I never had an answer to the question that gets sent around in e-mail every now and again. You know the one - "if you could choose any person from history to talk to for an hour, who would it be?" Everybody wants to talk to Buddha, Jesus or JFK and I've no idea what I would ask any of those people. However, after reading Woody Holton's biography of Abigail Adams, I want to meet her. And not just for an hour, either.
Abigail Adams: A Life by Woody Holton is a book that tells the story of Abigail, her family and friends and the beginnings of the United States. It does so in a remarkable way, telling the story through quotes from the letters written by Abigail, as well as the correspondence she received from others. These quotes are strung together by the connecting thread of Holton interspersing explanations about the era's social mores, politics, literature, religions, etc., and it all comes together in a meticulous and beautiful painting of a life.
Because so much of the book is composed by excerpts from letters, the voices of the people quoted come clearly through to the reader and it felt as if I was having a visit in the past. I've always wanted to be able to travel back in time to see what it was like to live in different eras and Holton gave me that gift. He's a terrific writer, bringing the subject to life in a way that can only be done by someone who has been obsessed about it for years and it's to our benefit. I found a lecture about Abigail Adams by Holton on YouTube - haven't had a chance to check it out yet, but if it's half as good as the book, it's time well spent.
The book starts and ends with discussions of Abigail's will, one in which she distributed her own property and monies to female members of her family. This was unheard of at the time, as married women were under coverture, meaning that when a woman married, her legal rights were subsumed by husband. In other words, her property became his property. That Abigail's will was followed was therefore an indication of her husband, John Adams, allowing it to be so. The beginning of the books starts with the question of what happened in Abigail's life that allowed her to amass personal property, as well as the question of what happened in her and John's marriage that led to him treating her will as a legal document.
Abigail was a prolific letter writer - she and John exchanged over 1200 letters - and she wrote about personal matters, as well as politics and finance. In the beginning of the book, there are many references to Abigail's famous "remember the ladies" letter of 1776 in which she encourages the husband to remember the plight of women when he was involved in writing the U.S. Constitution. However, even after that letter, Abigail continued to be aware of women's issues and in many ways continue to encourage her acquaintances and friends to include women as partners in dialogue. Abigail is also shown to be passionate about politics and possessing a rather brilliant head for money and business - much of the family's financial comfort can be attributed to Abigail's astute investments.
The letters between Abigail and John show a marriage based in a lifelong deep love and mutual admiration. They seem to be people who would have a very lively relationship, one punctuated by intense debate, partnership and passion. A while back, I read an article in the New York Times Magazine that referred to Abigail Adams is being "querulous" and I still wonder at that. Abigail is clearly a woman of strong opinions and she's not afraid to share them, sometimes having a tendency to lecture. In many of her letters to John, she did complain about his extended absences, but to be honest, if I was separated from my love and my partner for weeks, months and even years at a time, I think I might have opinions about that, too. The letters from her later years at times get a bit crotchety, but I think it's allowed of older women (personally, I'm saving up for my old age).
Holton also gave me the gift of knowing much more about 18th-century America then I did before. The book covers everything from the philosophy of sensibility and how it affected personal relationships to the ins and outs of investing during the war for independence. I learned that back then, people often wrote drafts of their letters, that children, especially boys, were shuffled around to family and friends for education and sometimes shipped halfway across the world on their own, being put in the care of a slightly older slave or an acquaintance of their parents. And I could go on - this is one of those books that you want to talk about endlessly
Which is why I'm glad I came upon the book club idea. What did you think of Abigail Adams, both the book and the person?