Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage
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Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage

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by Edith Gelles

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The story of Abigail and John Adams is as much a romance as it is a lively chapter in the early history of this country. The marriage of the second president and first lady is one of the most extraordinary examples of passion and endurance that this country has ever witnessed. And it is a drama peopled with a pantheon of eighteenth-century stars: George and Martha


The story of Abigail and John Adams is as much a romance as it is a lively chapter in the early history of this country. The marriage of the second president and first lady is one of the most extraordinary examples of passion and endurance that this country has ever witnessed. And it is a drama peopled with a pantheon of eighteenth-century stars: George and Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson, his daughter Patsy, Ben Franklin, and Mercy Otis Warren.

Abigail and John were a uniquely compatible duo, and in their remarkable union we can see the strength of a people determined to achieve full independence in the face of daunting odds. Yet while much has been written about each as an individual, Abigail and John provides, for the first time, the captivating story of their dedication and sacrifice that helped usher in the founding of our country, a time that fascinates us still.

Married in 1764 by Abigail's reverend father, the young couple worked side by side for a decade, raising a family while John's status as one of the most prosperous, respected lawyers in Massachusetts grew. As his duties within the new republic expanded, the Adamses endured a long period of sporadic separations. But their loyalty and love kept their bond firm across the distance, as is evident in their tender letters. It's in this correspondence that Abigail comes into her own as a woman of politics, offering words of advice and encouragement to a husband whose absences were crucial to the independence they both cherished. And it's also in these exchanges that they worked through the familial tragedies that tested them: the death of their son Charles from alcoholism and the impoverishment and early death of their daughter Nabby.

Through its fifty-four years, the union of John and Abigail Adams was based on mutual respect and ambition, intellect and equality, that went far beyond the conventional bond. Abigail and John is an inspirational portrait of a couple who endured the turmoil and trials of a revolution, and in so doing paved the way for the birth of a nation.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

There have been numerous biographies, scholarly works, and even novels on the lives of both John Adams, the second President of the United States, and his wife, Abigail. However, few of these works treat the Adamses fully as a couple, struggling together to make it through revolutionary times. Gelles is no stranger to Abigail Adams, having previously written Abigail Adams: A Writing Life and Portia: The World of Abigail Adams. But what is most striking about her latest work is not only that it treats the two formative founding figures together but that it reads much like fiction. Gelles culled her research from the couple's letters, using their words to tell the story of their marriage. By intertwining the stories of John and Abigail, Gelles re-creates the world of revolutionary Boston and New England with marked success. She also reminds us that while the founding of the United States may have been a male enterprise, women were also involved, though their influence was private. Recommended for both lay readers and scholars.
—Suzan Alteri

Kirkus Reviews
Lg. Prt.: 978-0-06-166836-4.A dual biography spotlighting one of the most remarkable partnerships in American history..The United States has had only a few First Couples in which the historical significance of the wife has approached that of the husband. John and Abigail Adams share this status almost entirely because of Abigail's letters, a correspondence Gelles (Gender Studies/Stanford Univ.; Abigail Adams: A Writing Life, 2002, etc.) rightly terms the revolutionary era's "best historical record written by a woman." In letters to her husband, children and friends like Mercy Warren, James Lovell and Thomas Jefferson, Abigail revealed her liveliness, strong affections, abiding faith and keen intelligence, all crucial to maintaining a marriage marked by frequent forced separations. Certain passages from this epistolary treasure have become famous: Abigail's eyewitness description of the Battle of Bunker Hill, her disquisition against slavery, her proto-feminist plea to her husband, occupied with theories of government at the Continental Congress, to "Remember the Ladies." Gelles uses these letters and many more—including John's to Abigail—to construct a moving picture of a marriage whose terms required constant renegotiation as events forced each partner to assume or relinquish tasks commonly ascribed to the other sex. Both subscribed to what the author terms their "family myth." From Braintree to Boston, Paris to London, Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., where they became the first occupants of what would later become known as the White House, the Adams's story is one of politics interwoven with family life. Notwithstanding some occasional, unfortunate academic locutions(e.g., "gender" used as a verb), Gelles pushes their marriage and family life vividly to the fore. She examines the couples' shared sorrows—a daughter's miserable marriage, an alcoholic son—as well as the many triumphs that would have been impossible, but for Abigail's wise management of her household and solicitous care for her brilliant, deeply insecure husband..A revealing exploration of an exceptional marriage marked by mutual understanding, empathy and deep love.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Abigail and John
Portrait of a Marriage

Chapter One

The Steel and the Magnet

When Abigail Smith decided to marry John Adams in 1764, she made the most fateful decision of her life. As a young eighteenth-century woman, she knew that marriage was her destiny and her only latitude was the selection of a mate. She needed to choose well. Her parents' opinions carried weight, but they were not conclusive. Her relatives and community might have thoughts, but in the end it would be her own sound judgment and feelings that were the determining factors. She would measure his character and test his affections and hope that her perceptions were accurate. He was educated, appeared honest and sober, was very industrious, and had high ambitions, so finally, after more than three years of courtship, she judged that John had met her standards. He certainly had won her heart.

When John Adams chose to marry Abigail Smith, he made the most fortuitous decision of his life. A twenty-nine-year-old man, he had already made several choices that would shape his future. As the eldest son in his family, he had fulfilled his parents' wishes and graduated from Harvard. However, going against their expectations, he rejected the life of a clergyman and settled instead upon the law as a profession. When he chose Abigail as his life's companion, he took yet another important step. She was attractive, came from a highly respectable family, and had youthful energy. Moreover, her greatest assets would be her steadiness of temperament, her intelligence, and her great sympathy for his ambitions. He believed that his destiny could be fulfilled with Abigail as his companion.

If, asthe saying goes, some marriages are made in heaven, the Adams marriage was. They could have hoped, but they could not have known, as their courtship progressed, that this would be the case. Indeed, as the date for their marriage ceremony came closer, both of them became anxious. John postponed the event several times, and Abigail got sick just weeks before their fixed date. Both of them wavered before the commitment that would seal their destinies. Then they took their vows and entered into a marriage bond that has become legendary. But they were not the only ones to express reservations about it.

Rumor has it that when the Reverend William Smith preached the sermon at his daughter Abigail's marriage ceremony on October 25, 1764, he chose for his text "For John came, neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and Ye say 'He hath a Devil.' " Even in the mid-eighteenth century's still-puritanical New England, his topic lacked felicity. Nor did it suggest the optimism or comfort that was generally associated with a wedding, especially the marriage of one's own daughter. Family members and biographers have puzzled over his sermon for more than two centuries. Perhaps he or his wife, Elizabeth, disapproved of their daughter's marriage. He could not have meant to disparage his new son-in-law before family and friends. Maybe, even more likely, he intended to set some record straight within the larger community. Rumors communicate coded information, and clearly, the good reverend was surreptitiously sending a message on that fall day in the parsonage at Weymouth, Massachusetts, when the bright-eyed nineteen-year-old Abigail Smith married twenty-nine-year-old John Adams of neighboring Braintree.

The portrait that survives of Abigail's father, the Reverend William Smith, is a sober picture, in black-and-white hues, a typical image of a New England clergyman. Its most striking features are his eyes, similar to his daughter's, and the furrowed mouth, clamped shut to hide toothless gums. The long visage, framed by a shoulder-length wig, is not unkindly but observant and commanding. The reverend was a strong man, a leader, one accustomed to directing the lives of his parishioners with the fierce determination of a latter-day Puritan. Moreover, this was a man who had experienced a long, satisfying life, marked not only by lengthy hours in the pulpit but also by the prosperity of his family. Significantly, Smith had his portrait painted as a legacy to his children to remind them of their ancestry among the distinguished early Puritan settlers of New England.

For more than fifty years, William Smith had served as the minister of Weymouth's First Congregational Church, preaching two long sermons every Sunday to parishioners who warmed themselves in winter under layers of clothing with containers of hot coals tucked into their wraps or sweated through summer heat for endless hours on uncomfortable wooden benches. On Thursdays, he again preached, a gruelling schedule of delivering "the word" to a community that, try as they would, violated regularly the parson's sound admonitions. Perfection was just too hard, though, for them, as for their forebears, the goal of perfect character determined life's purpose.

No portrait survives of Elizabeth Smith, the reverend's wife and Abigail's mother. Elizabeth's legacy was her maiden name: Quincy. She was born Elizabeth Norton Quincy, and her parents' distinguished past represented two different branches of Puritan pedigree, the religious elect of the Norton line from her mother and the political elite of her father, John Quincy, "the Duke of Braintree," the neighboring village to Weymouth.

Life in the small towns in which the Smith and the Adams families resided was not so different from that of their forebears who had come to the shores of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the seventeenth century. Typically they represented a broad range of middle-class yeomen, people who depended upon the land for their survival. They represented the main streams of developing New England society, the clergy and the merchants, artisans such as Deacon Adams, politicians, and farmers. The women and the men worked together to provide for their large families, their tasks separated by gender. They lived in a dangerous world, made that way not just by the clashing of character and motives among themselves but also because the physical dangers of disease were endemic. So, too, were the larger dangers posed by sometimes brutal nature. Nearby were the dispossessed of the country, the natives who still lived on the land that they never knew they had surrendered, now grown into the villages and towns of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Abigail and John
Portrait of a Marriage
. Copyright (c) by Edith Gelles . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.


Meet the Author

Edith B. Gelles, Ph.D., holds degrees from Cornell, Yale, and the University of California-Irvine. She has taught at several universities and is a Senior Scholar at Stanford's Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research. She lives in Palo Alto, California.

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Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is truly a portrait of a marriage, based on original sources - the actual letters that husband and wife wrote to one another. Their wisdom, mutual respect, personal maturity, and love were vital to the forming of America and a fine example for modern couples. Of all the Adams biographies I have read, this one has given me the best idea of what daily life was really like for them.
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pmbs More than 1 year ago
Certainly not as gripping as many novels but interesting none the less.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago