Friday, June 17, 2011

Abigail Adams by Woody Holton (2009)

My lovely aunt Charlotte lent me her copy of Woody Holton's recent biography of our second First Lady, Abigail Adams (2009).

I will be the first to admit that my geographical knowledge of New England and my ready knowledge about the Revolution is a little muddied. In fact, I always thought pre-Civil War US history was the most boring of the required history classes in high school and college. Sneaking up on the Boston Tea Party, the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the Declaration of Independence, George Washington, the Constitution and all that through the lens of Abigail Adams' life was a nice way to ingest some of the timelines and politics that usually zip right past me.

Abigail was the daughter of a Congregationalist minister in Weymouth, Massachusetts, not far from Boston. As a young woman she met the young lawyer John Adams, who lived in Braintree, Massachusetts, a nearby town. He was initially put off by her outspoken and "giddy" nature, but later praised her for her being "saucy." And throughout their long marriage, the revolution, and John's political career, Abigail never lost the saucyness that she was known for.

Because John was frequently sent to political posts that kept him away from Abigail for months (or years) at a time, the two had a deep and extensive correspondence. There is, in fact, more surviving documentary evidence of Abigail Adams than almost any other 18th century American woman. And that correspondence shows a woman who never shied from decrying the lack of educational opportunities for women; shrewdly invested money that she managed to set aside as her own, often against the wishes of John (even though by law all her property and money belonged to her husband); and closely followed and offered her strong opinion on all the politics of the day.

This was actually a nice companion to World Enough and Time, since it pre-dates and then overlaps with the action of that novel. Of course, the furthest south Abigail goes most of the time is New York (with a few months in the newly constructed White House as its first occupant), and she holds a strong New England prejudice against the southern states (and the French, the English, blacks, foreigners, Catholics, Calvinists, the very rich, and the poor -- with exceptions made in all categories for people she knows personally).

This book is nicely researched and well written. A family tree might have been a nice addition, since the Adams family reproduces widely and everyone seems to have the same names. Holton pushes the feminist angle pretty strongly (Adams is well known for her "Remember the Ladies!" letter to her husband), and while Adams certainly displayed a lifelong interest in the rights and education of women, I think he sometimes holds her relationship with John up as more unusually egalitarian than it really was. Most of all, you get a real sense for the every day life of the period -- the problems that distance (even what now seems like a small distance) put on communication; the parallels between the federalists / anti-federalists and today's politicians; the economy crippling speculation and real estate bubbles after the war; and a truly moving exchange when Abigail's daughter finds a lump in her breast and has to be convinced to get a mastectomy. I'm very glad I had a chance to read this book.

[And if you'd like a taste of Abigail's "saucy" and extensive correspondence with her husband, you are in luck because the Massachusetts Historical Society has put 1160 of them online. And yesterday, while I was finishing this book, I saw a link to this news story of a newly uncovered letter from Abigail!]

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