Archive for May 7th, 2016

1,180 pages of Abigail Adams’s letters: war not as backdrop, but context

Saturday, May 7th, 2016
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Edith Gelles

At the recent “A Company of Authors” event, which has been called a “speed-dating for books,” one presenter had a particularly good reason to be pleased, beyond the nature of the charming annual occasion itself. Under her arm, Stanford scholar Edith Gelles carried the Wall Street Journal, which had that weekend given a whole front-of-section page to her 1,180-page Abigail Adams: Letters, newly published by the Library of America series. And what a glowing review it was: Gelles, the author of four books on the second First Lady, has “a historian’s eye on the world of events and a biographer’s ear for voice and character,” as reviewer Jane Kamensky notedAbigail Adams is perhaps the best-known woman of the Revolutionary War period, a champion for women, and certainly coined a phrase as famous as any by her husband, President John Adams, when she enjoined him to “remember the ladies.” (He didn’t.)

An excerpt from “The World Turned Upside Down”:

Abigail_Adams

She remembered the ladies, always.

War is no mere backdrop but rather the essential context of the Letters. Adams was born into war, in 1744, as Massachusetts hemorrhaged men to fight in the conflict known as King George’s War in the colonies and as the War of the Austrian Succession in Britain, which she, like her fellow provincials, called “the Mother Country.” She grew to womanhood during the nine-year conflict that would come to be called the Seven Years’ War. The Sugar Act, the opening chapter in a disastrous litany of imperial legislation occasioned by the cost of Britain’s victory in that war, took effect less than a month before her October 1764 marriage to a distant cousin, the young lawyer John Adams. A decade later, the multiplying consequences of Britain’s miscalculations drew her husband to a grand Continental Congress for more than a year. While he beavered away in Philadelphia, she witnessed the onset of another war in all but name. There followed, after the bloodshed at Concord and Lexington, a second congress—another long leave-taking—and then, once revolution began in earnest, a series of diplomatic posts that removed John from his “dearest friend” for the better part of a decade, during much of which he had two of their sons in tow.

“If the Sword be drawn I bid adieu to all domestick felicity,” Adams told her husband in October 1774. The sword was drawn, and domestic felicity shattered. In her letters, she is by turns proud, fretful and furious. “How did my heart dilate with pleasure when as each event was particularized; I could trace my Friend as a Principal in them,” she wrote, looking backward, at the end of 1783, shortly after the Treaty of Paris was signed and the existence of the United States ratified. Such greatness, but at what cost? “It was he; who tho happy in his domestick attachments; left his wife, his Children; then but Infants; even surrounded with the Horrours of war; terrified and distresst, . . . Left them, to the protection of that providence which has never forsaken them.” How long had she run the household? She kept score: “Two days only are wanting to campleat six years since my dearest Friend first crost the Atlantick,” she wrote in February 1784, some months before she at long last sailed to join her husband in Europe. So much time had passed that she failed to recognize her eldest son, John Quincy; the boy who had left Boston’s Long Wharf had become the man she met in London. “I had thought before I saw him, that I could not be mistaken in him,” she wrote to John, “but I might have set with him for some time without knowing him.”

Phillis_Wheatley

Remember her too, please.

Kamensky called for Library of America, too, to “remember the ladies”:

Surely there is room to remember more ladies in this fine fashion. Start with Adams’s friend Mercy Otis Warren, who was the first great historian of the American Revolution. Add the political theorist Judith Sargent Murray, the poet Phillis Wheatley and the Pennsylvania diarist Elizabeth Drinker. Issue the novels of Adams’s New England neighbors Susannah Rowson (her Charlotte Temple was the best-selling American novel until Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Hannah Webster Foster. Find their friends. Mark their words. Then and only then will we begin to hear something like the harmonies within which Abigail Adams sang those famous lines, not as a solo but as part of a dissonant chorus, still fighting for listeners.

Read the whole thing here.