Our second first lady and president, Abigail and John Adams, were wed this week (Oct. 25) in 1764, and the old adage, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” would certainly apply to them. Theirs was, arguably, the closest marriage among the Founders, yet during it they were apart far more often than they were together, due mostly to John’s service to his young country. When John wasn’t being asked to leave his home and family in Massachusetts to serve his country in Congress, he was being asked to leave family and country to represent the latter in Europe — and he always went despite the toll it took on his family, his finances and his health. “Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present Generation to preserve your freedom,” he wrote. “I hope you will make good use of it.” Of that “Generation,” only George Washington paid more of a price.
But there was a decided upside — at least for posterity’s historians — because, being apart so much and both being excellent writers, John and Abigail Adams engaged in a lifelong correspondence that resulted in more than 1,000 letters, most of which survived. What the letters show, in addition to how much they loved each other, is what a courageous, dutiful and thoughtful man John was (especially his reflections on the uses of power), and also what a tough woman and shrewd thinker Abigail was. Due to John’s absences, Abigail was forced to raise the family and provide for it virtually alone, being mother and father to their children and running the family farm. All the while, she never knew when she would see her husband again, or — when he was away during the Revolutionary War — if she would see him again. Being a prominent rebel leader, John was a marked man, and had the British ever captured him he would have been hanged for treason.
As the letters also show, Abigail was a political junkie — in part because Massachusetts was ground zero for much of the political unrest against England leading up to the war — but her innate intelligence and curiosity about her husband’s work also prompted many letters both asking him for updates on the nation’s affairs and giving him political advice. Among that advice was her famous admonition to “Remember the Ladies” when fashioning new laws in the Continental Congress. “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of Husbands,” she wrote on that occasion. “Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.” How right she was.
My favorite collection of their letters is My Dearest Friend – Letters of Abigail and John Adams. It captures a partnership of equals rare in the annals of history.