20 July 2011

For Love and Country: John and Abigail Adams and the United States of America, part 2


“Your Country is not yet, quite Secure enough, to excuse your Retreat to the Delights of domestic Life.  Yet, for the Soul of me, when I attend to my own Feelings, I cannot blame you.”

--John Adams to Thomas Jefferson,  May 26, 1777 (Cappon, I. 6)

To better understand the Adamses and their deep commitment to each other and their country, a contrast can be drawn between them and their contemporaries.  Men such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, served their country in a political sense during and immediately following the Revolutionary War. *  Though they shared a sense of patriotism equal to John and Abigail Adams, it is impossible to find the same patriotic commitment that the Adamses shared among their contemporaries.  Many of their contemporaries married to consolidate their positions in society, to acquire property or to advance themselves socially (Wood 28).  John and Abigail married out of the love and respect they had for each other.

If any Revolutionary War era couple comes close to John and Abigail Adams, it is the Washingtons.  George Washington married Martha Custis, who was a rich widow.  Martha Washington often followed George Washington during the Revolutionary War, putting herself in danger while doing what she could to help the soldiers (Smith, Presidents 10).  She, however, did not have to spend years at a time away from George as Abigail did from John.  Another difference is that John Adams saw his wife as an equal (as much as a woman could be a man’s equal in that time), speaking and writing to her about politics and other intellectual ideas, among other items.  Martha, on the other hand, did not participate in political or intellectual conversations with George Washington (Smith, Presidents 10).

Another contemporary, Thomas Jefferson, was married to Martha Wayles Skelton, a rich widow in 1772.  When Martha was weak (especially after child birth), Jefferson would leave or decline political duties assigned to him in order to be with his wife.  John Adams never left his posts, even when Abigail or another family member was sick.  John wrote, in 1775, “If I should hear more disagreable Advices from you I shall certainly come home, for I cannot leave you, in such Affliction[. . .]unless there was an absolute Necessity of my staying here, to do a Duty to the Public” (Butterfield, I. 291).  Abigail, their children and Abigail’s mother were all sick, as were many others in town around her.  Abigail’s mother would die; still John would not come home, despite what he wrote.   Jefferson was extremely distraught at his wife’s passing in 1782.  He spent her final months at her bedside, and after she died he spent three weeks in his room and five months further without communicating with anyone (Padover 111).  He, unlike Adams, was willing to forgo public duty for private matters.

Benjamin Franklin married Deborah Read, but it was more of a pragmatic arrangement.  In fact, historian Gordon Wood suggests that the real reason Franklin married Deborah may have been because Franklin had a son from another woman and Deborah would raise him (40).  Franklin spent much of his marriage (fifteen of the last seventeen years) in Europe and was especially fond of the women of Paris, and they of him.  Franklin’s friend in England, William Strahan, even wrote to Deborah to try to persuade her to join Ben in Europe, even going so far as to allude to him possibly being unfaithful (Isaacson 178-179).  Deborah still would not leave America.  Franklin’s letters to Deborah have little intellectual or emotional content, being mostly concerned with business matters at home, while his letters to women friends show much more playfulness, emotion and intellect (Isaacson 180). 

The other leading couples of the time may have been patriotic and committed to each other, but no couple of the time displayed the level of commitment to both family and country as did the Adamses.

* Other leading couples of the period, such as James and Dolley Madison and James and Elizabeth Monroe, took part in Revolutionary events, but were not married until after the Revolution had ended.  During the Revolutionary War, James Madison served in the legislature of the state of Virginia (1776-1779).  He was a delegate to the Continental Congress from 1780 to 1783, as the war was coming to a close.  At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Madison drafted the basis of what was to become the Constitution that the United States has today.  It was not until 1794 that he married Dolley Payne Todd.  James Monroe joined the military as a sixteen year old and saw action as a soldier during the Revolutionary War.  He fought in numerous battles and was seriously wounded at the Battle of Trenton.  In 1780, he studied law under Thomas Jefferson, and from 1782 onward, he served in government positions.  In 1786, three years after the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the Revolution, he married Elizabeth Kortright.

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