Walking to School 29 on South Park Avenue for first and second grade, I’d sometimes see a yellow sheet of paper nailed to a house front or two. It was a quarantine notice for Scarlet Fever, the Big Girl neighbor who walked me to school, and knew how to read, told me.
Tonsillitis, then bronchitis for six weeks already had put kindergarten out of the question for me. The war was on, and our doctor was glad to provide the latest medicine, some sulfa pills. Antibiotics? They were being tested on the battlefield but years away from sick civilians. Polio was rife, with no cure or prevention.
These recollections can seem light years away from the way we live today, let alone life during Revolutionary times, Abigail Adams’ lifetime.
The differences go beyond medicine and technology. What little girl today has a freshly laundered handkerchief pinned to her dress every school day? School 29 required it. What little girl today wears a dress?
“Dear Abigail” goes beyond the minuets and petticoats to the harsher realities of life as Adams lived it and described it in letters to her sisters, husband and just about everyone else she knew. Diane Jacobs conveys how it must have felt, even how it smelled.
While John Adams was away at a Continental Congress, one family member after another fell ill with dysentery, which often was fatal, leaving Abigail to “douse the house with hot vinegar night and day” against the stench.
A bit later, smallpox spread through Boston, and the Adams clan got inoculated against it. There’s a short but detailed description of the inoculation options Abigail considered before choosing one. Sailing to England after the war, Abigail managed to evict the ship’s cook and did her own cooking on board, thereby cutting short a bout of “seasickness.”
In the background, history is made, day by day.
We learn how a battle scheme defeated the British at Dorchester Heights, only to be turned against the revolutionaries later. The prelude to rebellion, battle-by-battle accounts of the war, the details of political infighting among Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and others over several decades – all is presented in a clear enough way for most readers to grasp, while the letters go into detail about daily life.
Jacobs backs up every conversation, every event. Her bibliography covers four pages and provides an introduction to more than 30 pages of footnotes.
The narrative never stalls. The book provides a conversational account of the era, and can be enjoyed at that level, with reference to the notes for readers wanting to pursue a specific issue.
Back during the 1970s, when the push was on to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, material was scarce about the push for women’s rights in Colonial America and in England before that. Jacobs fills that gap nicely. She works in a wealth of information among the chatty letters.
Abigail Adams’ famous letter asking her husband to “remember the ladies” as he and his colleagues constructed a government for the new nation was one of the few sources available then. It demonstrated that even though women in the New World had only half the literacy rate of men, they still were able to contribute ideas needed to build the nation.
It also held Abigail Adams up as a model of courage, able to articulate democratic ideas even though she, as a woman, was forbidden to hold office, control property or even to vote.
Death and disease were a constant. One of her daughters died before reaching her first birthday; another was stillborn.
Even though tragedy seemed a normal part of ordinary life, like the yellow quarantine posts a century and a half later, it was not routine. Years passed before Abigail could even speak about her grief over little Susanna’s death.
Life was not entirely bleak, though. During a long dry spell when John Adams was overseas and seldom wrote home, Abigail struck up a flirtatious friendship via letters to a married schoolteacher but later recanted any inappropriate attachment the letters may have implied.
After the war, she and John lived in a mansion in Paris for a while, riding with Thomas Jefferson in his handwrought carriage and wheeling and dealing with the French to keep the balance of power away from England.
The book is best read a chapter or so at a time, there is so much material to digest and so much vivid description to enjoy.
Stephanie Shapiro is a former News writer and editor.
The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters
By Diane Jacobs
512 pages, $28