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First Family: Abigail and John Adams (2010)

by Joseph J. Ellis

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In a similar vein to Ellis’s other books on the nation’s founders (First Brothers, Revolutionary Summer, Thomas Jefferson: American Sphinx) Ellis gives us a close look at two who are among the most notable of the pantheon: John and Abigail Adams. The couple left volumes of personal letters that let us peer into the political issues of their times, their personalities and their deep marital relationship. The letters provide the basis for greater understand of the tumultuous times and events. We see the successes as well as the failures and frustrations that the founders experienced without, valuably, the rose-colored glasses (or politically motivated distortion) too often seen today.

John Adams was one of the most skillful instigators of the political decisions that led the colonies to strike for independence from Britain. Clearly no founder deserves more credit for maneuvering the disparate and conflicting ideas and factions into the unity that severed the colonial ties with England. As a man, Adams was highly ambitious and decidedly vain; he was constantly motivated by his craving to be remembered and venerated by future generations. He was impulsive and often agitated, traits that Abigail worked hard to help him keep under control. Adams picked up the reputation in the years of and following his presidency of being a closet monarchist. This was undeserved, but Adams did hold a large measure of skepticism about wisdom of the masses that were apt to be swayed by demagoguery and passions of the moment. Adams was a staunch believer in the powers of the central government and he aligned with the federalist faction, although he and Hamilton became bitter enemies. His views were quite contrary to those of Jefferson who tended to support the primacy of the states over a central authority. He and Jefferson, once on the friendliest terms, became estranged during Washington’s administration. Jefferson became Adams’s vice-president due to the flaw in the constitutional method of presidential elections that resulted in the runner-up taking the vice-presidency (soon fixed by the twelfth amendment). As Adams’s subordinate Jefferson is shown to be devious and disloyal to an extreme degree. His manipulations played a part in Adams’s failure to be elected to a second term. In the late years of both men’s lives they reconciled and exchanged a remarkable correspondence. (In one of history’s most poignant coincidences, these two giants died on July 4, 1826 within hours of each other.)

Adams often made decisions from perspectives that ran counter to popular views; he believed that his contrary views supported their correctness. As president he held firm to the unpopular decision to remain neutral in France’s conflict with Britain when opposing factions either favored war with France or unfettered support for revolutionary France. He is long forgotten as the father of the US Navy, built at his insistence to thwart any ambitions of the Europeans with their powerful naval forces. He is often remembered for his most egregious decision to advocate for and sign the Alien and Sedition Act, a law aimed at silencing critics of his administration. What is too little recognized today is his belief in the separation of powers among the executive, legislature and judiciary, a concept he introduced with his authorship of the Massachusetts Commonwealth’s constitution. His “midnight” appointment of John Marshall as chief justice, much resented by successor Jefferson, turned out to have profound impact securing the role of the court in our democracy.

Abigail Adams was a remarkable woman for her times, perhaps for any time. Without formal education and in a society that expected women to eschew political opinions, she was deeply knowledgeable of the political issues that her husband and the country faced. Her advice to him was cogent and sophisticated and he relied heavily on her guidance in reaching his judgments. She was attuned to his weaknesses – his vanity and impulsiveness – and could mitigate the consequences of these traits through her advice to him. John and Abigail were a perfect balance for each other and both had not only deep affection but also complete mutual respect. Ellis points out that we owe to John’s frequent absences from home at Congress or abroad the presence of the volumes of correspondence they shared. Although certainly a hindsight perspective, Abigail can be said to be a forerunner of feminism and notions of gender equality – her complaints about the subordinate status of women in politics and the law are seen in her letters.

The book tells us much about the Adams’s family. John Quincy was the favored son and his parents’ high expectations and demands for his success as an adult were realized. The other Adams’s offspring did not fare so well. Charles became and alcoholic and died an early death. Thomas floundered in his legal profession and took to drink. Nabby had a bad marriage and succumbed to breast cancer while still young.

Ellis would claim that John and Abigail remain the foremost political couple that our nation has seen. One must agree. Franklin and Eleanor were powerful players on the nation’s stage, but her influence seemed to run parallel to his, not conjoined. Bill and Hillary? While effective political partners, one suspects that ambition undergirds the relationship, not affection as was the case of the Adams.

One aside about letters. The qualities of the correspondence shared between the Adams – introspective, thoughtful, expository, lengthy, etc. – are not features of today’s electronic media. One can’t imagine the richness of the Adams’s letters surviving the world of tweeting, instagram and Facebook. ( )
  stevesmits | Sep 3, 2015 |
This is one of the best biographies, perhaps the best, I've ever read. Or in this case, listened to, as I experienced it on audio CD's. It gives a full, surely a definitive portrait of second U.S. President and Revolutionary spark plug, John Adams. His private life, especially his relationship with his family and above all with his wife Abigail, is covered extensively as well as his public life and accomplishments, his personality, his contributions, his frustrations, his wisdom and his wit -- all rendered lucidly, readably, and even-handedly. Joseph Ellis has done a masterful job of writing, and made his own real contribution to history with this excellent book. And the narrator, Kimberly Farr, also does an exemplary job, bringing an excellent book to life. Highly recommend. ( )
  MarthaHuntley | Sep 2, 2015 |
Enjoyable book about the relationship between these two influential Americans. I got a good sense of their motivations and personalities. So sad that their children were such disappointments. Even the son that became a President seemed to be a git. I wish the author would have included the gripping account of the breast removal as I read that narrative years ago and it is still with me, even more so now that I have gone through breast cancer treatment. I got a completely different view of Franklin which makes my understanding of this time of history even more developed. ( )
  sgerbic | Oct 4, 2014 |
Joseph Ellis has an amazing talent for introducing readers to the great figures of the American Revolution. He makes you feel as though you've lived in their homes, eaten family dinners with them, and become close friends. And perhaps none of his books do that so well as First Family: Abigail and John Adams.

In contrast to the reserved and aloof George and Martha Washington, John and Abigail Adams left a small mountain of correspondence that bridge not only the time they spent apart but an ocean as well. In their frequent and highly personal letters we get a narrative of America as it fights for independence and struggles to remain so. But we also get an intimate portrait of one of the most central families in the early years of the new nation, with the struggles they also faced as husband and wife and parents as well. And while Ellis has acknowledged that Adams is his favorite of the Founding Fathers, he doesn't shy away from revealing his immense vanity and hyperactive ambition. Instead he personalizes the man and his highly intelligent and capable wife, who provided an appropriate counterbalance in his life.

Joseph Ellis' books aren't as much straightforward biographies and histories as they are character studies of what their subject's personalities were like and what they were thinking and what made them tick. Readers who want to read David McCullough's excellent John Adams but are put off by the size and length might want to consider starting with Ellis first. He eases you into the history in a way that makes it easier to later dive into the others. This is not to say that there's little substance to this book; on the contrary, I found myself constantly reaching for a pen to underline and mark sections that I thought were so insightful and important that I'd want to reference them again (not something I often do). You come away with a better feeling for the issues and challenges they faced, and the nuances behind the actions and accomplishments. Highly recommended! ( )
  J.Green | Aug 26, 2014 |
Joseph Ellis has an amazing talent for introducing readers to the great figures of the American Revolution. He makes you feel as though you've lived in their homes, eaten family dinners with them, and become close friends. And perhaps none of his books do that so well as First Family: Abigail and John Adams.

In contrast to the reserved and aloof George and Martha Washington, John and Abigail Adams left a small mountain of correspondence that bridge not only the time they spent apart but an ocean as well. In their frequent and highly personal letters we get a narrative of America as it fights for independence and struggles to remain so. But we also get an intimate portrait of one of the most central families in the early years of the new nation, with the struggles they also faced as husband and wife and parents as well. And while Ellis has acknowledged that Adams is his favorite of the Founding Fathers, he doesn't shy away from revealing his immense vanity and hyperactive ambition. Instead he personalizes the man and his highly intelligent and capable wife, who provided an appropriate counterbalance in his life.

Joseph Ellis' books aren't as much straightforward biographies and histories as they are character studies of what their subject's personalities were like and what they were thinking and what made them tick. Readers who want to read David McCullough's excellent John Adams but are put off by the size and length might want to consider starting with Ellis first. He eases you into the history in a way that makes it easier to later dive into the others. This is not to say that there's little substance to this book; on the contrary, I found myself constantly reaching for a pen to underline and mark sections that I thought were so insightful and important that I'd want to reference them again (not something I often do). You come away with a better feeling for the issues and challenges they faced, and the nuances behind the actions and accomplishments. Highly recommended! ( )
  J.Green | Aug 26, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 10 (next | show all)
We may not learn anything appreciably new about the Adams family, per se, but in “First Family” Mr. Ellis employs his narrative gifts to draw a remarkably intimate portrait of John and Abigail’s marriage as it played out against the momentous events that marked the birth of a nation.
 
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Knowing as we do that John and Abigail Adams were destined to become the most famous and consequential couple in the revolutionary era, indeed some would say the premier husband-and-wife team in all American history, it is somewhat disconcerting to realize that when they first met in the summer of 1759, neither one was particularly impressed by the other.
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The Pulitzer Prize-winning, best-selling author of "Founding Brothers" and "His Excellency" brings America's preeminent first couple to life in a moving and illuminating narrative that sweeps through the American Revolution and the republic's tenuous early years.… (more)

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