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First Family: Abigail and John Adams Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 26, 2010
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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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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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Ellis while not uncovering any new facts, by relying on primary sources has provided a concise and entertaining narrative that provides a good overview of the origins of America's first political dynasty.
The John Adams that Ellis depicts is very much an approachable and human figure, very much unlike the marble like portrayals of Ron Chernow's books on Washington and Hamilton which seek to justify everything that these two men did in only the most positive of terms. The fact that Adams did let his passions run away with him and did screw up makes him easier to understand and respect in a way that would be impossible in his own time. Despite a desire for glory and historical fame, Adams was correct on many things, having a greater understanding of the nature of humanity than did say Jefferson.
Abigail, while also the subject of several popular biographies emerges a no nonsense formidable figure who very much knew her own mind and did not mind sharing it (thankfully). She was the woman who, with almost Roman stoicism, took the seven year old John Quincy Adams to witness the battle of Bunker Hill from a safe distance. While John was off in Philadelphia inspiring and arm twisting the delegates to the Second Continental Congress to consider themselves independent, she was living in the midst of a war zone.
Both characters portrayed her are thorough contrarians. Indeed the credo of all Adamses would be to be somewhat suspicious of any ideas that could command a popular following. That something was right was evident by its decided lack of popularity. The elderly John Adams would insist that property rights be used to determine whether a person was eligible to vote and that religion not be, two provisions in the revised Massachusetts State Constitution (John had written the original document single-handedly) , Abigail Adams would and could lecture Thomas Jefferson on the appropriateness of keeping his slave mistress Sally Hemmings (whom she had met in Paris) - the only person on record to do so. She could also insist that the teaching of classics be banned in universities since this tended to provide an advantage to men over women who frequently lacked a formal education in the literature of Greece and Rome.
Clearly in today's juvenile political environment such outspoken people would be regarded as "dangerous elitists" by the would be populists who infest the cable news organizations. Of course were such a charge levied at John and Abigail Adams they would find the use of the word somewhat curious in the pejorative sense. The idea of having ordinary folk deciding the fate of the nation vice extraordinary, would strike them as the worse form of nonsense to emerge from the French Revolution. (as would most of the other founders of the American Republic).
I should add that this is not a perfect biography. In some ways Ellis fails to grasp some of the particulars of 18-19th century American life. I am personally tired of reading biographies of John, Abigail, and John Quincy Adams which dwell, somewhat morbidly on the fact that the latter never had a proper childhood when in fact no one did before the Victorian period. Most of the children of the world were the offspring of agricultural workers and as such were toiling over more difficult labor than merely the reading of Cicero in English. Also, Ellis constantly refers to the philosphes of France as though they represented a single cohesive philosophy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The philosophes began with Descartes and ended with Rousseau and represented a variety of opinions, frequently at odds with each other. Voltaire remarked onced that the writings of Rousseau made him want to get down on all fours and bark like a dog (they agitated him so). In most cases for unworkable and utopian ideas in politics, he should refer specifically to Rousseau and other lesser figures.
This is in short an interesting and at times amusing book in which Joseph Ellis gives the two main characters full rein to be themselves . By relying extensively on the well documented lives he is describing, Ellis creates a narrative that is every bit as outspoken as John and Abigail were.
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