Wednesday, February 01, 2012

First Family: Abigail and John Adams by Joseph J. Ellis

Long before Bill and Hillary or Barack and Michelle, couples who closely collaborate in politics and policy, there were John and Abigail. If you call them "the Adams family," as Joseph J. Ellis sometimes does in his dual biography First Family: Abigail and John Adams, I think of Gomez and Morticia (Addams, but you do not hear the extra d when listening to the audiobook), but if you say John and Abigail, I know just who you mean. Their relationship is one of the most celebrated in American history, thanks to their roles in the American Revolution and early republic and to the survival of their many letters. Many authors have mined those letters to write books. Ellis's work is a fine example of well-chosen pieces to tell how a serious farmer/lawyer and his wife from New England helped shape and lead a new nation.

Few couples write so many letters as did John and Abigail, but they were often apart for months and sometimes years, as John served as a delegate to the Colonial Congress that wrote the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. He also travelled to Paris, Amsterdam, and London as a representative of the new republic, seeking aid and negotiating treaties. Meanwhile, Abigail raised their family and tended the farm, where she wrung the necks of chickens, split logs, and bought more land. In her letters, Abigail reported on the family business and advised John on the best ways to handle Benjamin Franklin, French aristocrats, British spies, rival Democratic Republicans, and his own cabinet.

With such good sources, Ellis probably found the book almost wrote itself (except it must have been difficult to pare down to under 300 pages). If you are like me, you'll find it compelling to read.

Ellis, Joseph J. First Family: Abigail and John Adams. Knopf, 2010. 299p. ISBN 9780307269621 or Books on Tape, 2010. 9 compact discs. ISBN 9780307737786.

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