David McCullough’s biography of John Adams holds an honored spot among my favorite books and is the only biography on my list. I found the work enlightening for author McCullough’s very readable insights into the second president’s life, the historical events in the early years of the United States, and John Adams’ courtship and marriage to Abigail Adams. What haunted me long after reading the last page, however, were the many letters between John and Abigail the author incorporated into the biography that added so much to the narrative. In fact, I can’t imagine the work without the letters. McCullough is not the only one to have delved into the correspondence between the two. Numerous writers, biographers, and filmmakers readily acknowledge the debt they owe to the correspondence for information about the couple and their times.
The letters are incredibly intimate and as I read them I as if I were trespassing. But they also revealed the beauty of both writers’ writing (even when some of the letters are mere notes dashed off as someone waited to carry the letter between the two) and they reminded me of the degree to which we have lost the art of correspondence. Of course, the two had no other means to communicate their state of mind during their many and long separations as John Adams traveled the country.
“Alas! How many snow banks divide thee and me and my warmest wishes to see thee will not melt one of them.” (1)
Letters were very precious to both as Abigail noted in a letter from 1764:
“Received the packet you so generously bestowed upon me. To say I fasted after such an entertainment, would be wronging my conscience and wounding truth. How kind is it in you, thus by frequent tokens of remembrance to alleviate the pangs of absence, by this I am convinced that I am often in your thoughts, which is a satisfaction to me… The nest of letters which you so undervalue, were to me a much more welcome present than a nest of baskets, though every strand of those had been gold and silver.” (2)
In much of their early correspondence, especially during courtship, John and Abigail used pen names in their writing. In Abigail’s case, though she signed her letters A. Smith (her maiden name), she used the Roman goddess of the moon’s name Diana when referring to herself; and John used the name Lysander after a Spartan warrior. This reads quaintly today but adds a touch of whimsy to the letters.
The references are preserved in a letter, also from 1764, where Abigail openly professes her love for John:
“For all those pleasurable sensations, which you were pleased to say, a letter from your Diana gave you, are enjoyed by her when Lysander favors her with an epistle, and in as much greater a degree, as his are more worthy than hers. Yet though he exceeds her there, he cannot in a tenderer affection than that which is borne him by his.” (signed) A. Smith. (3)
I shudder to think of what two young lovers or BFFs might write to each other today, whether email or twitter, perhaps the only “written” communication left. I wonder if the Adams’ were prescient, referring to each other as “Dearest of Friends” (DOFs?) throughout their lives even after marriage.
In 1767, Abigail wrote:
“Tomorrow I return home, where I hope soon to receive the dearest of friends and the tenderest of husbands, with that unabated affection which has for years past, and will whilst the vital spark lasts, burn in the bosom of your affectionate. (4)
Even in her dying words in 1818 Abigail Adams, nearly 74, exhibited a gift of language and the art of communication. “Do not grieve, my friend, my dearest friend. I am ready to go. And John, it will not be long.”
It is in reading words like these, I’m reminded to pause and think before dashing off a note, whether typed or handwritten. And I’m challenged to elevate my own writing. Thank you David McCullough. Thank you Abigail Adams.
Photo: United States Public domain
Excerpts: Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/
(1) 30 December 1773
(2) 12 – 13 April 1764
(3) 4 May 1764
(4) 14 September 1767
Note: In some instances spelling was corrected and capitals eliminated for readability.