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Abigail and John Adams: The Americanization of Sensibility

Abigail and John Adams: The Americanization of Sensibility

by G. J. Barker-Benfield

During the many years that they were separated by the perils of the American Revolution, John and Abigail Adams exchanged hundreds of letters. Writing to each other of public events and private feelings, loyalty and love, revolution and parenting, they wove a tapestry of correspondence that has become a cherished part of American history and literature.



During the many years that they were separated by the perils of the American Revolution, John and Abigail Adams exchanged hundreds of letters. Writing to each other of public events and private feelings, loyalty and love, revolution and parenting, they wove a tapestry of correspondence that has become a cherished part of American history and literature.

With Abigail and John Adams, historian G. J. Barker-Benfield mines those familiar letters to a new purpose: teasing out the ways in which they reflected—and helped transform—a language of sensibility, inherited from Britain but, amid the revolutionary fervor, becoming Americanized. Sensibility—a heightened moral consciousness of feeling, rooted in the theories of such thinkers as Descartes, Locke, and Adam Smith and including a “moral sense” akin to the physical senses—threads throughout these letters. As Barker-Benfield makes clear, sensibility was the fertile, humanizing ground on which the Adamses not only founded their marriage, but also the “abhorrence of injustice and inhumanity” they and their contemporaries hoped to plant at the heart of the new nation. Bringing together their correspondence with a wealth of fascinating detail about life and thought, courtship and sex, gender and parenting, and class and politics in the revolutionary generation and beyond, Abigail and John Adams draws a lively, convincing portrait of a marriage endangered by separation, yet surviving by the same ideas and idealism that drove the revolution itself.

A feast of ideas that never neglects the real lives of the man and woman at its center, Abigail and John Adams takes readers into the heart of an unforgettable union in order to illuminate the first days of our nation—and explore our earliest understandings of what it might mean to be an American.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this dense academic study, the celebrated correspondence of John Adams and his wife, Abigail, is mined for clues to the Revolutionary era's cult of emotionalism. Historian Barker-Benfield, at the State University of New York at Albany, investigates the 18th-century rise of "sensibility"--a worldview, expressed by the period's sentimental literary style, that held feelings and passions, rather than reason, to be the proper grounding of human psychology and morality. He traces its spread from British philosophers, moralists, and novelists into the awareness of genteel Americans like the Adamses, where it emerges, for example, in Abigail's plea for John to insert more "personal and tender soothings" into his letters. Barker-Benfield's rich analysis posits sensibility as a feminization of culture, an assertion of women's emotional claims against heartless rakes and gruff, tyrannical husbands, but also situates it at the heart of male revolutionaries' political rhetoric, with its appeal to the world for its sentimental allegiance. But the author's gray, jargon-riddled writing is a turnoff; under his plodding exegeses the charm of the Adams correspondence wilts. (Nov.)
James Walvin
"Though Barker-Benfield concentrates on a small group of people, their lives and intellectual and political dealings offer an entree to a much wider appreciation of late eighteenth-century life on both sides of the Atlantic. To their stories he brings an abundance of sympathetic appreciation of people living through complex and painful times and experiences. He has a sharp eye for a telling phrase, and for the nuances of contemporary writing. The end result is a convincing reconstruction of people whose lives were utterly different from our own, but who, in Barker-Benfield's hands, become real and alive to a modern reader. That alone is a major achievement."

Andrew Burstein
"G. J. Barker-Benfield knows how to captivate a reader. His engagement with the inner strengths and utter humanity of Abigail and John is just the beginning of this ingenious and expansive study of the intellectual underpinnings of sensibility and the practical uses to which it was put in Revolutionary America. The author, already well known for his readings of Anglo-American cultural movements, explores widely ignored influences on the couple and adds tantalizing insights other historians do not provide."

Library Journal
Barker-Benfield (history, SUNY at Albany; The Horrors of the Half-Known Life: Male Attitudes Toward Women and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century America) assumes a readership already steeped in the essential details of Abigail and John Adams's lives. He approaches them here not biographically but by reading their correspondence (they were often apart during the Revolutionary and Federalist eras) through the lens of sensibility—that is, the British term from the 18th century meaning the capacity for strong feelings, emotions, pains, and pleasures, caused not only by relationships but also by art, literature, and culture. Barker-Benfield organizes the book by the themes that he identifies as the Adamses discuss their own lives and what they read: male and female roles, manners, public life, child rearing. Last, he explores how the American Revolution sparked the Americanization of what had been originally a British concept. The author's dizzying number of references to both classical and 18th-century writers and philosophers can be confusing; nonspecialist readers will miss a supporting chronological narrative of the Adamses' marriage. VERDICT Lest the title mislead, this is not a biography but an advanced cultural-historical study and analysis. Those very familiar both with the Adamses and with the specialized language of this kind of critical discourse will most appreciate this.—Kathryn Stewart, American Folklife Ctr., Washington, DC

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.70(d)

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The Americanization of Sensibility

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-03743-1

Chapter One

The Metropolitan Sources of the Adamses' Views of Sensibility


The Adamses shared in the particular tradition of moral thought that fed cultures of sensibility on both sides of the Atlantic. Norman Fiering's intellectual history of this tradition and its relation to sensibility is invaluable. Fiering writes that "the most significant development in the history of ethics between 1675 and 1725" was the rise of the view that "the source of moral judgment and moral conduct is special feelings or affections rather than in reason or intellect, which at best play a complementary role, and that man is naturally endowed with moral affections."

The belief in the power of feeling (and ambivalence over its relation to reason), and other characteristics of the culture of sensibility, had ancient intellectual roots. In referring to such precedents, Fiering quotes Geoffrey Atkinson, a historian of "the sentimental revolution" in France in the years 1690–1740: "What is important in the history of ideas is always their expression and frequency of expression by different authors, for the date of the onset of ideas is impossible to find." It was the frequency of sentimental terms (beginning around 1675 in Fiering's view) that made for a historical development different from their previous occurrence: it coincided with the emergence of women.

Fiering's subject is the absorption and adaptation of seventeenth-century European moral thought in New England, sponsoring the rise of sentimental ethics. While his focus in the first of his books on the seventeenth-century Harvard curriculum might seem limited, Fiering quotes Samuel Eliot Morison to emphasize that Harvard "was a narrow gorge through which a stream of learning, the Arts and Sciences, Philosophies, and Humane Letters poured from the Old World into New England." There were other channels. Ministers of the many Anglican colonial establishments preached benevolent feelings. The Quakers, penetrating the American colonies beyond Pennsylvania, generated humanitarian sympathy, and, as Christine Leigh Heyrman's history of the rise of evangelicals in the South from the later eighteenth century through the 1840s indicates, they, too, fostered belief and behavior akin to that of their contemporary cultivators of sensibility. The influence of popular sentimental literature became pervasive from early in the eighteenth century.

Fiering recognizes that "the great strides in the modern interpretation of the passions did not begin until Descartes' treatise on the passions [The Passions of the Soul] was published" in French in 1649 and then in English translation in 1650. There, Descartes wrote: "the use of the passions consists in this alone: they dispose the soul to will the things nature tells us are useful and to persist in this volition, just as the same motion of the spirits that usually courses through them disposes the body to the movements conducive to the execution of those things." (This sentence reflects his division between passions that originate in the soul / mind and those that originate in the body, although he theorized that both are inevitably bound up with each other.) Elsewhere, he declared that passions "are in their nature good and we have nothing to avoid but misuse or excesses of them." Descartes contributed decisively to the rehabilitation of the passions in the context of others who were also reassessing them and demonstrating their central importance to the operation of human psychology. That psychology included Descartes's psychophysiological model wherein impressions were transmitted by spirits through the nerves to the brain; it was very widely popularized. Heavily influenced in his youth by Descartes, Locke assumed it. In this he had common ground with his predecessors in English efforts to scientize psychology, the Cambridge Platonists, a group of reformers within the Anglican church.

Henry More (who corresponded with Descartes, their correspondence subsequently being published) was preeminent among this group in his championing of Descartes, although others (including Ralph Cudworth, their leading theologian) adapted Cartesianism to their purposes and illustrate its being linked to ancient precedents. More "must be credited with being one of the first to bring Descartes' work on the passions into the mainstream of British and American thought." Thereafter, his own work "laid the basis for sentimentalist ethics and the romantic view of the passions." His Enchiridion ethicum (1667) was adopted at Harvard "in the 1680s ... as the principal text for moral philosophy there" and "used continuously there until about 1730." (It was translated into English in 1690.) According to Fiering, More was "the leading intellectual force in American philosophy" in that period, and some of his ideas found other routes to a popular audience, including the Spectator.

More, other Cambridge Platonists, and their Latitudinarian successors grew disillusioned with Descartes, coming to identify him with mere materialism and atheism. They replaced him with the more orthodox-seeming Newton. Latitudinarians were Anglicans who saw themselves forging a compromise position within a church riven to the point of civil war between Puritans and neo-Catholic, high Anglicans. While they conferred authority on natural philosophy (the new science), of which at first Descartes was the most prominent theorist, they had been avid to absorb its power into their theology. It depended on "the two Books" wherein God's plan could be read: the Bible, of course, but the book of nature, too, represented by Descartes and then by Newton, who published his own view of the operation of the nerves, both men believing that everything from the human body to the stars was governed by the same laws. The scientific reassessment of the passions and its popularization was fundamental to the rise of a culture of sensibility.

The Cambridge Platonists and their Latitudinarian followers were the subject of R. S. Crane's still highly influential and valuable account of "the propaganda of benevolence and tender feeling preached by numerous divines of the Latitudinarian school," along with lay publicists (in Fiering's 1675–1725 period).16 Crane's divines rejected the Stoicism that from early in the seventeenth century had been reconciled with Christianity as "neo- Stoicism" and become fashionable in European courts. By 1650, however, "the Stoic negative attitude toward the passions ... had become mainly a foil for arguments in defense of the passions." Crane's subjects consciously revolted "against the distrust of the passions and the exaggerated assumptions concerning man's rationality which they attributed to the Stoics." This coincided with the Latitudinarian repudiation of the grimmer view of human nature professed by the English Puritans, whom they condemned, not only because they saw them as fomenters of civil conflict, but also because they saw that the hopelessness of predestination drove people to atheism and rakery. Cambridge Platonists and Latitudinarians wished to have the opposite effect, bending their theology and their view of human nature to their own campaigns for "the reformation of manners."

The Latitudinarians insisted that Thomas Hobbes encouraged, in the words of Margaret Jacob, "rapacious self- interest, the pursuit of profit and status by ungodly men whose success galls and even imperils men of virtue." The corollary was competition unchecked by inner morality. This vision reflected the coming into existence of commercial capitalism: Hobbes had "addressed himself to the market society and therefore self- interest," and so, too, did the Latitudinarians. Their leading divines, including Crane's subjects, themselves had middle- class, commercial roots and "rose in the Church through dint of hard effort." At first establishment targets, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 they came to dominate the Anglican establishment; in 1692, one of their best-known preachers, John Tillotson, became archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican primate.

The Latitudinarians endorsed self-interest, but they did not wish to see "the forces of greed and disorder ... get out of hand entirely, destroy Anglican and moral and social leadership and defy the providential plan." They defended capitalism and "encouraged social inequality," sometimes justifying it as "the natural order of society." By "diligence in one's calling, calculated charity toward inferiors, ... the Latitudinarians would bend private interest to serve the public good." They were more unambiguously proponents of what Max Weber named the Protestant ethic than their Puritan predecessors. Modifying Weber, Colin Campbell also locates the psychology of consumerism in the Latitudinarian elevation of feeling. A 1733 statement of the rationale that Latitudinarians popularized was Pope's lines at the end of An Essay on Man:

Whatever is, is Right; That Reason, Passion, answer one great aim; That true self- love and social are the same.

One could say that that third line was the wish that preoccupied the Adamses and their literary contemporaries and is still with us.

The Adamses also subscribed to the reformation of manners, a formal and informal campaign against certain kinds of behavior, particularly sexual behavior, and the promotion of a politeness that included sensibility, a campaign ebbing and fl owing from the Reformation through the Victorian era. Following the death of Charles II and the chasing of his Catholic brother, James II, from the throne in 1688, the new monarchs, William and Mary, backed the churchmen who, horrified by the exuberantly sexual and intellectual license associated with the Stuart court, institutionalized societies for the reformation of manners. The author of a history of "erotica of the Enlightenment" remarks that these societies "fought a losing battle against man's carnal lust."

The theater was one of the reformers' very public targets. The two London theater companies had been King Charles's and his brother's, and Charles had taken his sexual picks from the pool of actresses. Women played on the stage for the first time, which can be seen as emblematic of their emergence in other ways, not the least in publishing books in their own names, some of them including feminist arguments.23 Notoriously bawdy Restoration plays, incorporating depictions of women's sexual appetite, along with feminist assertions about women's lack of education, their seduction and abandonment, their being bought and sold on the marriage market, and the horrors of victimization in a bad marriage, supplied archetypal characters and plots for subsequent sentimental fiction, including Richardson's. Some seventeenth-century English feminists, saliently Mary Astell, were reformers of manners, antisexual, or at least opposed to the sexuality of "libertine" men.

The leading cleric on the theatrical front of the campaign for the reformation of manners was the Reverend Jeremy Collier, who first published A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage in 1698. It must be noted that Collier shared the worldview of the divines Crane described, prizing "benevolence and good nature." He carefully analyzed plays by several writers, but his chief target was John Dryden, the greatest writer of the Restoration and an opponent of the Glorious Revolution.26 Dryden had absorbed the new science of human nature and argued on behalf of the representation of a greater range of passions on the stage than Aristotle's pity and terror. Above all, he wrote of heterosexual passions, including sexual love. He was keenly attuned to the presence, the interests, and the wishes of the women in his audiences. One feminist playwright who shared Dryden's views and openly represented sexuality, including women's sexuality, was Aphra Behn, but she had immediately faced criticism for indecency on account of her gender, that is, long before Collier's full-scale assault on male dramatists, and she was only the most prominent of several women writing Restoration comedy and drama.

Like Dryden, Collier assumed the mechanical operation of the passions, specifically in response to art, and he urged playwrights to use their words to incline audiences to virtue, rather than vice. He singled out women; in ordinary "Conversation," Collier wrote, women found "Obscenity" "particularly rude." It could not be "endur'd" by any "Lady of Reputation." Collier asked: "Do the Women Leave all regards to Decency and Conscience behind them, when they come to the Play-House?" No, he answered, resting his reassuring assertion on the ascendant, gendered, scientific psychology: "Modesty is the distinguishing Vertue of that Sex, and serves for both Ornament and Defence: Modesty was design'd by Providence as a Guard to Virtue; And that it might be always at Hand, 'tis wrought into the Mechanism of the Body."

This mechanism was the Cartesian one that Nicolas Malebranche had gendered in De la recherche de la verité (1674–75), translated into English by the Reverend Thomas Taylor as Father Malebranche, His Treatise concerning the Search after Truth in 1694, four years before Collier launched his attack. Malebranche's psychology, writes Fiering, "had a major influence on British and American theories of the passions." (John Adams had both French and English versions in his library.) Malebranche gendered Cartesian psychology apparently in reaction to Poulain de la Barre's application of it in the radically feminist De l'égalité des deux sexes (1673), which appeared in translation in England in 1677, where it met an English feminism already capitalizing on Descartes's nongendered account of the operation of mind and passions. According to Malebranche, the greater delicacy of women's brain fibers gave them "great understanding of everything that strikes the senses" and had "more knowledge, skill, and finesse" in fashions and good manners, in fact everything depending on "taste," but "normally they are incapable of penetrating to truths that are slightly difficult to discover." Women "consider only the surface of things, and their imagination has insufficient strength and insight to pierce it to the heart, comparing all the parts without being distracted." Their greater responsiveness to sensations explained why a "trifle is enough to distract them": "the least motion fascinates them ... because insignificant things produce great motions in the delicate fibers of the brains, these things necessarily excite great and vivid feelings in their soul completely occupying it." Malebranche, in short, supplied apparently scientific authority for the sharp reaction to the public emergence of women, part of the revival of the campaign for the reformation of manners being formalized in the 1690s.

Reformers of manners aimed at men, too, and not only libertines. Malebranche, like Dryden, had criticized the Stoicism identified with the warrior ideals of knighthood and the ancients. Dryden and his contemporaries elevated male characters who were responsive to women. Antony, in Dryden's reworking of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, having shown his crippling ambivalence over military values, gave them up, choosing "all for love," as Dryden renamed his version. His Cleopatra was very clear in her expression of the joys of sex with Antony. Dryden, "always aware of his audience," wrote in An Evening's Love of his "love" for it, comparing his approach to that of "a young Bridegroom on his Wedding-night," but in the same place he complained to his audience of being bound "To strain himself, in complaisance to you."

Whether or not Collier had read Malebranche (and it seems likely that he had), his own account of women's psychology is essentially gendered Cartesianism. He explained that the "Guard to Virtue" worked instinctively in women, its power reflexively manifested in the blush of modesty: "The Enemy no sooner approaches but the Blood rises in Opposition, and looks Defiance to an Indecency It supplys the room of Reasoning, And Collection: Intuitive Knowledge Can scarcely make a quicker Impression.... It teaches by sudden Instinct and Aversion." Ladies in the audience were, he said, affronted, off ended, and disgusted by swearing and smut, "Libertinism and Profaneness."


Excerpted from ABIGAIL and JOHN ADAMS by G. J. BARKER-BENFIELD Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

G. J. Barker-Benfield is professor of history at the State University of New York, Albany. He is the author of The Horrors of the Half-Known Life: Male Attitudes toward Women in Nineteenth-Century America and The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain.

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