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First Family: Abigail and John Adams
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48 of 51 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon October 6, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine 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.

Additionally, Ellis examines the reasons that John may have left the Presidency vacated to spend time with Abigail during a seven month period when he left his office to live with her in Quincy as she slowly recovered from a very debilitating bout with disease. While I do not agree, Ellis makes an interesting and plausible case.

The Jefferson - Adams relationship is extensively examined and shows that the once close friends became rivals which lead to the battle of words as the Presidential elections between the two became a reality. It leads to very emotional moments between the three long time friends.

If you have not read the longer versions of the Adams' Family, and do not want to spend the time necessary to do so, then this is an excellent book with which to begin your study of this amazing and pivotal Revolutionary Family. Ellis writes a wonderfully full if short biography that spans the entire family, but leans more towards the effects of John's life choices on Abigail.

I highly recommend this book.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on October 5, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine 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. Abigail, while no where near the 21st Century definition of feminist, is still admirable by the standards of today in her equality of feeling and intelligence with her husband. That she kept property separate from her husband was unheard of at the time, albeit with John's knowledge and approval. Something tells me though had he disapproved, Abigail might have reconsidered his proposal.

This is by far one of the best books I've read in quite some time. If you love history and have a soft spot for romance, this book treats both topics with scholarly expertise.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 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
VINE VOICEon October 27, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine 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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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is an informative and well-crafted book that is the best presentation and analysis that I have come across of a partnership that is both inspiring in itself and the best-documented in history. It has some limitations but if you are interested in the social rather than political elements of the early Republic, this is a book I highly recommend. Here are the standout features:
1. It offers a convincing and rich portrayal of the long partnership between the brilliant, morally brave, totally honest and equally quite weird - perhaps even mentally disturbed - John Adams and his stable, supportive but independent wife Abigail. It is very unlikely that Adams could have held to his steadfast course without a true equal, with all his insecurities, feelings of being unappreciated, his ability to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and his self-importance. Abigail comes across as very grounded, shrewd and anchored in reality, far unlike her husband at times. The book doesn't stray into psychobabble or add romantic flourishes; it just presents the story as we know it from the evidence, most obviously the couple's letters to each other. Professor Ellis is judicious in his selection from these, building the reader's sense of confidence in his judgment. One small touch that illustrates this is the sense in the correspondence that the pair really enjoyed their sex life. This is not discussed in depth nor ignored, but is just part of the complete sketching of the picture, delicately handled.
2. It shows the complex dynamics of a family - Abigail's strengths, commonsense and management skills, the family investment in the superstar son, John Quincy Adams, the disappointments of other children, with business failures, poor marriage choices and death from chronic alcohol abuse. It's very much a partnership at work - John persistently trying to do the right thing and Abigail keeping it all together.
3. It brings out the very heavy burdens and price paid by the couple in Adam's truly patriotic service; the long, multi-year absences in France and England where their letters were infrequent, cautiously phrased because of the fear of their being intercepted by the British Navy in the many weeks it took for them to be conveyed across the Atlantic, and the frustrations each had to deal with but could not easily complain about. For me, this was one of the strongest elements of the book.
4. It has the right balance - enough depth to make it a serious contribution and enough pace and selectivity to make it a good read.
It has some limitations. It is not exciting, though it flows well. There's nothing new in the book - a strength as well as a limitation. It organizes material that is widely available and stays in the centrist mainstream, with no revisionist theory. Ellis doesn't play games with history; as he states in his opening he offers a "biography of a partnership." If you are already pretty familiar with the politics and personalities, this may not offer much. It takes the viewpoint of Adams and doesn't throw much light on Washington, who remains a background enigma. It has a marked flavor of being anti-Hamilton, Adam's villain and the most powerful political driver of the times. It continues the increasingly consensual puncturing of Franklin's skilled self-advertising and portrays him as a double-dealing egotist. It covers Jefferson in more detail because of the centrality of their friendship and its breakdown. By and large, he takes Adam's side on the issues of Anglo- versus Franco-relationships.
A good book, a quiet pleasure, and an explanation of why Professor Ellis wins Pulitzer Prizes for his books.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I picked up this book as a way to learn a little more about a period in American history that I am woefully ignorant about. My interest was to learn about the historical events that took place during the life of John Adams and to get some insight into the famous marriage of John and Abigail.

The author has definitely researched this book very well. Based on the many letters written between John and Abigail, as well as letters written by them to others, the book chronicles the lives of the couple. The story of their meeting, their romance, their marriage and many seperations (due to John's political committments) and eventually their golden years is well described.

The major thing I found lacking in this book was atmosphere. Yes, it is a book based on historical events and, in that, it is an excellent catalog of events, but I do like a book that draws you in into what the day to day lives of the people of the period would have been. What did it entail for Abigail to run the farm when John was in Philadelphia?? What might have it been like when the wounded soldiers were at Braintree needing medical assistance? Abigail does express some frustration in her letters to John and perhaps the author did not want to put words into her mouth but an image or two of what events might have been like would have made this book quite a bit richer for the reader.

Apart from that, the book is an excellent, if dry, chronicle of the correspondence and events of John and Abigail's lives. It did inspire me to watch the History channel's documentary on the couple and the HBO miniseries, also available on Amazon, is next on my list of must-see programs.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
First Family: Abigail and John Adams is a beautiful book by Joseph Ellis ~ an extraordinary story of love and American history; a highly readable, very enjoyable work which reveals with sensitivity and depth the ardent relationship of John and Abigail Adams.

This is a work of history like no other! It is based on over 1000 personal letters of John and Abigail, letters written during the American Revolution and the earliest formative years of the foundling Republic. John Adams realized the value of these letters and had the great prescience to preserve them for posterity.

John Adams was of course one of our country's iconic founding fathers and our second President. If John Adams was a founding father, then his first lady Abigail, his devoted partner in life for fifty four years, was surely a founding mother. Their letters reveal so much, not only about themselves, their family and the other characters who populated their lives, but the young American Republic they loved as much as they loved each other.

Naturally we learn about the intimacies of their private life, those thoughts and feelings that arise in separation ~ those that could be properly and "decently" shared in writing anyway. But we also are given a glimpse into the domestic and family challenges of their day. Because John and Abigail, as partners in civic duty, were a tremendous influence in laying the foundation for the new Republic of America, we also learn much about history, government and politics ~ as soon through their eyes and felt in their hearts. This thoroughly researched, well-cited work represents the essence of those letters, the on-going dialogue between John and Abigail which has much to offer history.

The narrative rhythm of First Family: Abigail and John Adams is so vital and so engaging, that never does it lag from tedium or dryness. I found myself swept away by the honest and stirring feelings that are revealed. I also developed a special affection for Abigail. Joseph Ellis really brought her to life for me. She was such a remarkable, forward-looking woman and well before her time. It was a delight to get to know her, her brilliant mind, her loving heart, her compassionate spirit. I actually had tears fall when I reached her death, reading John's words about her passing: "I wish I could lie down beside her and die too."

Joseph Ellis has really given us something special with First Family: Abigail and John Adams, a gift of clear and beautiful language; well-cited research; an understanding of the history, the players and the politics of the time; but mainly the human qualities of John and Abigail Adams and the spirit they left to posterity ~ a spirit that lives on in the pages of history they have written.

This book is wonderful! Read it ~ be charmed by it; learn from it; be inspired by it!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on February 12, 2011
Format: Hardcover
In "First Family: Abigail and John Adams," Joseph J. Ellis explores the more than 1200 letters this remarkable couple left to history. These letters reveal their incredible partnership and Abigail's sharp intellect, common sense, and steady personality, all of which provided John the stable port in the storm and confidante his restless intellect and personality required. With her support, John played a critical role in leading the Continental Congress toward independence and later helping develop a constitutional democratic republic.

John and Abigail were two of an exceptional generation of leaders, people like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and many more. One and all, though they often differed markedly in political perspective, they were committed to freedom's basic values: liberty of body, mind, and soul, freedom of worship and speech, respect for human dignity, protection of life, rule of law, freedom to work and property rights, justice. These are not uniquely American or any nation's values. These are human values.

Though I earlier read David G. McCullough's "John Adams," Ellis's book focused more directly upon Abigail as a woman who deserves her due as a behind-the-scenes, so to speak, leader of the American story of independence and as a woman well ahead of her times. Ellis also draws much from the Adams family letters that illuminates the interesting, admirable, and possibly unique relationship they enjoyed as husband and wife. I recommend this book for anyone interested in early America, leadership, Abigail, or marriage.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 1, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Here's an email I just wrote a few book-reading pals of mine:

Just finished this stunning biography of John and Abigail Adams. Really wonderful. Lyrical almost. I mean in the way of telling a story concisely--it's only 255 pages--and in touching on the emotional and family aspects in a way that creates a holistic and modern kind of story. Part of that is the fact that J & A were apart for such huge stretches and wrote so many letters (there's a lot of raw material I mean), and she was so far ahead of her time in a proto-feminist way. Also their family was more or less a mess, with the exception of John Quincy.

In the acknowledgments he gives credit to twenty Mount Holyoke students in a particular 2008 seminar. "Undergraduates are supposed to be incapable of irony, but that was the interpretive edge they insisted upon." It's a striking sentence, not sure what he means by the first part and I wouldn't say that Ellis's voice is ironic, but he has a knack for seeing the emotional side of these people and expressing it faithfully. Almost the way DH Lawrence does in his novels.

I read McCullough's book a few years ago and it was fine, but kind of endless. It pales in comparison.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 10, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Having read most of what Ellis has published this volume deserves a respected place of honor on my bookshelf. Ellis' style of writing is fantastically accessible by a general audience and his portrayal of the most famous marriage in American politics is just simply remarkable. John and Abigail, like Washington and Jefferson, were aware that their lives would have stand the scrutiny of future generations. In a sense, many of their letters, especially by John with his sometimes overwhelming sense of his place in the pantheon of the founders, were written for us as much as each other. The intimate feelings and agile minds of this remarkable team are well rendered by Ellis. His use of primary sources and knowledge of American history make this work an instant seminal work for the study of Adams.
I highly recommend this book as I have many of the biographies authored by Ellis. While I have extremely limited time for reading lately, I find myself counting this as time well spent.
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