate my bosom, with fears and apprehensions to which I have heretofore been a stranger, and far from thinking the Scene close3d, it looks as tho the curtain was but just drawn and only the first Scene of the infernal plot disclosed [She was right – it was only the first] and whether the end will be tragical Heaven alone knows.

You cannot be, I know, nor do I wish to see you an inactive Spectator, but if the Sword be drawn I bid adieu to all domestick felicity, and look forward to that Country where there is neither wars nor rumors of War in a firm belief that thro the mercy of its King we shall both rejoice there together.

— John to Abigail: Hartford May 2d 1775, on his way down to Philadelphia. Adams was hoping that the disaster in Boston would bind the colonies together. That’s eventually what happened, but at the time it was not at all a done deal. Listen to his final advice to her. The situation was dire.

It is Arrogance and Presumption in human Sagacity to pretend to penetrate far into the Designs of Heaven. The most perfect Reverence and Resignation becomes us. But, I can’t help depending upon this, that the present dreadfull Calamity of that beloved Town is intended to bind the Colonies together in more indissoluble Bands, and to animate their Exertions, at this great Crisis in the Affairs of Mankind. It has this Effect, in a most remarkable Degree, as far as I have yet seen or heard. It will plead, with all America, with more irresistible Perswasion, than Angells trumpet tongued.

In a Cause which interests the whole Globe, at a Time, when my Friends and Country are in such keen Distress, I am scarecely ever interrupted, in the least Degree, by Apprehensions for my Personal Safety. I am often concerned for you and our dear Babes…

In case of real Danger, of which you cannot fail to have previous Intimations, fly to the Woods with our Children.

— Abigail to John June 16 1775: Listen to her practicality in the last paragraph.:

“We now expect our Sea coasts ravaged. Perhaps, the very next Letter I write will inform you that I am driven away from our yet quiet cottage. Necessity will oblige Gage to take some desperate steps. We are told for Truth that he is now Eight thousand strong. We live in continual expectation of allarms.

Courage I know we have in abundance, conduct I hope we shall not want, but powder — where shall we get a sufficient supply? I wish we may not fail there.”

— Abigail to John June 18 1775, the day after the Battle of Bunker Hill begah. She and John lost a dear friend in the Battle:

The Day; perhaps the decisive Day is come on which the fate of America depends. My bursting Heart must find vent at my pen… Great is our Loss…

The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but the God of Israel is he that giveth strength and power unto his people. Trust in him at all times, ye people pour out your hearts before him. God is a refuge for us. — Charlstown is laid in ashes. The Battle began upon our intrenchments upon Bunkers Hill, a Saturday morning about 3 o’clock and has not ceased yet and tis now 3 o’clock Sabbeth afternoon…

I cannot compose myself to write any further at present.

— John to Abigail July 7, 1775:

“Your Description of the Distresses of the worthy Inhabitants of Boston, and the other Sea Port Towns, is enough to melt an Heart of Stone. Our Consolation must be this, my dear, that Cities may be rebuilt, and a People reduced to Poverty, may acquire fresh Property: But a Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty once lost is lost forever. When the People once surrender their share in the Legislature, and their Right of defending the Limitations upon the Government, and of resisting every Encroachment upon them, they can never regain it…

I am forever yours —“

— Abigail to John October 1, 1775. This grief-struck letter brings tears to my eyes.

Have pitty upon me, have pitty upon me o! thou my beloved for the Hand of God presseth me sour.

Yet will I be dumb and silent and not open my mouth because thou o Lord hast done it.

How can I tell you (o my bursting Heart) that my Dear Mother has Left me, this day about 5 oclock she left this world for an infinitely better…

Blessed Spirit where art thou? At times I almost am ready to faint under this severe and heavy Stroke, separated from thee who used to be a comforter towards me in affliction, but blessed be God, his Ear is not heavy that he cannot hear, but he has bid us call upon him in time of Trouble…

You often Express’d your anxiety for me when you left me before, surrounded with Terrors, but my trouble then was as the small dust in the balance compaird to what I have since endured. I hope to be properly mindful of the correcting hand, that I may not be rebuked in anger. — You will pardon and forgive all my wanderings of mind. I cannot be correct.

Tis a dreadful time with this whole province. Sickness and death are in almost every family. I have no more shocking and terible Idea of any Distemper except the Plague than this.

Almighty God restrain the pestilence which walketh in darkness and wasteth at noon day and which has laid in the dust one of the dearest of parents. May the Life of the other be lengthend out to his afflicted and Your distressed Portia.

— Abigail to John November 27 1775: In this letter to John, Abigail lays out the the problems facing the Congress, and the nation in general. Also, she poses the two sides of the argument which years and years later would be the source of the debate between Jefferson and Adams: do we fear the “many” or do we fear the “few”?? At this point: it is the “few” we have to fear. The “few” have GOT TO GO.

I wish I knew what mighty things were fabricating. If a form of Government is to established here what one will be assumed? Will it be left to our assemblies to chuse one? and will not many men have many minds? and shall we not run into Dissentions among ourselves?

I am more and more convinced that Man is a dangerous creature, and that power whether vested in many or a few is ever grasping, and like the grave cries give, give. The great fish swallow up the small, and he who is most strenuous for the Rights of the people, when vested with power, is as eager after the perogatives of Government. You tell me of degrees of perfection to which Humane Nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances.

The Building up a Great Empire, which was only hinted at by my correspondent may now I suppose be realized even by the unbelievers. Yet will not ten thousand Difficulties arise in the formation of it? The Reigns of Government have been so long slakned, that I fear the people will not quietly submit to those restrains which are necessary for the peace, and security of the community; if we separate from Brittain, what Code of Laws will be established. How shall we be governed so as to retain our Liberties? Can any government be free which is not administred by general stated Laws? Who shall frame these Laws? Who will give them force and energy? Tis true your Resolutions as a Body have heithertoo had the force of Laws. But will they continue to have?

When I consider these things and the prejudices of people in favour of Ancient customs and Regulations, I feel anxious for the fate of our Monarchy or Democracy or what ever is to take place. I soon get lost in a Labyrinth of perplexities, but whatever occurs, may justice and righteousness be the Stability of our times, and order arise out of confusion. Great difficulties may be surmounted by patience and perseverence.

I believe I have tired you with politicks. As to news we have not any at all.

— Abigail to John, March 16 1776:

By the accounts in the publick papers the plot thickens; and some very important Crisis seems near at hand. Perhaps providence sees it necessary in order to answer important ends and designs that the Seat of War should be changed from this to the Southern colonies that each may have a proper sympathy for the other, and unite in a separation. The Refuge of the Believer amidst all the afflictive dispensations of providence, is that the Lord Reigneth, and that he can restrain the Arm of Man.

Orders are given to our Army to hold themselves in readiness to March at a moments warning. I’ll meet you at Philippi said the Ghost of Caesar to Brutus.

— Abigail Adams wrote the following to John, months before the Declaration of Independence was in existence:

A people may let a King fall, yet still remain a people, but if a King let his people slip from him, he is no longer a King. And as this is most certainly our case, why not proclaim to the world in decisive terms of our own importance.

Thank you both.

I am hoping we will not let you down.

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