“First Family: Abigail & John Adams” is the most recent of nearly a dozen books by Joseph J. Ellis. Mr. Ellis is a Professor of History at Mount Holyoke and has written extensively on the revolutionary era and some of its most prominent figures. “First Family” is the last of a seven books in my library on John Adams, and is the only one whose focus is not principally on the former president, but on both John and his exceptional wife Abigail.
Fortunately for posterity, Abigail and John were prolific writers, exchanging more than 1,200 letters with each other and leaving historians a treasure trove of insight into their relationship and how they perceived the dynamic, revolutionary and turbulent world around them. They were no less productive in writing others as well: friends, other family members and numerous politicians of the day. Together with the diary John Adams kept, these documents provide nearly unmatched access into the lives of two important members of the revolutionary era.
Although I expected this book to be quite unique compared to previous biographies of John Adams that I’ve read, in truth it is not. Several of the earlier biographies did focus significantly on John’s relationship with Abigail – whether by virtue of her keen and perceptive insight, her impressively articulate letters (particularly for an “uneducated” woman of her times), her propensity for sharing her views on politics with her husband, or her ability to counterbalance John’s “eccentricities”. So the focus of this book, while unusual in its apparent single-mindedness, was not unique.
In addition, “First Family” proves much less narrowly focused on John’s relationship with Abigail than I expected (based on the title, if nothing else). This book is not the relationship analysis one might expect if reading the notes from their marriage counselor, had there been one. Instead, this is essentially a slimmed-down biography on both Abigail and John Adams, beginning with their introduction to each other in 1759 (at the age of 24 for John, and 15 for Abigail) and terminating with John’s death on July 4, 1826. Although its theme clearly centers around this fascinating couple’s relationship, the reader is quite well-introduced to the broader political and social context of the era during the book’s 250 or so pages.
In fact, for someone with little previous knowledge of John Adams, his enormous contribution to the Continental Congress, his role as a diplomat and part-time financier in Europe, his eight years as vice president or his term as president, “First Family” provides almost as good an introduction to those years as much longer John Adams biographies. So although I had expected to come away with a much richer understanding of the John/Abigail relationship, any disappointment seems due to the earlier biographies being more thorough in their treatment of the relationship than I had expected. However, I was struck with how well this book not only analyzes their relationship, but also serves as a precis of John Adams’s life generally, giving short shrift only to the years before he and Abigail met.
Some reviewers have questioned Ellis’s commitment to leaving unsubstantiated opinions – disguised as fact – out of his text. While I was sensitive to this criticism, I saw little evidence that the worst fears of those critics filtered into this book. At several junctures, Ellis points out that “we can never know for sure…” and goes on to surmise what may have happened, may have been said or what someone may have felt on the basis of the author’s opinion. These occasions are clearly recognizable and leave the reader with ample caution to distinguish fact from presumption (or even fiction).
In addition, other reviewers have criticized the book for numerous minor errors it contains such as attributing incorrect dates to certain events, but where neither the date nor the event are critical to the story (such as the date of the end of the First Continental Congress). These shortcomings, where they do exist, are certainly troublesome – particularly to the historian and the more “academic” readers. That they may have come from the pen of a professor and noted author is even more unfortunate. But the average reader will likely find no quarrel with, nor even recognize, them.
Overall, “First Family: Abigail & John Adams” is a relatively short and remarkably interesting book. It serves not only as an introduction to the remarkable relationship between Abigail and John, but also as a summary of pre-revolutionary America, the revolutionary years (largely from the perspective of a member of Congress locked in a Philadelphia meeting room most of those years, then shipped to France to negotiate peace), and the first twelve years of the US presidency. Although this book is neither the best biography of John Adams, nor as extensively focused on John’s relationship with Abigail as I had wished, it does both quite well and in fewer pages than others.
For readers interested in exploring Abigail’s and John’s relationship in greater detail, two books I have not read but which have been highly recommended include Woody Holton’s “Abigail Adams” and Edith Gelles’s “Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage”. They will appear on my bookshelves shortly (though reading them may have to wait for the presidential journey to first run its course).
Overall rating: 4¼ stars