There are many accounts of the American Revolutionary War, but a lot of them seem confined firmly to the genres of biography and historical fiction. The best way to read about history is through the eyes of those who actually experienced it.
The Letters of John and Abigail Adams was published originally in 1876 by the Adams’ grandson, Charles Francis Adams. The letters begin in mid-May 1774, and end in early 1783, about a year before Abigail joined John in Paris while he continued to lobby the French government for support for America’s revolution. They cover some of the most exciting periods of American history, including the first Continental Congress, the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War itself.
During these years, John and Abigail wrote many letters in which they discuss politics, their children, their farm, and the future of the nation they were helping to form. There’s plenty of talk about squabbles amongst the Continental Congress, as well as of the movements of the British troops. While it was interesting to read these things from a first-person perspective, I was glad to be able to read more about what real life was like during those days. Abigail in particular dealt with things like dysentery epidemics, the new smallpox inoculation, the loss of an infant, and the running of a farm and household without the benefit of a husband and helpmeet.
Although it dragged a little in the middle (one can only read about military maneuvers for so long), I enjoyed reading the couple’s letters. It’s clear that they loved each other very much, and chafed under the weight of so many years’ separation. Fortunately they were able to spend another 35 years together after these letters, and they relied on each other for help, comfort, and love.
In their own words
There’s a lot going on in this book, and it’s hard to write a traditional review; nothing I can say will be better than the words of the writers themselves. So I’m going to mix things up a bit, and put down some of what I thought were the most intriguing and meaningful quotes.
This first quote is by John and comes early in the letters, and as I read it I was reminded of the recent riots in London, England, and how a lot of it appeared to be violence for the sake of violence:
“These private mobs I do and will detest. If popular commotions can be justified in opposition to the attacks upon the Constitution, it can be only when fundamentals are invaded, nor then unless for absolute necessity, and with great caution. But these tarrings and featherings, this breaking open houses by rude and insolent rabble in resentment for private wrongs, or in pursuance of private prejudices and passions, must be discountenanced. It cannot be even excused upon any principle which can be entertained by a good citizen, a worthy member of society.”
John was considered a bit of a nuisance to many member of the Continental Congress. He knew that what they were debating was the birth of a completely new nation, and would take time, but he was not fond of the way discussions were often conducted:
“The business of the Congress is tedious beyond expression. This assembly is like no other that ever existed. Every man in it is a great man, an orator, a critic, a statesman; and therefore every man upon every question must show his oratory, his criticism, and his political abilities. The consequence of this is that business is drawn and spun out to an immeasurable length. I believe if it was moved and seconded that we should come to a resolution that three and two make five, we should be entertained with logic and rhetoric, law, history, politics, and mathematics, and then—we should pass the resolution unanimously in the affirmative.”
Abigail was by no means a political slouch; in her term as First Lady, she was so involved in politics that her political opponents called her “Mrs. President.” But the foundation of her position as advisor and counsel to John was evident even in those earliest years:
“And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
John and Abigail spent a considerable amount of time discussing William Howe, the leader of the British troops during the war. Howe, predictably, was not looked on highly, and John considered him the picture-perfect example of cruelty, arrogance, and evil. In a letter to Abigail in 1777, John took a moment to consider the value and implications of Howe’s popular standing amongst the British (I found this extremely relevant today, what with the deposing of tyrants like Hussein, Mubarak, and now apparently Gadhafi):
“Are titles of honor the reward of infamy? Is gold a compensation for vice? Can the one or the other give that pleasure to the heart, that comfort to the mind, which it derives from doing good? [F]rom a consciousness of acting upon upright and generous principles, of promoting the cause of right, freedom, and the happiness of men? Can wealth or titles soften the pains of the mind upon reflecting that a man has done evil and endeavored to do evil to millions, that he has destroyed free governments and established tyrannies?”
Last up is a quote from John regarding education, and how the founders of this new country have a responsibility to future generations:
“The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all the other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take place of, indeed to exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”
John Adams spent a fair amount of time worrying about what future Americans would think of him. His dedication to the people of America, as well as his unfailing desire to see them free and happy, has assured his place as a great politician, as well as a good man.
Abigail Adams’ purpose in writing to her husband was to communicate with him all that she had seen and experienced during his absence. However, her descriptions of life have given us some of the greatest insight we have into what the Revolutionary War was like for most people.
I’m going to wrap up this review with a little video, which is a clip from the movie musical “1776,” starring William Daniels (also known as Mr. Feeny from “Boy Meets World,” for those of us not around in 1972). This song is sung by John and Abigail Adams, and is called “Yours, Yours, Yours” (which is how many of their real letters to each other ended).
2 thoughts on “Review: The Letters of John and Abigail Adams”
I read McCullough’s John Adams this summer and absolutely fell in love with John and Abigail. They seemed to have such a wonderful relationship. This sounds like a great way to learn more about them and the time period.
My mom read John Adams a couple years back. She enjoyed it, but had a hard time muscling through some parts of it. It’s a chunkster of a book, and although I’m interested in reading it, it’s really intimidating.
They really were very much in love, and I don’t see how they were able to live apart for so long — I’d go insane if Best Friend and I were apart like that. I’m certainly glad I finally read their letters. I’ve had the book for years, but it took me awhile to work up the courage. 🙂