20 July 2011

For Love and Country: John and Abigail Adams and the United States of America, part 1

The following posts are taken from research done for my graduate thesis in 2007.  In this thirteen-part series I used primarily the letters written between John and Abigail to demonstrate how the Adamses reconciled their intense love for each other with the love they had for their country.

“Letter-Writing is, to me, the most agreable Amusement I can find: and Writing  to you the most entertaining and Agreable of all Letter-Writing.”

--John Adams to Abigail Adams,  April 12, 1764 (Butterfield, I. 24)

The love that John and Abigail Adams shared was boundless and has since become celebrated, but that love for each other was intricately woven with the love each spouse had for his or her country.  The letters they exchanged with each other in the time that John was away, riding the court circuit in New England, attending meetings of Congress in Philadelphia, on diplomatic missions in Europe, and while he was Vice President and President, provide an insight into the two intense loves that they both maintained throughout their lives. It was never thought that John was abandoning his marriage or family.  Rather, his time away in the service of his country was viewed as a sacrifice that the family had to make.  Their letters reveal the deep and passionate love between John and Abigail as well as the love they had for their country. 

Many writers have depicted John as a man searching for fame and power, but there is more to him than that.  That is John Adams on the surface and in his public life.  Beneath this, however, is someone entirely different.  He was a caring man who deeply loved his wife, his family and his country.  In his day, John was recognized for the love he shared with his wife as well as his love for his country.  Recent scholarship, however, has emphasized only one aspect of John.  This representation does a disservice to John Adams, as the entire individual is not revealed.

Although love is a difficult thing to define, most people know love when they see it.  In reading the letters that John and Abigail wrote to each other as well as ones they wrote to their friends and contemporaries, the intense love they had for each other and for the country come out in unmistakable fashion.  Since love is difficult to measure, a better word to use may be commitment.  In this text, the words will be used interchangeably.  Love does not need to be quantified though in order to see that these two different loves are of equal importance to both John and Abigail.  Their letters bear this out. 

A comparison with some of their contemporaries will help to better understand the unique love shared between John and Abigail and the commitment they had to their country.  No other leading couple of the Revolutionary period carries such a claim.  The Adamses had an acquaintance and courtship of five years before marrying, but the following year the America Colonies would begin their break from Great Britain, and John would be a major player in the action.  Over the next ten years, John would take an ever-growing role in Colonial attempts to reconcile with Great Britain.  His role would take him ever further from his home and from Abigail.  The war began while John was in Philadelphia to debate actions the Colonies could take.  Soon, John was helping to draft a document that would declare the Colonies free of British rule.

The new freedom would take John even further from home than before.  Before 1777, the farthest John had been from his home in Massachusetts was Philadelphia, a few days coach ride from home.  In 1777, John made a voyage to Europe to serve his country there as a representative of the government, and was to see home only once in the next 10 years.  He and Abigail would see each other for only about three months over the seven years between 1777 and 1784, before Abigail would spend four years with John in Europe.  They arrived home in 1788, but less than a year later, John was elected the first Vice President of the United States under the newly approved Constitution.  After serving eight years in that capacity, John was elected second President of the United States.  Abigail spent some of those years traveling with John, but other years she would simply stay home to conserve money or because she was ill.  In 1801, John found out he had been defeated by his old friend Thomas Jefferson* for the Presidency of the United States.  He traveled home to Abigail, where they enjoyed the next 17 years together and with family until Abigail’s death in 1818.  John lived until 1826, never forgetting the one he loved or all he had done for his country.

* John Adams and Thomas Jefferson met at the Continental Congress and were good friends through the war, with the Adamses even watching Jefferson’s daughter for some time in Europe.  When John became Vice President, his view of the Constitution was different Jefferson’s view.  It is from this time that the Adams-Jefferson rivalry begins.  It continued as Adams defeated Jefferson by a margin of three electoral votes to become the second President of the United States.  Four years later, Jefferson defeated Adams.  Jefferson was upset at some last minute judiciary appointments that John Adams (legally) made before leaving office, further fanning the flames.   John left the city of Washington in the early morning hours on Jefferson’s inauguration day.  After Jefferson served two terms as President, he retired to Monticello.  A mutual friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, attempted to mend the friendship sometime around 1809.  With both men out of public life, their correspondence renewed and their friendship grew again.

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