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Joseph Ellis on "First Family" and the love story of John and Abigail Adams

The likes of Abigail and John Adams will never come again, says Ellis.

By Nora Dunne / November 12, 2010

First Family: Abigail & John Adams By Joseph Ellis Knopf 320 pp., $27.95

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We’ll never know as much about Michelle and Barack Obama as we do about Abigail and John Adams.

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Though the current US president and first lady live in a world of up-to-the-second news distribution, with paparazzi and over-sharing in abundance everywhere, the public has no keyhole to the inner workings of the couple’s marriage (nor should we).

We do, however, for the Adams’, in the form of roughly 1,200 preserved letters between the two.

In his most recent feat, “First Family: Abigail & John Adams,” distinguished historian Joseph Ellis gives readers an intimate look at one of America’s greatest partnerships, based on those letters.

Ellis has penned several notable histories, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Founding Brothers” and “American Creation” – both books which also feature John Adams. However, at a talk sponsored by the Massachusetts Historical Society at Boston-area Brookline Booksmith last week, Ellis named "First Family," over all of his others, his favorite to write.

“Early in the process I realized that I had a great story, both a love story – which I’d never written before – and a story of the making of American history, all rolled into one,” he said.

The likes of Abigail and John will never come again, says Ellis.

“Partly because of the literary quality of their letters, their intellectual and emotional honesty, [and] partly because we’re not going to have letters,” he explained.

Historians and readers are lucky (though the Adams children were not so much) that the husband and wife were apart so often. It left ample opportunity to write the revealing letters. When President Obama is away, he may jot a quick e-mail to Michelle, but more than likely he speaks to her on the phone. Back in the 18th century, couples had no choice but to pull out a pen and paper.

We’re also lucky that the Adams saved their correspondence. Why did they?

“John would say ‘We’re living through a historic time. For our family, our descendants, we need to keep a record,’” said Ellis. “He meant us. He meant posterity. He also believed that the letters would be his ticket to immortality.”

Via letter, the couple discussed details of their relationship and family, and also public affairs. In Abigail’s famous “Remember the Ladies” letter, she urges John to consider women’s rights in his political proceedings. Though she was uneducated, Abigail was an avid reader and artful writer, and had a personality John thought intoxicatingly “saucy.”

During the Adams’ time, letters took a long time to travel. When John was in Philadelphia and Abigail home in Braintree, Mass., it took two weeks for a letter to go from one to the other. That made it difficult for the couple to communicate time sensitive news, pregnancy for example.

Still, Abigail and John relied on those letters, and so do historians today, for a window into a marriage and a time period.

Nora Dunne is a Monitor contributor.

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