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First Family: Abigail and John Adams Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 26, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Ellis (Founding Brothers) gives "the premier husband-wife team in all American history" starring roles in an engrossing romance. His Abigail has an acute intellect, but is not quite a protofeminist heroine: her ambitions are limited to being a mother and helpmeet, and in the iconic correspondence she often strikes the traditional pose of a neglected wife who sacrifices her happiness by giving up her husband to the call of duty. The author's more piquant portrait of John depicts an insecure, mercurial, neurotic man stabilized by Abigail's love and advice. Ellis's implicit argument--that the John/Abigail partnership lies at the foundation of the Adams family's public achievements--is a bit over-played, and not always to the advantage of the partnership: "Her judgment was a victim of her love for John…," Ellis writes of Abigail's support for the Alien and Sedition Acts, the ugliest blot on John's presidency, all of which explains little and excuses less. Still, Ellis's supple prose and keen psychological insight give a vivid sense of the human drama behind history's upheavals.
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From Booklist

When so much has been written—and televised—about John and Abigail Adams, do we need another book? Yes, when the author is distinguished historian Ellis. Although Ellis notes that any study of either John or Abigail is necessarily about them both since their partnership was so central to their story, his focus is on that partnership (an approach also taken by Edith B. Gelles in Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage, published last year). The letters John and Abigail exchanged are the chief documents—an ongoing conversation that ceased (to the frustration of historians) when they were together but also sometimes when they were apart. John was not a good correspondent when he was in Europe, for example, and what letters he did write often took six months to arrive, when they were not lost at sea. In addition to looking at the strengths of the Adams’ marriage, the book examines the toll taken by their years apart and the misfortunes in the lives of all their children except John Quincy. Ellis has produced a very readable history of the nation’s founding as lived by these two. --Mary Ellen Quinn
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (October 26, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307269620
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307269621
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (74 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #742,655 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Joseph J. Ellis is Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke and author of the National Book Award-winning American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Founding Brothers, and The Passionate Sage (Norton).

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

49 of 52 people found the following review helpful By Burgmicester VINE VOICE on October 5, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Joseph Ellis is one of the finest writers of popular biographical nonfiction in the market today. While on the surface, there seems to be not much new in this book over the other longer biographies by David McCullough and Page Smith, there is still enough justification to read this book to acquire a slightly different slant on John, Abigail and the rest of the Adams Family almost exclusively through their writings to each other, friends, and relatives. Ellis is able to cut through the tangential, while keeping enough of the life and times by focusing on the emotional aspects of this family. Ellis walks a fine line and does it beautifully as the reader will miss very little of the major events occurring as he zeroes in on the effects these extraordinary times have on the entire Adams Family.

If you have read any of the other biographies, then you know the history, but Ellis is able to reflect and delve into the persona of both Abigail and John Adams by going into the details of their periphery correspondence with friends and relatives - especially on the Abigail side of the equation. We get a slightly different Abigail that is wounded deeply by John's constant movement into the political limelight that neglects his family and wife as he puts his political ambitions before his familial obligations. Ellis takes a step further than others by suggesting that John Adams had a thyroid problem that in the absence of Abigail, who was his sense of balance, may have lead to his quick and aggressive temper. Additionally, Ellis puts the question of "favoritism (of John Quincy) squarely on John and Abigail as they put pressure upon John Quincy at a very early age. The other males are not treated in the same pressurized manner and in some cases (Thomas) nearly ignored for long stretches.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful By KATHI on October 4, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I loved McCullough's book on Adams, and it's a history voyeur's dream to read the letters between John and Abigail where they have been collected in a single volume. But this is the first time I've read a great love story that intertwines so seamlessly the lives of these two great Americans with the events of their time. I almost read the entire book in one sitting, but forced myself to prolong it an extra day or two in order to savor every word.

Ellis is masterful in his deft handling of the irascible and insecure John by allowing us to view him through the eyes of time and Abigail. Likewise we come to know Abigail through her love of John, her children, and by her "saucy" demeanor displayed by her acute sense of politics and her willingness to speak her mind. Although distance kept them apart for extended periods during their marriage, history as well as the reader benefits because of their extant letters, providing us with what Ellis refers to as "the paradox of proximity." In other words, when John and Abigail are together they don't correspond, so we only know what they're thinking or feeling through their letters.

By the end of this book, I felt like I knew John and Abigail better than I had ever known them before. I was surprised to find myself more sympathetic to John, perhaps in part due to my fondness for the more serene Jefferson. But I came to realize that Adams, at times paranoid in his mistrust of nearly everyone, had occasion to be justified in his feelings. The behind-the-scenes machinations of practically everyone in his cabinet would be grounds for treason today. And the libelous nature of the media then would never make it to press now.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Stephen T. Hopkins VINE VOICE on January 4, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I don't think I learned anything new about John and Abigail Adams after reading Joseph Ellis' book, First Family. I did feel something new: an appreciation of the triumph this couple achieved having overcome great obstacles. Neither could have done as much without the other, and their deep love endured long absences. Thanks to their voluminous correspondence, we can eavesdrop on their lives and gain insight into their lives and time. Ellis writes with a style that most readers will find enjoyable as he tells story after story in ways that keep readers engaged. No matter how well you know the story of this Adams family, consider spending time with them again in the capable hands of Joseph Ellis.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Walter P. Sheppard VINE VOICE on October 27, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
...from Joseph J. Ellis, who already has to his credit several excellent books of American history - including one that won a Pulitzer Prize - about the men who guided the American Revolution and the founding of the United States. In "First Family," he turns his attention to the 12-hundred or so letters that make up the decades-long "conversation . . . of unexpected intimacy and candor" between Abigail and John Adams that is "more revealing than any other correspondence between a prominent American husband and wife in American history."

After first encountering the letters some years ago, Ellis resolved one day to "read all their letters and tell the full story of their conversation within the context of America's creation as a people and a nation." He has now done so brilliantly, bringing these two intelligent people to life before us. He does not do this in isolation. He covers the historical context of the times with gratifying clarity. His writing is superb, carrying the reader along effortlessly to the point of making it difficult to put the book down.

I cannot recommend "First Family" too highly to anyone who has a scintilla of interest in the people who launched the United States.
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