Wednesday, November 23, 2011

First Family: Abigail and John Adams by Joseph Ellis

First Family: Abigail and John Adams by Joseph Ellis
320 pages
Published: 2010 by Vintage Books
Source: my mom's copy was a gift from my dad

Guest Review From My Mom:

For some time I have said that the woman I most admire, without a doubt, had to be Abigail Adams.  So it was with absolute delight that I opened my birthday present from my husband and found this small paperback book about my favorite lady and her family.

There have been many books written about the Adams.  Separate books have been written for each of them; but, of course, both play prominently in the other’s book.  My husband suggested that I might not find anything new in this book, but it was worth a try.  And I did find new things–and new ways of interpreting things I already knew.

The author sets out to relate the 1200 letters that John and Abigail shared through their lives to the events that were going on in the country and the world.  John could be a cantankerous man, but he had the foresight to realize how much history was being created, and he wanted to make sure others knew–perhaps because he was vain and wanted to be remembered most prominently.  Thus he made copies and asked Abigail to make copies of all of the letters they wrote.  In those days mail often was lost and stolen but the copies still exist.

    “The happiness of our family,” Abigail noted in 1788, “seems ever to have
    been so interwoven with the politics of our country as to be in a great degree
    dependent upon them.”

John and Abigail spent incredible amounts of time separated while John went off to forge independence, peace with England, treaties with the Dutch, and later to serve as both Vice President (a job he hated) and President of our young country.  And through almost all of this, Abigail stayed behind raising the four children and running the farm, making huge decisions including inoculation for small pox.  And they both wrote letters–lots and lots of letters.

Other Founding Fathers had good marriages and are well-remembered today.  But none of them left a legacy as rich as the Adams with all of their letters.  And Ellis does a masterful job of weaving the letters and history into delightful reading and understanding.

I came away even more fond of this “saucy” lady and her strength.  She was a woman well ahead of her time.  She was well read, educated, and extremely capable.  And how she had to suffer while her husband and young son traveled the Atlantic and lived in Europe with no quick means of communication.  She carried and lost a stillborn child alone while John did what he thought of as his duty in Philadelphia

Ellis, a Pulitzer prize-winning author, quotes freely from these letters and has documented his work very thoroughly.  At times you want to shake John and tell him to quit thinking of himself and then you see him through Abigail’s eyes and through what he is doing for the country.  The book is well crafted, an easy read, and you do not have to know a lot of history to enjoy this little book.  I believe you will come away as an Abigail fan after reading letters and notes from their courtship until they both have lived out their lives.

Thanks, Mom - another great review!


  1. I admit that I saw Ellis's name and kind of groaned a bit. I tried reading his biography of Washington several years ago and found it to be really dry. But your mom makes this one sounds really fascinating and I like the idea of the letters being intertwined throughout the book. Will have to think about this one--maybe I can find on audio!

  2. As a child I had quite the fascination with First Ladies. I remember my school library had a gorgeous book that had a brief biography on each woman as well as a portrait. So this one certainly interests me!

  3. I have always been a little standoffish about reading history, but you make it sound as if this book would be an incredible exploration! I don't know much about Adams or his saucy wife, but now you have made me curious about this book, and I want to check it out! Great review on this one today! Another book to add to the toppling pile!

  4. That was an amazing review! I find her extremely fascinating too! 1200 letters! Astounds the mind....

  5. I'm almost done with David McCullough's bio of John Adams, and I've been thinking about reading their letters, but this book sounds even better. Wonderful review, and like you, Abigail Adams is at the top of my most-admired list. Wit, grace, fire, passion, sense--a very attractive combo for any age.

  6. What a great review :) You've made a work of history sound like such fun to read, and that's not easy!

    I like the idea of learning more about the life of the women "behind" the presidents...have to add this one to the list!