First Family

By JOSEPH J. ELLIS

Since 1840, when Charles Francis Adams firstpublished his grandmother’s letters, the story of John and Abigail Adams hasoften been told. Over the last several generations, biographies of both haverapidly multiplied and, in most of these works, assessments have been offeredof their marriage, usually benign (as in David McCullough’s John Adams),rarely critical (as in Paul Nagel’s Descent from Glory).Nonetheless, when last year Edith B. Gelles published Abigail & John:Portrait of a Marriage,she was justified in saying that hers was “the first double biography ofAbigail and John Adams.” Now immediately we have a second, written by avery practiced and able biographer, in a book evidently in process beforeGelles’s appeared.

Portraying marriages is noteasy work, because most of what matters about them is intimate and oftenconcealed, not least by the husband from the wife and vice versa. We have allknown couples who seemed content but who, one drastic day, split violentlyapart and thereafter tumbled out confessions of sustained unhappiness, frequentbetrayals, and unexpected longings to whichever friend or therapist provedpatient enough to listen. Though there is every reason to believe that secretsand lies were scarce in the Adams marriage, nonetheless what is known about itis mainly what each was prepared to let the other know. This is so because, asJoseph Ellis rightly observes, our knowledge of the marriage mostly comes fromJohn and Abigail’s letters to one another when separated by the demands of hispolitical life. Such distance created strain, difficult moments when he failedto write, when she was bitter and lonely, and when each failed to imagine whatthe other was experiencing. It also created pleasure, glad moments when eachshared what the other could not experience.

An especial problem indescribing the Adams marriage is the inequality of evidence. For John Adams,there are many thousands of letters, a diary and autobiography, innumerablepublic and legal papers, not to mention a myriad of contemporary accounts ofhim. For Abigail, we have more letters than is usual for a woman of her time aswell as some legal documents, but only a very brief diary and little in whichshe reflected on her experience. It would probably be a grave underestimate toassert that, for every Abigail document, we have twenty for John. So the acidtest for any double biographer of the Adamses is how well he or she handlesthis disparity, since it will not do to permit either Adams to dominate thestory. (At least, it will not do if gender equality is thought to be a literaryobligation, as well as a civic ethic.) Fundamentally, this means John’s storyneeds to be shrunk down to match the scale of Abigail’s, not because she is thelesser, but because there is less available to make her known. Is thispossible?

Evidently not. On balance,Edith Gelles has come close to achieving the impossible, mostly because herearlier writing was about Abigail and, as a historian of women, she issensitive to the history of domesticity and family life, which framed most ofAbigail’s existence. Joseph Ellis, by comparison, is by long and distinguishedtraining a historian of early American politics and politicians. He shows onlya passing and dutiful interest in how a drawing room might have looked, how amother handled servants, or what childbirth felt like, but is much more absorbedby the nuances of the Treaty of Paris and the spitefulness of AlexanderHamilton. For the most part, then, First Family: Abigail & John Adams is abook about John Adams, in which Abigail Adams makes sustained appearances.

Ellis is a very gifted writer, often a shrewdpsychologist, and has the self-confidence to offer refreshingly brisk andpersuasive judgments. On occasion, usually when a minor character is beingdescribed, he can be a little reckless and wander beyond strict evidence,because tempted by the eye-catching phrase. (Calling their daughter-in-lawLouisa Catherine Adams “a delicate orchid” prone to collapsing into “heapsof sobbing insecurity” is one instance.) On the whole, Ellis is a partisanof the Adams pair and, when he can, gives them the benefit of the doubt. Forinstance, his account of the death of their alcoholic rake of a son, Charles,ends on a kindly note about Abigail’s grief and quietly ignores the bleak factthat his parents refused to allow Charles to be buried in the family vault inQuincy. Such a partisanship occasionally strays into hyperbole, thoughadmittedly the book’s opening gambit—”some would say [the Adamses are] thepremier husband-and-wife team in all American history”—is coy. The claimsthat John Adams was “one of the master letter writers” of his age andthat there was “a seamless symmetry between them that made conflictingconvictions virtually impossible” is, however, far from coy and seemdoubtful, an unnecessary gilding of the lily. Still, Ellis’s partisanship isnot relentless, a fact which—along with his urbane command of late eighteenth-centurypolitics—comfortably saves his book from the peril of becoming a discursiveHallmark card, sent to mark the Adamses’ umpteenth wedding anniversary. He is,for example, scathing about John in the immediate aftermath of the presidency,when he is described as a loopy “one-man bonfire of vanities,” andEllis recognizes that the extended Adams family was sometimes “dysfunctional,”with sufficient lost souls to cast a play by Eugene O’Neill.

So, the question necessarilyarises: if a reader goes into a bookshop and sees Gelles and Ellis side by sideon a table, which is the better choice? Their dust jackets are virtuallyidentical, so aesthetics do not help, except that Ellis has the larger and moreelegant typeface. On the whole, it strikes me as a matter of taste. If you caremore for Abigail and precise scholarship, Gelles is probably the better choice.If you care more for John and literary verve, pick up a copy of Ellis. Eitheror both would serve you well.


Michael O’Brien is Professor of AmericanIntellectual History at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Conjecturesof Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860 (2004),which won the Bancroft Prize and was a Nominated Finalist for the PulitzerPrize, and most recently of Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the LastDays of Napoleon (2010).

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