Dear John, Dear Abigail: A Love Story Through Letters Historian and author Joseph Ellis' First Family draws from decades of correspondence between John Adams and his wife, Abigail, to reveal the achievements of America's second president, and the sacrifice and influence of his first lady.
NPR logo

Dear John, Dear Abigail: A Love Story Through Letters

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Dear John, Dear Abigail: A Love Story Through Letters

Dear John, Dear Abigail: A Love Story Through Letters

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

After the American Revolution, we tended to revere the founding fathers as Olympian figures, frozen in time. Recently, though, fresh biographies of Washington and Jefferson and Adams describe complicated human beings, warts and all.

Now historian Joseph Ellis humanizes what he considers one of history's most influential couples. "First Family: Abigail And John Adams" draws on the 1,200 letters between America's second president and his wife, who was also his confidante, his editor, trusted advisor and intellectual equal.

Decades of correspondence reveal not only John Adams' achievements but his insecurities and lust for fame. And we see Abigail's sacrifices and her powerful influence not least in steadying her sometimes volatile husband.

If you'd like to talk with Joseph Ellis about John and Abigail Adams and how their relationship shaped American history, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, to Dallas and San Francisco as the World Series gets ready to start. But first, Pulitzer Prize-winner Joseph Ellis, a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and with us today from here in Studio 3A. And it's nice to meet you in person, Professor.

Professor JOSEPH ELLIS (Mount Holyoke College): I've been on this program, as you know, before, but I've always been somewhere else. And I must say, the summary of the book is so good, I'm afraid no one's going to buy it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I think your book is just a little bit longer. I have to say I'm one of the people who when they read a book for interviewing or broadcast, I tend to underline and dog-ear, and the only problem is that's supposed to, you know, give me a few places I can look. This book is just filled with dog-ears.

Mr. ELLIS: That's good.

CONAN: Yeah, that's good. That's dense. That's really interesting.

Mr. ELLIS: All right. It's not a you know, some books are doorstoppers. This is only 270 pages long, I think. And I sort of write books of that length for reasons that I'm not quite sure I understand myself. But I think an historian, a biographer, has an obligation to digest the material and present the core insights. And sometimes the most important decisions that I think I make as a writer is what to leave out.

CONAN: Interesting. You were also blessed by this voluminous correspondence. I was less aware that they were, John and Abigail, were so conscious of this correspondence and in fact intended it, certainly he did, to be left for posterity.

Mr. ELLIS: He did, although when he was asked about posterity, he initially said he just meant his family. But he actually meant us. He was writing these letters as much to you and I at this moment in time, 200 years later.

The fact that they have such a large correspondence that survived is in part a function of that very fact. And in 1776 he writes to her and says: I'm buying a leather binder to save all your letters. I want you to do the same thing for mine, and I'm going to start to make copies. They never really are assiduous about making copies.

The other reason there are so many letters is they're apart so often. Abigail is in Braintree, he's in Philadelphia. Abigail's in Quincy, he's in Paris and Amsterdam.

The Madisons, Dolly and James Madison, should have had a good correspondence too, but they're always together. And Martha and George Washington had a correspondence, but he was he asked her to destroy them all.

CONAN: And she did.

Mr. ELLIS: And she did. Three letters survived. But in addition to the volume of this correspondence, the sheer emotional power of it and the literary sophistication of it is so overwhelming.

I mean, when I was this I've written nine books. I enjoyed writing this book more than any of the others, in part because it's a great story and in part because they give you the evidence about this story, which is a love story.

CONAN: Yet they wrote these intimate, emotional scenes fully intending that our eyes all these years later would see them.

Mr. ELLIS: Yeah, I think they put those thoughts in separate compartments of their mind. John was very worried about writing letters that would be seen in his own time, revealing his thoughts on this or that, especially political things.

One letter she writes while in between contractions, as she's giving birth to what turns out to be a stillborn child, and they have to talk elliptically about birth and pregnancy because in the 18th century you didn't do that.

I think that they John came to realize what these letters meant in his old age when he started re-reading them. He went into his archive. It was a huge, huge thing, and, you know, the Adams editors of the Adams papers still haven't, after 50 years, gotten to the end of editing and publishing.

And he wrote to Benjamin Rush, he said: God help me if they ever see my letters.

CONAN: Including Benjamin Rush, about whom he had some unkind words at various points. Anyway, we're talking with Joseph Ellis about his new book, "First Family: Abigail and John Adams," 800-989-8255. Email Bill's on the line, calling from Hubert(ph) in North Carolina.

BILL (Caller): Good day, gentlemen, nice to talk to you. I am kind of excited. I just ordered the book. So I'm excited to read it. The reason...

CONAN: So is Joseph Ellis's agent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BILL: Well, good. I'm sure it'll be as exemplary as his subject matter. I'm a big fan of Adams, and to be honest with you, my daughter is -would be gaga if she knew I was talking to you.

But I'm curious: So much has been written about the Adamses, how much influence did Abigail have on John's political and legal development of his ideas? We seem to catch up with them later in their careers than we do early on. I'm curious: Did she have much influence in her - on President Adams?

Mr. ELLIS: Certainly on President Adams. I mean, before there was Eleanor Roosevelt or before there was Hillary Clinton or maybe Michelle Obama, there was Abigail Adams. And she was a powerful force on his thinking as vice president and president.

In the early years, in the 1770s, he's in the Continental Congress, they think so much alike, it's difficult to know who's influencing whom. They both are in favor of independence before it's fashionable.

But during his presidency, the single most important source of influence is an unfortunate one. Namely, she's the one who tips the balance and urges him to sign the Alien and Sedition Acts, which is the biggest blunder of the Adams presidency, and in some ways I don't think he would have done it if it weren't for her advice.

But she was a force. I mean, I don't think she's a feminist in all the contemporary senses of the term, because her real sense of satisfaction came from her being a mother and a wife, but she is a singular figure and a highly, highly independent thinker.

CONAN: And we all remember the letter she wrote to him during the deliberations over the Declaration of Independence, saying do not forget the ladies.

Mr. ELLIS: Remember the ladies. She says by the way - and anybody says by the way, Neal, watch out. Something is coming.

CONAN: Bill, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

BILL: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Cheryl(ph), Cheryl with us from Minneapolis.

CHERYL (Caller): Hi. I'm reading about Lincoln, and I saw that Mary Todd kept an alienation against a politician who aced out Lincoln in running for office. How about Abigail? Did she ever try to help heal Adams and Jefferson later on in life with their differences?

Mr. ELLIS: No. She was mad at Jefferson herself, and she wrote Jefferson in 1804 a consolatory letter because Jefferson's daughter died, and Jefferson thought that was a sign that the Adams family was going to renew relations.

And in fact, it led to an argument, and in the end of the letter, the last letter that Abigail writes to him, she says, you know, the world suggests you are a hypocrite and a liar, and I must tell you, sir, you are. And nobody else ever said that to him in a kind of direct, personal way.

She eventually watches her husband in the correspondence recover the friendship, and at some point, about 1818, before she dies, in the end of one his letters, says, you know, I'm glad to see you two are back together again.

CONAN: But that was at the agency of, again, of the aforementioned Benjamin Rush.

Mr. ELLIS: Correct. Rush is a doctor from Philadelphia. He's the founder of modern psychiatry who is a good friend of both Jefferson and Adams and who in 1812 gets them to come back together and says he has a vision that they were the North and South Poles of the American Revolution and that they would come back and resume their friendship and then would go to heaven together.

And you know, you couldn't write this up even in a novel, but they die on the same day, and whether they go to heaven or not, we don't know, but they did die on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1826.

CONAN: And toward the end of his life, Adams is asked about what he considers the Christian vision of the afterlife, and he says, well, obviously this is unknowable, but if it's ever proved that it does not exist, he had a suggestion.

Mr. ELLIS: The suggestion was, if it can ever be shown conclusively that there is no hereafter, my advice to every man, woman and child on the planet is to take opium.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Cheryl. In his you write, you talked about Jefferson. You wrote that Adams had a habit of personalizing his opposition, those he opposed, a governor of Massachusetts, later Thomas Payne, later Benjamin Franklin, later Thomas Jefferson. This drew him into some lifelong battles.

Mr. ELLIS: Yes, indeed. He had a rogue's gallery, and he liked to in terms of political battles in his presidency, the guy he hates the most, more than Jefferson, is Hamilton.

And he's and he has reason to hate him because Hamilton actually publishes anonymously, but everybody knows who does it, a pamphlet essentially saying that John Adams is insane and mentally unfit for the office of presidency.

And but he spends a lot of the early years of his retirement, does Adams, settling scores. You can just see him sitting at his desk, scribbling away, you know, Hamilton as a mere speck of a man, born on an island in the Caribbean, the bastard brat of a Scotch peddler. And Payne is, you know, he has some horrid(ph) Payne is a it's a word we shouldn't use on the air.

CONAN: Thank you.

Mr. ELLIS: But and he was a man of passion, and he also was a man capable of anger and hatred, and it helped him focus his own thinking, and there were partisan battles back then that are reminiscent of what we're going through now, and he was at the center of them.

CONAN: He did late in life say, thinking again about the afterlife, that he presumed God would afford him the opportunity to debate Franklin in heaven. So getting some perspective on it, at least a little later in life.

We're talking with historian Joseph Ellis. His most recent book, "First Family: Abigail And John Adams." If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Rarely do we get the kind of intimate view of America's founding fathers that we have with John Adams, thanks to the 1,200 letters he and his wife Abigail shared over the years.

Historian Joseph Ellis pulls from many of those notes in his latest book, "First Family." You can read some of the racier bits of John and Abigail's early correspondence in an excerpt from the book at our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If you'd like to ask Joseph Ellis about John and Abigail Adams and how their relationship helped shape American history, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation at our website. Thats at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And you mentioned just a moment ago that John could get angry and had his hatreds. We get a very different image of Abigail Adams, though he often left her, for probably 10 years of their marriage, there, facing the British troops a lot more closely than he ever did.

Mr. ELLIS: She was in greater danger because of military action around Boston - also the smallpox.

CONAN: And then he went, of course, off to Paris. He did take her on one trip, but she didn't much like it. Anyway, we don't read of any anger, any resentment on her part, any frustration that her husband would leave her in the lurch.

Mr. ELLIS: Well, I think she felt it, but she didn't feel she could write it to him. She does write it to some of her friends and sisters. And she when he leaves her in - let's see, 1784 - or no, 1780 to '84, he's away - during that four-year period, she becomes, I think, clinically depressed.

And she's a self-sufficient who's raising four kids, actually three because John Quincy's with her father - his father. But she feels her duty is to support him and not to question his decisions.

But many times when Adams decides yes, I will run for this office, yes I will go to this, to Paris as the she wishes he didn't do that. But she doesn't want to stand in the way of his own ambition, which is vaunting, I mean, and daunting at the same time.

He really does have the desire, not just to be a success in his own time, but to become a hero that will live on if whether or not there's life after death, in a spiritual sense, there's life after death in a sense of living on in the memory of posterity.

CONAN: And he considered himself the moving force behind the Declaration of Independence and always resented the fact that Jefferson got the credit.

Mr. ELLIS: And he's really right about that, historically. I mean, he says that Jefferson wrote these words, that then was like it's like the lightning and the thunder. The thunder comes after the real strike, and the real strike has already happened before July 4th.

And at the time, however, Adams is the man in the Congress who defends Jefferson's language and draft in the debate on July 3rd and 4th that cuts about 25 percent of the draft or changes it. Jefferson is, ever after, convinced that they mangled that's the word he used his words.

He doesn't like to be edited. And they initially asked Franklin to write the Declaration, and Franklin said: I make it a point never to write anything that would be edited by a committee.

CONAN: Wise words.

Mr. ELLIS: Wise, indeed.

CONAN: Let's go to Erin(ph), Erin with us from Cincinnati.

ERIN (Caller): Yes, hi. Not being much of a history buff myself, I happened to catch the John Adams series on HBO last year, and I was just wondering how your guest felt as far as its accuracy, if he's seen it.

Mr. ELLIS: Oh, yes.

ERIN: And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks, Erin.

Mr. ELLIS: It's a great program. It's one of the best historical documentaries, I think, done for television. And it's based on the McCullough book of "John Adams." McCullough was the chief consultant.

It has to take liberties with facts and with narrative detail, because it would be too complicated to get it all right. It begins with the Boston massacre in early 1770. So you don't see John and Abigail earlier in their courtship, and you don't see John evolving, really, into a political leader.

But nevertheless, I think I mean, I'll just tell you right now, I'm in love with Laura Linney, and her performance there is really spectacular.

People disagree over Giovanni's(ph).

CONAN: Paul Giamatti.

Mr. ELLIS: Giamatti's performance. I think it's pretty darn good myself. But I loved the HBO special, and I urge it on you. So you can read my book, and then you can do the HBO, and then you'll know everything.

CONAN: Okay. Here's an email from Keith. Professor Ellis, I've read all of your books and greatly enjoy them. One thing I picked up is that you do not seem to think very highly of Aaron Burr.

However, in my personal investigations, I have read many quotes that imply that John and Abigail Adams had a better or more sympathetic view of Burr. As you know, both Adams and Burr had many clashes with Hamilton and Jefferson. Your thoughts on this complex matter, please.

Mr. ELLIS: You're basically correct in your assessment of me. I wrote about Burr years ago when I did a chapter called "The Duel" in a book called "Founding Brothers."

There are many good things about Burr, and the novel about Burr by Gore Vidal is one of the best things ever done on him. It is a novel. Burr was but the only reason the Adams's like Burr at all, was because he's the guy that killed Hamilton.

And in fact, when Burr is almost elected president, there's a tie in 1800 in the Electoral College, and it has to go to the House, Adams makes it very clear that Burr would be an absolute disaster as president of the United States.

He said the man is on stilts, meaning he's elevated himself beyond his real range. And Abigail feels the same way. She makes some comments to Jefferson, just before they leave Washington and before the inauguration of Jefferson, you know, thanking the stars that Burr is not the next president.

CONAN: Let's go next to Steve and Steve with us from Charlotte.

STEVE (Caller): I am. Good afternoon, gentlemen.

CONAN: Go ahead.

STEVE: I'm a direct descendent of John and Abigail. And my grandmother, her sisters, all the women of the family, used to say with a chuckle: Were it not for Abigail, surly old John would have been forgotten to history.

Mr. ELLIS: I wouldn't quite go that far. I'm not sure he would have been forgotten, so much as he wouldn't have made as much history as he did. She is his ballast. She is his I think that if he hadn't married her, he would have not been able to be the man he became in the 1760s and '70s.

She stabilizes him, provides him with a foundation - emotional foundation that proves essential and creates a kind of a haven in a heartless world where he can retreat.

So in that sense, the family lore is absolutely right.

STEVE: Thank you for that comment.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Steve.

STEVE: Great.

CONAN: Let's go next to this is William(ph), William with us from Jacksonville in North Carolina.

WILLIAM (Caller): Yes, good day. Good afternoon. I just had a question: I'm an American history major, and I've done a little bit of research into John Adams. However, I haven't found too much research about Abigail.

In the beginning of the show, it was stated that she was intellectual rival to John Adams. My question is...

CONAN: I think we said equal, but go ahead.

WILLIAM: Right, right. I'm sorry. My question is: Did she get any kind of formal education, because if I'm not mistaken, in the 1700s, women were not really allowed to have higher education.

Mr. ELLIS: No, they weren't, and she never went to school. She was home-schooled by her father, who was a minister and a graduate of Harvard, and her grandmother, a Quincy.

She was very well-read in Shakespeare and those kind of British classics. She did not read Latin or Greek, which was the entry-level subject for college.

The quality of Abigail's letters, in my judgment, are as good or slightly better than John's. They're more literary. They have more she's more deliberative in writing about them.

And there is a, you know, Abigail Adams has been the subject of several biographies, and the most recent one, of which, is by a guy called Woody Holton - that's very good. And it's very recent. It's called "Abigail," and I recommend it to you.

WILLIAM: Outstanding. Thank you very much. Have a good day.

CONAN: Thanks, William. Let's go next to Tammy(ph), Tammy with us from Draper in Utah.

TAMMY (Caller): Hi. I was wondering: The quality of John and Abigail's relationship, it seems like it was very good. I'm wondering why it's so hard to find such fidelity and loyalty in modern marriages in among politicians. And I'll take the answer off the air.

CONAN: Okay, Tammy.

Mr. ELLIS: I'm afraid I agree. There's a scene in this movie called what's the name of it "That's Entertainment," where they show these MGM clips of great musical moments. And there's Fred Astaire dancing with Eleanor Powell. And Sinatra comes on and says: You know, you can sit around and wait, but you're never going to see that again. And you can sit around and wait, but you're never going to see 59 years of devotion and a love that changes its colorization and its meaning over that 59-year period of time, but always remains unconditional.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Let's try Ann(ph), Ann with us from Portland.

ANN (Caller): Yeah, hi. Many years ago, I read a book about Abigail and John. And it was based on I don't remember the author, I'm sorry, but it was based on letters from Abigail.

And she was absolutely the rock of that family. She held everything together while he was gone. But one of the things that - and I remember the book, is that she finally made the voyage across the oceans and the conditions of the ship were so horrible, she organized everybody and had it cleaned up. I just wonder if you have any comment about that.

Mr. ELLIS: You got it all right. The only time Abigail ever kept a diary was when she was on that voyage and she had her daughter with her, Nabby.

ANNE: Yup. Exactly.

Mr. ELLIS: And she said ships were not made for women.

ANNE: Yeah!

Mr. ELLIS: They're too crowded and they're too filthy. And she did commit herself to changing that. They brought a cow along for milk, and the cow died and they had to throw it overboard. That was very upsetting to her. But she was the rock of the family. There's no question about it.

ANNE: She absolutely was. It is unbelievable what that woman did while her husband was gone.

CONAN: Anne, thanks very much.

ANNE: You're welcome.

CONAN: That takes us though to their disappointments. They - not only John had not only ambitions for himself but for his children, for his posterity - small P posterity, that, well, one of them turned out to be president of the United States, but he was otherwise disappointed.

Mr. ELLIS: Yes. They had four children. Abigail was - had, let's see, six pregnancies in 13 years. One child died in - at the age of 18 months and the other died - was stillborn. And then they had four children that lived to maturity.

Nabby married badly and had a very unhappy life, spent a lot of time with her children up in Quincy.

John Quincy was the star, the prodigy. He really was the prodigy, though he didn't - he led a politically significant life, it wasn't a happy life. He never really had a childhood.

Charles, the third son - the third child, is a beguiling presence as a young boy. And it's always hard when you're reading about this as a writer, biographer, and you're reading about the child-rearing and you know what's going to happen to these kids. Charles is going to end up an alcoholic and a drug addict, and he's going to die at 30.

And Tommy, he's the one that's least visible in the record, but he fails at everything. They all go to Harvard. All the boys do. But - and becomes an alcoholic that lives next to his parents for the rest of his life - for the rest of their lives. He - the only thing he can seem to do is have children. He has, like, 11 children. But it's not a success story.

And the extent to which you can blame this in any way on their child-rearing, Abigail sometimes worried that John's absence was a major reason for the problem, that if he had been there, there would've been a different kind of oversight.

CONAN: We're talking with Joseph Ellis about "First Family: Abigail and John Adams."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Paul's on the line, Paul calling from Iowa City.

PAUL (Caller): Good afternoon. I was wondering if there was ever any reconciliation between John Adams and James Madison.

Mr. ELLIS: They weren't that close. Madison was an accolade of Jefferson and in that sense was opposed to Adams during the Adams' presidency and headed up the Republican Party, which opposed the federalists. It's complicated because the Republican Party becomes the Democratic Party.

CONAN: Republican, Democratic Party.

Mr. ELLIS: Yeah, yeah. And - but there's not much of a relationship between Madison and Adams. In fact, Madison is - you know, periodically writes to Jefferson saying, I don't know what you see in this guy. And so - although when Madison is president and things don't go that well, like they burned the city of Washington around him, Adams defends him and says that his management of the office is impressive. And then when he retires it says he thinks he's managed the office better than anybody else, including himself.

PAUL: Surprising.

Mr. ELLIS: It is surprising. I don't know. Maybe he was also looking to be generous. But the Madison correspondence is dry.

PAUL: Yeah.

Mr. ELLIS: It reads like an insurance policy. And Madison didn't appeal to Jefferson in a personal sense, in the way I mean to Adams in the way that Jefferson did.

PAUL: Yeah. Jefferson and Madison had quite the relationship.

Mr. ELLIS: Yeah.

PAUL: I read a couple of biographies earlier this summer about Madison. And there just seems to be quite the team as compared to, like, the Washington-Adams team.

Mr. ELLIS: That's right.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

PAUL: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Getting back to the relationship with Jefferson, yes, some of it was partisanships, some of it was backstabbing, and there was some truth on both sides. Yet they did have very different outlooks, and not just political philosophies, but political philosophies as derived by their different outlooks on human nature.

Mr. ELLIS: They did. Jefferson is an idealist. And he tends to think about what should be and then behave and try to devise polices that will allow that to happen. Adams is a realist who thinks of what is and tries to - and, for example, when they are together in France, the Algerian terrorists, really, pirates, they're the modern Muslim terrorists of their day, are raiding American ships and Jefferson thinks we need to, you know, get all the European nations together and have a kind of early version of NATO and destroy these devils. And Adams says, well, that's great except you're never going to get them to agree. And by the way, we don't have a navy at all and therefore we need to pay the ransom.

And it's a - and Jefferson thinks the French Revolution is going to be a bloodless, you know, wonder, and Adams thinks it's going to be a, you know, a horrible thing and millions will die. Later in his life, when they're exchanging letters in old age, Jefferson says you were right about the French Revolution and I was wrong. And so they do represent two fundamentally different sensibilities. And so when Rush was saying that the north and south poles of the American Revolution...

CONAN: Benjamin Rush, not Mr. Limbaugh.

Mr. ELLIS: Right. Oh, excuse me. Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIS: That they also their conversation represents a dialogue about the two sides of the American Revolution that - both of which are right. Both of which have impeccable revolutionary credentials. And so the revolution isn't a set of neat principles. It's a dialogue between competing principles.

CONAN: Joseph Ellis, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. ELLIS: It's a real pleasure to be with you.

CONAN: Joseph Ellis, his new book, "First Family: Abigail and John Adams."

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.