Thursday, February 10, 2011

Abigail & John

I intended to write about John Adams, and specifically what he might think about the political climate in the United States today.

I suspect he would be exasperated by the intrusions of big government into the lives of its citizens, but he would be exhilarated by the protests against it. He believed that every generation should have to fight for its survival.

But on the way to that analysis I was sidetracked again by the relationship between him and his "dearest friend," his wife, Abigail.

David McCullough, in his biography of Adams, wrote, "His marriage to Abigail Smith was the most important decision of John Adam's life...She was in all respects his equal..(a) beneficial, steadying influence."

I think immediately of that common bit of wisdom, "Behind every successful man is a woman." (In John Adams' case I discount Groucho Marx's observation, "Behind every successful man is a woman, and behind her is his wife.")

Not only does the testimony of family and friends link these two souls in an extraordinary relationship, there is also the treasury of letters which John and Abigail exchanged while he was urging independency in Philadelphia and negotiating aid and peace in Europe.

Perhaps the best known exchange between the two of them occurred in April of 1776 when Abigail, responding to John's hope for a congressional declaration of independence from Great Britain, wrote to him in Philadelphia:

"I long to hear that you have declared an 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."

In response, John teasingly replied, "As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bands of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient...But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe, more numerous and powerful than all the rest, were grown discontented. This is rather too coarse a compliment, but you are so saucy, I won't blot it out. Depend on it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems...(though) in practice, you know we are the subjects."

The playful give-and-take between them, the breadth of their discussions and interests, their tokens of affection and bold proclamations of love are unparalleled in the correspondence of other 18th century Americans.

She commented in 1777 on the poor behavior of some of the troops from Massachusetts: "The spirit of venality you mention is the most dreadful and alarming enemy America has to oppose. It is as rapacious and insatiable as the grave. We are in the "faece Romuli non republica Platonis." This predominant avarice will ruin America..."

Abigail quotes Latin in a letter to her husband! (The phrase means, "We have the dregs of Romulus, not the republic of Plato.") She is clearly well-educated. Who uses such descriptions as rapacious and insatiable?

She confirmed in November of 1775 how much she missed him: "Winter makes its approaches fast. I hope I shall not be obliged to spend it without my dearest friend...I have been like a nun in a cloister, ever since you went away..."

Abigail's death in 1818 at age 74, after 54 years of marriage to her dearest friend, was more than troubling to John, but he consoled himself with the realization that their separation could not be as long as the many separations they had endured during his public career.

In response to Thomas Jefferson's letter of condolence, Adams wrote, "I believe in God and in his wisdom and benevolence, and I cannot conceive that such a Being could make such a species as the human merely to live and die on this earth. If I did not believe in a future state, I should believe in no God."

I had intended to speculate about John Adam's reactions to our country's state of affairs today, but I got sidetracked --again-- by the extraordinary story of the relationship between John and Abigail Adams more than 200 hundred years ago.

That one of our nation's founding fathers, known for his irascible and stubborn ways, could write to his intended spouse that he saw her in his dreams "with her fair Complexion, her Crimson Blushes and her million Charms and Graces" forces me to re-evaluate the man and respect him all the more.

That one of our nation's founding mothers should urge the founding fathers to "remember the ladies" makes me re-evaluate the role of women in the establishment of this new nation and admire her all the more.

"For God and country" might well summarize the lives of John and Abigail Adams, though I might have to add "for my dearest friend" as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment