First Family: Abigail and John Adams
© 2010 Joseph Ellis
1776, a musical film which celebrates the Declaration of Independence, is an absolutely delightful movie, as funny as it is inspiring. But increasingly I enjoy it for the tender way it portrays the relationship between John Adams and his distant wife, Abigail. Committed whole-heartedly to the Revolution, Adams is its most ardent advocate. He struggles throughout the film against the cautious conservatism of his fellow congressmen, and even his marginal successes seem ruined by the compromises that were necessary to achieve them. In times of crisis, Adams retreats and finds a place to himself….where he finds consolation in the thought of his wife. Throughout the movie, Abigail appears in his thoughts and the two sing and comfort one another, the lyrics and dialogue being taken from their letters. It is those letters that provide the source of this, Joseph Ellis’ lovely biography of the Adams family.
Ellis proved in Founding Brothers that he’s a gifted storyteller, and the same strength is at play here. It helps that he has such extraordinary characters to write about. Abigail is no prim and proper personality stifled by petticoats: she’s strong, vibrant, and independence, giving as good as she gets in terms of political and philosophical conversations as well as sly innuendo that no one would expect from a couple living in Puritan country. She is in the truest sense of the word, Adams’s partner; his dearest friend and most constant source of intellectual stimulation. Her interest in politics influences his career directly, and she takes an active hand in his personal and political relationships with men like Thomas Jefferson. The affection these two feel for one another — the strength and power of their relationship — is abundantly evident in their letters, especially when they are estranged during Adams’ time as an diplomat in Europe. Abigail’s role as confidant allows the reader to see inside Adams’ mind, and the man revealed is endearing for his faults and fascinating in his beliefs. Adams’ progressive realism contrasts with Jefferson’s conservative idealism, and demonstrates the frailty of the false liberal-conservative divide. No man is so easy to box up. Although politics plays a large role given Adams’ place in history as revolutionary leader and president, John and Abigail’s family is never far from sight, and the losses they endure can’t help but inspire sympathy.
I thoroughly enjoyed First Family. To be sure, it does have the weakness of maintaining a one-sided view of the Revolution that sees Britain as entirely in the wrong; here, Britain is taxing America to pay for its empire just because it’s fun to be oppressive like that. It’s also not quite as varied as Founding Brothers, but even so I couldn’t stop reading it. (The story of John and Abigail fairly well enraptures me: even though the Fourth is long past, the taste I had of their relationship in Sacred Honor and Founding Brothers only gave me an appetite for more, and I may wind up having to find and purchase a collection of their letters to find satisfaction!). It’s a story of romance, family, and politics — one which reveals the mind-boggling insanity of the Adams White House, where the second president is beset by friend and foe alike. Not only does his vice president conspire with the French and instruct them not to pay Adams any attention, but a member of his own party has Bonaparte-esque delusions of grandeur and tries not only to run the presidential cabinet in secret, but put himself at the head of an army he can use to root out spies and traitors….like the vice president. If nothing else, First Family demonstrates the remarkable pillar of contrarianism that was Adams more easily than David McCullough’ denser biography might.