When John Adams was sworn in as our nation’s second president, his wife Abigail was in Massachusetts taking care of John’s dying mother. It wasn’t long before a lonely and politically isolated John pleaded with her to join him in Washington. “I can do nothing without you,” he wrote.
Although she did much more, Abigail’s chief role as John’s wife, throughout 54 years of married life, was to provide, in his word, “ballast” in his life. This was necessary because of the two aspects of John’s personality. On one hand, he was patriotic and fiercely ambitious, eager to play a major role in history. On the other, he was moody and erratic, and he put off many of those around him. By contrast, Abigail was also patriotic but uncommonly sane and grounded, not to mention well-read and an excellent letter-writer. She possessed all the skills of someone raised to live the life of a traditional New England woman.
John and Abigail were separated for long periods, and most of what we know of their married life comes from their remarkable correspondence of roughly 1,200 letters that have survived. In the letters they share many of their concerns, both public and private, with a rare emotional honesty. Pulitzer and National Book Award-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis has deeply studied the letters and other sources and is struck by the interaction between crucial founding events and their family story. In his outstanding new book, First Family, he describes that relationship in a most compelling way.
Ellis is that rare professional historian who can eloquently convey both information and insight with remarkable clarity in a short space. He shows that Abigail’s political judgments usually reinforced John’s well-founded instincts, which, even though unpopular at the time, usually proved the right decisions in the long run of history. This was not the case, however, with the passage of the four pieces of legislation that are known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, which John signed and later acknowledged were a permanent stain on his term of office—the most prominent example of when Abigail’s judgment failed (but for which John never blamed her).
While John was making his important contributions in Philadelphia or on the Continent, Abigail had to cope with the fact that, for their four children, their father was an absentee parent much of the time. It is hard to know what effect this had on them. Their sons Charles and Tommy suffered from alcoholism, and their daughter Nabby found herself in a bad marriage with a husband who could not support his family. Even their incredibly accomplished son John Quincy felt that his private life had not been successful. We learn of the many sacrifices Abigail and the children made to help the young nation prosper and to help John achieve his dream to be remembered as a key mover in the cause of American independence.
In First Family, Ellis has once again given us a consistently engaging dual biography and love story as well as an incisive exploration of early American history.