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John and Abigail Adams: An American Love Story

Posted in Book Reviews on February 14th, 2011

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I wanted to write about John and Abigail Adams. They have been called America’s first power couple, and it’s said they shared the great American romance. My sources for this post are from the musical 1776, the book by David McCullough and HBO Miniseries John Adams and the book Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams by Lynne Withey.

I read John Adams in anticipation of the HBO miniseries. Before that, I had only thought of them as characters in one of my favorite musicals. McCollugh is an amazing storyteller, and he makes it easy to lose yourself in history. The pictures he paints of Philadelphia, Boston, New York and Paris of the late 18th century are so engaging. He quotes heavily from John and Abigail’s letters and personal diaries. They both had strong personalities which shone through in their writing.

The excerpts of the letters I have read are fascinating from a historical perspective, and so charming and moving. John and Abigail wrote to each other of their daily lives while he was away in Congress and later representing the United States to France, Britain and Holland. But the letters from their courtship are worth a read as well. They wrote to each other while John was traveling for his law practice, and when he went to be inoculated for small pox very soon before their wedding. The HBO miniseries really captures the trials of their marriage, and how much time they spent away from each other. This profoundly effected them and their relationship, and I think it’s what has captivated people about them. We romanticize separated lovers and John and Abigail’s story was not only true, it had a happy ending. They were reunited after years apart and spend their remaining years together.

I am currently reading Withey’s Dearest Friend which focuses on Abigail’s life. It’s very good so far and I would also recommend it.

Some have paralleled the pamphlets of the American Revolution with today’s blogosphere. The similarities are numerous. One of my favorites is that people in those days often took pseudonyms, like today’s screen names. Abigail went by Diana to some of her friends as a teenager and later as Portia. She often called John Lysander.

The thing I find most compelling about John and Abigail’s relationship is the deep respect they had for each other and that it was known to everyone that he valued her advice above all others. They were products of their time, but progressive on their ideas about the role of women. Of course, we only know of Abigail’s talents because of her husband. But that he was enthusiastic about her participation is remarkable for the time, and still admirable today.

The one thing I would really like to know about their story is whether of not there was a place called Cupid’s Grove in Massachusetts. Obviously in 1776, the term is used as a euphemism for having sex. It might very well have been… but John Adams referred to it with regard to both Abigail and her cousin Hannah, who he unsuccessfully courted before her. And in his memoirs he was adamant that he was chaste before marriage so I’m left wondering if it was a name he bestowed on a particularly scenic portion of countryside.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

One Response to “John and Abigail Adams: An American Love Story”

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