Title: First Family: Abigail and John Adams
Author: Joseph Ellis
Length: 299 pages (includes notes and index)
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ¾
When John Adams began courting Abigail Smith in the early 1760s, her mother opposed the match, believing her daughter was too good for a country lawyer who had yet to make a name for himself. Yet by the time of her death, Abigail was poised to become arguably the only founder’s wife to go down in history alongside him. In First Family, Joseph Ellis attempts to deliver a dual biography and paint the portrait of what was a deep friendship, a loving marriage, and a political partnership that shaped the future of a fledgling country. In some ways he falls short, but the story of these “dearest friends” is far too touching, and the subjects themselves too interesting, for the book to be a failure.
I can’t fault the scholarship behind this book. Joseph Ellis clearly did a great deal of research in the process of writing it–as he points out, the Adams papers are nearly endless, and the lifelong correspondence of just John and Abigail to and from one another is extensive to put it mildly. I actually wish there had been more endnotes. The writing is fairly accessible and readable, with Ellis sure to provide the background information to put the Adams’ thoughts, feelings, and actions in context for his readers. And finally, while Ellis is clearly fond of his subjects and does tend to give them the benefit of the doubt, he never hesitates to turn a critical eye on them when necessary.
Unfortunately, First Family has two major flaws: its pacing and its focus (or lack thereof).
Towards the beginning, everything seemed rushed and a bit half-baked. In lives as eventful as those of John and Abigail, I understand that any historian could be tempted to skim over the pre-marriage and early marriage years. But Chapter One (1759-1774), the first fifteen years of John and Abigail’s life together, is just thirty pages long, and includes the births of all of their (living) children and John’s involvement in the Boston Massacre trial! That part often felt more than rushed. It felt a little…lazy, maybe. Disappointing.
It did improve from there. The narrative–necessarily I think–ebbed and flowed based on when John and Abigail were together. (In short, there’s more direct evidence while John and Abigail were actually apart because that’s when they wrote all their letters to each other. The rest is guess work.) The pacing was still imperfect, though. The narrative often dragged, sometimes so badly that even I kept walking away and coming back. It took over a month for me to get through it (not that I usually speed through history books). I guess the best word to describe the whole book in terms of pacing is “unbalanced.”
That brings me to the second shortcoming, which is that First Family read more like an abridged biography of John with some details about Abigail thrown in than it did like a biography of a couple (or even of a family). This could be because more sources are available for John’s life than for Abigail’s, I don’t know. And it wasn’t true for every part of the book, of course. At some points I felt like a little kid who needed to hide her face from the almost sickly-sweet nature of the Adams’ love story. Even when they bickered and disagreed, Ellis gives the impression that the Adamses were truly, madly, deeply in love from ~1760 right up until John’s death in 1826. Despite the somewhat unfocused nature of the book, I also learned interesting–often tragic–details about the Adams children, especially poor, doomed Charles, so I’ll give Ellis props for that.
Ellis also altered my opinion on Thomas Jefferson, Adams’ lifelong frenemy; I’ve been fascinated by Jefferson for a decade now, but from the Adams perspective he often comes across as a less-than-flattering light. For all that, though, John assured him at the end of their lives: “While I breathe I shall be your friend. We shall meet again, so wishes and so believes your friend, but if we are disappointed we shall never know it.” (I’m not crying, you’re crying!) But it’s Alexander Hamilton, the current darling of the Broadway stage, who comes across as truly awful here. A highly unpopular opinion: I’ve never liked Hamilton, and Ellis’ account of his “skulduggery,” arrogance, and ambitious grasping for power did not improve my opinion of him. Like John Adams, I’m afraid, I remain “wholly immune to all forms of the dazzling Hamilton magic.”
I am not, however, immune to the chemistry that John and Abigail still somehow have 200 years on, or their mutual senses of humor, or the heartache they had to endure as they were endlessly separated and reunited.
“My Fancy runs about you perpetually. It is continually with you and in the Neighborhood of you–frequently takes a walk with you, and our little prattling Nabby, Johnny, Charley, and Tommy…”
“Oh that I could be near, to say a few kind Words, or share a few Kind Looks…Oh that I could take from my dearest, a share of her Distress, or relieve her from the whole.”
“I never wanted you more in my life. The times are critical and dangerous and I must have you here to assist me… I can do nothing without you.”
“The dear partner of my life for fifty-four years and for many more as a lover now lies in extremis, forbidden to speak or be spoken to. … I wish I could lie down beside her and die too…I cannot bear to see her in this state.”
“I am very fearful that you will not when left to your own managment follow your directions–but let her who tenderly cares for you both in Sickness and Health, intreet you to be careful of that Health upon which depends”
“The affection I feel for my Friend is of the tenderest kind, matured by years, sanctified by choise and approved by heaven.”
“Yet after half a century, I can say my first choice [in marriage] would be the same if I again had my youth and opportunity to make it.”
The end of any biography tends to be sad given that the subject has usually died, but it’s even worse when you’ve become so attached to them–and their romance–as I did here, and particularly poignant when you’ve actually visited their graves. The happy footnote is that John and Abigail, bodily or otherwise, are finally both together and inseparable.