John Adams (1735-1826) and Abigail Adams (1744-1818)

    Contributing Editors:
    Albert Furtwangler and Frank Shuffelton

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    The formality and elevated decorum of John Adams's language challenge many students, but the opening anecdotes and the witty exchanges between John and Abigail encourage readers to see the personalities behind the mannered language. John Adams (and to a lesser extent Abigail as well) is also somewhat difficult because he has been mythicized as a Founding Father, a figure of national piety who no longer commands a ready allegiance. Additionally, the interests of the Adams in politics and morality do not strike all students as "literature." On the other hand, the questions raised in this material about the political relationships between men and women and by the exchange between Adams and Jefferson over the meaning and impact of "talent" continue to be crucial in our own time. The formal language, the learned references, if brought into play in discussions about the contemporary power of the issues debated by the Adamses and their friends, can set limits on the tendency toward "presentism," and the urge to only see the significance of the past in terms of present meanings. The Adamses talk about questions we care about, but their language, their style, remind us that they did not necessarily see these questions as we do.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Major themes in the writing of the Adamses and their friends relate to the discourse of republicanism that dominated the political and social thinking of enlightened people in the eighteenth century. Adams and many others of his time feared the corruption that he thought inevitably followed upon the increasing sophistication of a developing civilization. His letter to his friend Mercy Otis Warren offers a synopsis of this attitude, including the fear of social laxity that will unleash self-indulgent passion, the unnatural tastes fostered by a burgeoning commercial society, and the disruption by faction of the social harmony needed to sustain a republic. Abigail's desire to return to her farm, stated at the end of her journal entry on her return from Europe, links this republican attitude with the pastoralism found in the work of writers like Crèvecoeur, Jefferson, and James Fenimore Cooper, perhaps even with Huckleberry Finn's famous "lighting out."

    Abigail Adams's prodding of her husband to "Remember the Ladies" has become a classic benchmark of an emerging feminism, but she is surely no feminist. Nonetheless, she figures as a splendid example of that new sort of woman that Linda Kerber has referred to as the "republican mother" (Women of the Republic, 1980). Women like Adams and Mercy Otis Warren took a direct interest in the outcome of the American Revolution, and they spoke their thoughts in private and public, opening the way, perhaps, for more forthright arguments on the behalf of women, such as those by Judith Sargeant Murray and, in a later period, Margaret Fuller.

    After the ratification of the Constitution and the creation of the federal government, Adams feared anarchic excesses, encouraged by the French Revolution, among the ill-educated and easily misled populace. Jefferson and the leaders of the emerging Republican party castigated Adams and the Federalists as "monocrats" who wished to seat political power in the hands of a few men of property and family. Adams's belief in a government of laws, however, as well as his suspicion of power that was exerted only by privileged groups earned him the distrust of Hamilton and the more extreme Federalists. The controversies among these people were not merely over a share of political power, but over the much more crucial question of whether the nation could continue to exist as such. The genuine fear of disorder and social collapse that motivated Adams appears in a different guise in the fiction of Charles Brockden Brown. Jefferson's comments regarding his trust of the good sense of the common people reveal an attitude different from that of Adams, but even he, especially at the end of his life, expressed his fear for the survival of the American experiment. In the correspondence with Jefferson, however, Adams seems rather to have enjoyed playing the cynical foil to his friend's optimism.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    All of the Adams material included here are drawn from the personal, private genres of the journal and letters. They were intended to be read by trusted family and friends, but they were also expected to be shared among a circle of such readers. Jefferson expected that Abigail Adams would read his letters to John, and similarly John Adams would have expected Mercy Otis Warren to have shared her letter with her husband, James, a political leader in Massachusetts. Such correspondence was one aspect of the eighteenth-century republic of letters, the public sphere of discussion about social, political, and learned questions that occurred independently of the narrow limits of the family as well as of the overview of the state. Considered in this way, the letters between John and Abigail, for instance, are both the intimate exchange of husband and wife and the communication between a constituent and her delegate to the revolutionary Congress of 1776.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    These selections make a lively contrast to the impersonal rationality of the Federalist essays or the Declaration of Independence. The journal selections can be used in the context of earlier and later traditions of journal-keeping in New England and are interesting for their moral introspection and regulation as well as for their attention to the way human beings live in the world. They take an interesting position between Winthrop, Sewall, Sarah Kemble Knight, and Emerson and Thoreau. Similarly, Adams's concern for a virtuous republic can be framed against Winthrop's discussion of the city on a hill and Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government."


    Adams's grandson, Charles Francis Adams, edited his Works (1850-56) in ten volumes, still a useful source for those who wish to read more. Albert Furtwangler discusses Adams's newspaper debate with a loyalist in American Silhouettes (1987); this book also contains a discussion of Adams and Jefferson. Peter Shaw's The Character of John Adams (1976) is a significant discussion, as is Joseph J. Ellis, Passionate Sage: John Adams and America's Original Intentions (1993). Edith Gelles, Portia: The World of Abigail Adams (1992), is particularly illuminating on the role of letters in Abigail Adams's life.