In this era of Twitter and texting, it's hard to imagine the marital experience of John and Abigail Adams. Separated frequently by John's political activity--for as long as five years, when he was advancing American interests in Europe during the Revolution--they communicated only by letter. The post was erratic, to the point that they often had no idea of each other's circumstances for months at a time. Luckily, their bond was strong--probably both cause and effect of their copious correspondence. In Abigail & John: Portrait of a Marriage historian Edith B. Gelles becomes the latest to plumb this by now well-known epistolary archive.
Abigail & John begins with Abigail Smith's decision to marry John Adams, tracks back to the colonial origins of their families and ends with John's death in 1826, eight years after Abigail's demise drew 54 years of marriage to a close. In between, Gelles covers familiar moments such as Abigail's exhortation to "Remember the Ladies!" and John's longstanding feud and eventual reconciliation with Thomas Jefferson, but the marital bond's strength and fruitfulness is her primary interest.
Gelles offers the marriage as a model of shared endeavor and mutual support, and her depiction is largely persuasive. Their letters reveal how each was intimately involved in the activities and decisions of the other, even across miles and oceans, and how domestic events influenced political decisions, as well as vice versa.
Despite the book's double focus, Gelles, who has written two academic books about Abigail, betrays an evident preference for the wife. Abigail comes off as a paragon, and John sometimes suffers in comparison, though Gelles takes pains to explain away his shortcomings, albeit not always convincingly. Although the book itself suffers from occasionally plodding prose, it presents an engaging portrait of an exemplary marriage.