Andrea Wulf is charmed by the correspondence of Abigail and John Adams, an insight into the making of America from the inside
My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams, edited by Margaret A Hogan and C James Taylor. 528pp, Harvard University Press, £22.95
The second president of the United States, John Adams, began his professional life as a farmer and lawyer in Boston, before he became a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1774. He was among the first to call for secession, and later was one of the chief negotiators of the peace treaty after the war of independence. He was America's first vice-president (under George Washington) and finally held the top office itself.
What distinguished Adams from fellow founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington was his temperament: while they exuded an air of sophistication and glacial reserve, he was high-spirited, impetuous and prone to emotional outbursts. He could be self-doubting, fiercely angry, affectionate, vain and stubborn. He was neither elegant nor poised, and when he was frustrated he worked off his anger about political opponents by digging and shouting obscenities in his garden and fields.
It was his wife Abigail who kept him grounded, sane and happy. She was his beloved partner and "dearest friend" as well as his political adviser, confidante and farm manager during his long absences. More than 1,100 letters between John and Abigail (of which almost 300 are published in this book) are testimony to a bond built on love, trust and respect. Because John and Abigail were apart so often — when he was called to his political duties in Philadelphia, New York and later Washington, and for several years when he was the US ambassador in Europe — the letters reveal the making of the American nation, in all its chaos and passion, from the inside.
When John went to Europe during the war of independence, for example, many letters were lost or took several months to cross the Atlantic, resulting in misunderstandings. For more than two years he did not know if Congress wanted him to return to America or stay in Europe. So he was in a continual state of uncertainty about what to do and how to pay his expenses. "Not a line from Congress nor any member," he complained to Abigail. "You give me more public intelligence than any body." At the same time, Abigail was upset about one of John's letters from Paris, which said "I admire the ladies here" — her ire probably exacerbated by his description of French women "perpetually embracing" Benjamin Franklin.
Both John and Abigail's letters are packed with evocative details that throw the reader into the epicentre of American revolutionary life. They recount the developments that led to the Declaration of Independence and the emergence of opposing political parties, the Federalists and Republicans. But, equally fascinating, they open a window on to a private world: "the furniture ... is in a deplorable condition", John warned Abigail when he moved into the president's house in Philadelphia (the temporary seat of government) in 1797 after his election. "There is not a chair fit to sit in. The beds and bedding are in a woeful pickle."
Although John constantly worried that someone might intercept their letters, he continued to be frank when writing to Abigail, freely voicing his disillusionment with the French revolution ("a shambles"); Thomas Jefferson ("prisoned with ambition"); and Alexander Hamilton ("had as debauched morals as old Franklin"). When he worked himself up into a rage, Abigail soothed and calmed him: "You will be as patient as possible and rest assured that I will do my utmost," she wrote. But she could also be stern, in particular in pushing for women's rights and education. "Remember the ladies," Abigail advised John during the second Continental Congress, otherwise "we are determined to foment a rebellion".
My Dearest Friend is also a love story, which begins with John's first letter to "Miss Adorable" — the 17-year-old Abigail. "I have a good right to draw upon you for the kisses, as I have given two or three millions at least," he wrote. Almost 40 years later, his letters were still laced with this enduring love — "I am with tenderness inexpressible ever yours".
My Dearest Friend deserves a special place in the literary canon of the founding fathers, not only for recording the amazing relationship between John and Abigail, but also because of the rarity of the survival of such a correspondence — Martha Washington, by contrast, destroyed all but three of the letters between her and George.
The Adamses' letters are so enjoyable because they offer a wonderful breadth of topics, breathlessly jumping between flirtatious teasing, gossip about friends and family, and philosophical and political argument. Take, for example, Abigail's response when John tells her about the Declaration of Independence: she writes about the "glory of our country", the inoculation of their children against smallpox, the effect of the drought on their fields, and the latest manoeuvres of the British fleet outside Boston. For his part, John is always eager to hear and write about his farm in Quincy, even when president: among his typical declarations are "I am suffering every day for want of my farm to ramble in", and "I should prefer the delights of a garden to the dominion of a world".
Andrea Wulf is the co-author of This Other Eden: Seven Great Gardens and 300 Years of English History, published by Little, Brown