When I was in high school, I went to see the Broadway musical, 1776, then playing at the Wilbur Theater on Boylston Street in Boston. The musical number I found most affecting was the love duet between John and Abigail Adams entitled “Yours, Yours, Yours” – you can see the video clip of that scene from the film on YouTube.
Set up as an exchange of letters between John Adams and his wife, the number is loosely based on some of the correspondence between the two in the year 1776. John, a delegate at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, maintained a regular correspondence with his wife, Abigail, who was not happy with, but had gotten used to, his long absences on the business of the emerging nation. A sucker for songs of absence, I was especially moved by this number, and that number, more than anything else in the show, really brought home to me the power of words and letters.
Recalling that number years later, when I was getting married for the first time, I had hoped to find some beautiful letter from John to Abigail, or vice versa, to include among the readings at the wedding. Patti and I were eager to avoid having only biblical readings in our service. There was no Internet at the time, and the Chicago Public Library did not have much of the correspondence of John Adams, and what little I could find – well, let’s just say it was not particularly romantic.
Well, jump ahead another 30 years, and I still find myself fascinated with the correspondence between John Adams and his lady. I remember when My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams came out (in 2007) that I wanted to be sure to read the book. It is not the first collection of the correspondence between the Adamses. There is the collection of the complete correspondence of John Adams, which numbers over 100 volumes – John was a man who liked to debate ideas, and who knew the most powerful and influential people of his day, so there are many and weighty letters on all sorts of subject, but primarily of a philosophical and political bent. There have been three collections of selected letters between Adams and his wife, the first edited by Charles Francis Adams, grandson of John Adams, which came out in 1876 in honor of the country’s centennial, the second edited by Lyman Butterfield, who oversaw the editing of the complete correspondence, and this current volume. This collection contains 289 letters covering the entirety of the relationship between John and Abigail (1762-1818), and it retains the original spelling (neither Adams was known for uniform spelling – the concept as we now have it did not yet exist). Joseph Ellis, in a brief introduction, says this about the edition: “This selection is the most judicious, most revealing, and most comprehensive ever published.” As it covers the entire period of their relationship, this is the most complete selection of letters.
And the letters are quite revealing. The patient Abigail is often trying to calm down her rather thin-skinned husband (for a man who made his life in politics, John is a strangely sensitive and impatient man). In the letters after 1796, both she and he share all sorts of negative comments about Thomas Jefferson, whom they had considered a friend, but who was far too partisan a politician for the Adamses. And as is fitting for a New England couple of the 18th c., the Adamses are very much convinced of the rightness of their attitude and their actions which leads to a certain rigidity.
The letters show great tenderness when it is called for – enduring one pregnancy alone, Abigail has premonitions about a miscarriage and has to endure the joys turned sorrow when those premonitions prove true. In her letters to John, we can see her great strength in enduring the sorrow, but also her vulnerability, while John’s letters show him most sympathetic to the signals his wife is sending, and responding accordingly. As we now live in a world of instant communication, it is common to maintain an epistolary conversation, but in 18th c. America, you could not count on your letter getting to its destination—this was especially true during the war—and it be weeks or months before a question was answered. And as they could not count on their correspondent receiving their letters in a timely manner, the letters often had the form of essays on various topics and were often quite reflective in nature, and were not focused so much on particulars that required prompt replies.
For the most part, John and Abigail, though very much a loving couple, were not a demonstrative couple – there are no poetic flights of fancy here (which is why I searched in vain all those years ago for the letter that would fit a wedding service). But we have a true marriage of equals here, at a time when that could not be said of many couples. Abigail uses her pen to advocate for greater rights for women in the new Republic (“Remember the ladies” she admonishes him), a request that John politely hears, but on which he does not act (it is 1776, after all).
But for all the judiciousness of their selection, I have to say I was a bit disappointed in the lack of annotation in the book. Both Adamses mention a lot of names in their letters, and having some annotation as to who those named are would make for a better reading experience. For what makes these letters especially valuable is that we have two people at the highest levels of influence in Revolutionary America, but that value is lost if the general reader (the intended audience of this collection) doesn’t know many of the names.
About the Author
Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.