Sunday, May 13, 2018

Love Letters Sustained Abigail and John Adams

An original letter from John Adams to his future wife Abigail
Elise Amendola/AP

“Dear Miss Adorable,” John Adams wrote in one of his first letters to Abigail, and so began one of the great romances of our American history. John Adams was twenty-four years old when he met the oh-so-young Abigail Smith. She was just fifteen and he was not particularly impressed with her in the beginning. “Not fond, not frank, not candid,” was his assessment of the young girl.

But over the next three years she matured, and he began to view her in a different light. And when love finally bloomed, it burst into full blush. “I hereby order you to give him, as many Kisses, and as many Hours of your Company after 9 O Clock as he shall please to Demand ...”

Portrait of John Adams - 1766
Portrait of Abigail Adams - 1766
This was a love that could stand the test of time and distance. John served in Europe in the Netherlands, France, and Britain from 1774 to 1784 as an envoy for the fledgling United States. Kindred spirits, the Adams love was sustained by their affection and intimacy.

Even though Abigail’s formal education was sadly lacking, she was a voracious reader and thus understood John’s important work representing the young government. While John roamed the world for a great cause, Abigail astutely ran their household and raised their five children, one of whom would later become president following in the footsteps of his father.

In a time when we can communicate with almost anyone on the planet instantly, it is almost impossible to understand how two people could write 1,160 letters when each took about six weeks to cross the ocean. Sometimes those letters were lost and never delivered at all. When decisions had to be made regarding the children, or when something written in a letter caused consternation, it was a slow response indeed. Abigail was John’s confidante, supporter, best friend, and most loyal critic.

John Adams Jr., American statesman and Founding Father, served
 as the first Vice President and second President of the United States.

Later, when he returned home and they could have taken up life on their Massachusetts farm, John accepted the presidency and became America’s second president. Abigail then stepped into her role as first lady—even before the term “first lady” was used—and began to define the job. It was she who set up much of the protocol still observed today. She entertained dignitaries at dinner. She conducted a great Fourth of July party to which everyone in the area was invited. But most importantly, she was a listening ear to her husband, offering wise advice and counsel.

Why did this love relationship work so well? Probably most of all because of the respect each had for the other. John realized that what they had written to each other over many years could stand as a primer on successful marriage. He had all the letters in his possession bound in a leather binder, and he advised Abigail to do the same. The marriage also survived because it was without an exit clause. They were in it together for the duration.

Those letters and the information and strength of character they portray are the fruit of many lonely years spent away from each other. It was not fun, and it was not easy, but both buckled down to whatever task presented itself and endured. Was there never a blip in their relationship? Oh, yes. John wrote to Abigail and extolled the French ladies. He said they were “handsome, and … exceedingly brilliant.”

That didn’t fly well with Abigail. In a slow-motion quarrel, she fired back at him. “How much female Education is neglected … tho I acknowled it my happiness to be connected with a person of a more generous mind and liberal sentiments.” Ouch! But quarrels and disputes didn’t last long, and they were soon back addressing each other as “My Dearest Friend.”

Equal Franchise Society reproduces extract from famous Abigail Adams
 letter of March 31, 1776, in which she warns John to “Remember the Ladies.”
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

Abigail was a very forward-thinking woman, and 150 years before the House of Representatives voted to pass the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, she wrote, “I long to hear that you have declared on independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” We can only imagine what John must have thought when that letter arrived.

After one term in office, John was defeated in his second run for the presidency in 1800. He decided the time had come to retire. In one of his last letters, he wrote to Abigail that “It is fit and proper that you and I should retire together and not one before the other.” The letters ceased soon afterward because these two devoted and loving people were at last together and there was no longer a need for written communication.

Abigail summed up the marriage relationship well: “And there is a tye more binding than Humanity, and stronger than Friendship.” True, Abigail. True indeed.


  1. I love this post! Thanks for bringing this lovely story to light!

  2. Great post Barbara!

    I have every letter my dear husband wrote to me the 4 years he was in the Navy! They are precious to me. That was in 1970-1974 and we didn't have all the instant communication available like it is today.

  3. Fascinating post. I can't imagine over 1100 letters, much less the delay in between them. Thank you for writing it.

  4. Great post, Barbara. Thank you for sharing this about Abigail and John Adams.

  5. I really enjoyed this post, Barbara. As convenient as it is to send my husband a text, I wonder if we are
    missing something more in not using old-fashione written correspondence! Thanks for sharing John
    and Abigail Adams' story.

  6. Thank you for sharing your very interesting post. I thoroughly enjoyed it.