The Romance of the 18th Century?
PARTICIPATING AUTHOR: MARGARET A. HOGAN
Margaret A. Hogan is Managing Editor of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society and Coeditor with C. James Taylor of My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams
The Romance of John and Abigail Adams John Adams, a 24-year-old lawyer in Braintree, Massachusetts, first met the teenage Abigail Smith in the summer of 1759 at her father’s home in Weymouth. John’s initial impressions were less than complimentary: “Not fond, not frank, not candid” was the overall assessment in his diary. But from these inauspicious beginnings a romance developed that would sustain this most famous of American couples through fifty years of marriage, five children (three of whom they outlived), multiple homes in numerous cities and towns across three countries and two continents, lengthy separations, and all the rigors of eighteenth-century life—not to mention a revolution, wars, and a wide array of political and diplomatic crises.
What we know of John and Abigail’s relationship stems largely from the letters they wrote to one another, of which some 1,160 have survived to the present day. Their earliest extant note, written from John to Abigail in October 1762, shows just how much had changed between them in the three short years since they first met. “Miss Adorable,” John wrote. “By the same Token that the Bearer hereof satt up with you last night I hereby order you to give him, as many Kisses, and as many Hours of your Company after 9 O Clock as he shall please to Demand and charge them to my Account.” In time their flirtatious correspondence evolved to reflect a deeper, more abiding relationship, but they never lost what Abigail described as “that unabated affection which has for years past, and will whilst the vital spark lasts, burn in the Bosom of your affectionate A Adams.”
Along with that affection and intimacy, Abigail and John proved to be kindred spirits, with shared interests in and a common outlook on the world around them. Abigail had never received a formal education, but her access to some of the finest libraries in Massachusetts and her voracious love of reading gave her a wide-ranging knowledge that allowed her easily to serve as John’s equal in any intellectual debate. Her place as John’s primary political advisor was merely a logical extension of her role as wife and manager of their household in a partnership of equals.
Their letters not only reflected this emotional and intellectual interdependence; they also became symbols of it. Abigail found writing to John “the composure of my mind.” John, even more strikingly, asked, “Is there no Way for two friendly Souls, to converse together, altho the Bodies are 400 Miles off?— Yes by Letter.— But I want a better Communication. I want to hear you think, or 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.”
In the 1770s and 1780s, as John’s work toward the creation of a new American nation expanded—from first representing Massachusetts in the Continental Congress, to spearheading the move toward independence, to representing the United States in France, the Netherlands, and Britain—he and Abigail faced longer and longer periods apart. This naturally strained their relationship, especially when John’s preoccupation with business caused him to fail to write as frequently or as fully as Abigail demanded. He brought even worse trouble upon himself when he foolishly heaped praises on the “handsome, and…exceedingly brilliant” French ladies he met in Paris. Abigail could hardly let that stand; she fired back with a lengthy missive expounding on “how much female Education is neglected… tho I acknowled it my happiness to be connected with a person of a more generous mind and liberal sentiments.”
No quarrel, however, lasted for long and they soon resumed addressing one another as “My Dearest Friend.” Through all the difficulties of John’s time as vice president and president, they found respite from politicking and social obligations in their time together. When the moment arrived for John to leave the political scene, after his defeat in the election of 1800, he wrote to Abigail, “I am very glad you consented to come on… It is fit and proper that you and I should retire together and not one before the other.” Partners to the end, they spent the remainder of their lives in Massachusetts. They wrote no more letters to one another. There was no need—they were together.