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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

John Adams 1735–1826
Abigail Adams 1744–1818

John Adams was the first vice president of the United States and the second president (1797–1801). He was also a lively intellectual leader in revolutionary Boston and in Congress, an able negotiator abroad, the author of many tracts and essays about government, and a reflective correspondent and philosopher in the decades between his retirement from office and his death at the age of ninety.

Born in 1735 to a well-established family in Braintree, Massachusetts, John Adams married Abigail Smith, the daughter of a Weymouth clergyman, in 1764. Abigail Adams was educated by her grandmother, accompanied her husband on diplomatic missions, spoke compellingly about her Federalist views, and greatly influenced her husband’s political career. Together they founded a family that would remain distinguished in the United States well into the twentieth century. Their son, John Quincy Adams, was president; their grandson, Charles Francis Adams, was minister to Britain during the Civil War; their great-grandson, Henry Adams, was a historian, novelist, and autobiographer.

John Adams graduated from Harvard, taught school in Worcester, and prepared there to become an able lawyer. Throughout his life he was a wide-ranging, perceptive, and retentive reader—peppering his letters and papers with fresh and apt allusions to scores of challenging books. He was also a constant writer—of diary entries, legal notes and records, marginal jottings, ample letters, forceful replies to adversaries, letters to the press, and formal reports and state papers. His major writings contribute to the ideological formation of the new American republic and are products of legal scholarship and argument invaluable for students of political theory and history today. His Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law (1765) and the Novanglus papers (1774–1775) warned against British attempts to impose English law on the colonies as part of an effort to subvert American liberties. A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787–1788) argued the cause of republican and federal government at a time crucial for both European and American history. Adams’s diaries and letters show him to be a shrewd and witty judge of character; they provide bright sketches of people in exciting moments of American politics and provocative insights into American society.

The marriage of John and Abigail Adams was an alliance of two strong minds. Abigail’s letters reflect an alert American woman pressing for a real change of consciousness during the Revolution. These partners combined intellectual and moral questioning through long years of revolution, separation, and public life. They also shared a long decline of fame. John Adams lost the presidential election of 1800, and the couple left Washington early on the morning of Jefferson’s inauguration. They remained at home in Massachusetts for the rest of their lives. Disgruntled by his rough treatment by the press and by what he perceived as a general public failure to credit his personal contributions to American political life, Adams began a rambling and defensive autobiography in his retirement, but some of his best writing of this period appears in the letters he exchanged after 1812 with Thomas Jefferson.

Repairing the breach in their friendship that stemmed from the election of 1800, Adams and Jefferson carried on a lively discussion about literature, history, and social ideals until both died on the same day, July 4, 1826. The correspondence between the two was first published as a single text in the twentieth century, renewing interest in the political philosophies of both men. Their discussion about an aristocracy of talent and virtue, for example, raised important questions about individuals in a democratic society and was noticed by Ezra Pound as he was writing his Cantos.

Albert Furtwangler

In the Heath Anthology
Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31, 1776 (1776)  [n.b., See entry for John Adams; Published in 1975]
Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, June 30, 1778 (1778)  [n.b., See entry for John Adams; Published in 1975]
Abigail Adams's Diary of Her Return Voyage to America, March 30-May 1, 1788 (1788)  [n.b., Published in 1961]

Other Works
from Letters from John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776 (1776)  [n.b., See entry for John Adams; Published in 1975]
Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, April 14, 1776 (1776)  [n.b., See entry for John Adams; Published in 1975]

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Abigail Smith Adams, 1744-1818
  Extensive biography and information about her contribution to abolitionism and early feminism.

Secondary Sources

Joseph Ellis, Passionate Sage: John Adams and America's Original Intentions, 1993

Edith Gelles, Portia: The World of Abigail Adams, 1992

Merrill D. Peterson, Adams and Jefferson, 1976