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Abigail Adams, the first to be one president’s wife and the mother of another

Abigail Adams Letters

Edited by Edith Gelles

Library of America

1180 pages, $40

By Edward Cuddihy

Over the past two years, the Library of America has quietly, almost inconspicuously, published some of the most remarkable and historically significant writings which speak to the very fabric of the founding of our nation.

A year ago, the Library of America compiled the definitive two-volume pamphlet debate over the future of England’s American colonies. Pamphlet writers were the 18th Century equivalent of today’s 24/7 advocacy journalists. Then the Library completed the three-volume set of the writing of John Adams, the nation’s second president.

Most recently, the Library published 950 pages of the collected letters of Abigail Adams, the outspoken and often ornery wife of one President and mother of another.

In all, the volume contains 430 missives penned by this prolific, intelligent and strong-willed New Englander. Some are a few paragraphs long. Others run nearly 3,000 words. The letters span a lifetime, 55 years from 1763, when she was a loyal but decidedly dissatisfied subject of the British Crown, to 1818, when the new nation she championed stretched from her Massachusetts homestead to the base of the Rockies.

In this single lifetime, the nation had grown so large its leaders, still struggling to journey the rutted roads between Philadelphia and the new Federal City – a quagmire in the forest soon to be named Washington – could only imagine its size and dream of the depth of its influence in future world affairs.

What makes the letters of Abigail Adams stand out from the writings of her lawyerly husband and the works of the Revolutionary pamphleteers is her unguarded and free-spirited prose. She mixed politics and social commentary with family finances and neighborly gossip without stopping for a breath.

Abigail’s letters are accessible and homespun, a cacophony of conflicting thoughts on her life and times. Only Abigail Adams could praise Thomas Jefferson as a dear friend at one moment and refer to him as the “infidel president” at another.

But now let’s be clear: Before you run out and purchase the Abigail collection, be forewarned these are not stories about, or tales reconstructed from her letters. They are the letters, replete with the 18th Century’s disregard for standardized spelling and syntax, antiquated words, and references to little-known relatives and friends.

This is a volume suited for the serious student of American history or the kind of person who enjoys old newspaper front pages, or photo albums of famous families without knowing most of the people pictured.

Once you cut through the polite and flowery prose of a sophisticated woman who lived in the age of Mozart and Beethoven, you are treated to a truly singular glimpse into New England society, husbandry and commerce. It is like peering through a magic periscope into another age.

The work is edited by Edith Gelles, a Stanford University professor emeritus and expert on the Adams family. It includes Gelles’s extensive endnotes, short biographical sketches, and a chronology to help us make sense of the letters. But Abigail wasn’t writing for us. She didn’t fill in the historical blanks, much like we don’t when we refer to our recent Presidents simply as “Bill” or “Forty-three.”

Gelles retained the misspellings and outdated vocabulary to preserve this treasure trove in its original form for future generations of researchers.

For those unfamiliar with the book’s publisher, Library of America is a nearly 50-year-old non-profit publishing venture under the direction of a board of scholars, historians, authors and philanthropists, dedicated to publishing American works that otherwise would not be economically viable. Many of its volumes, like the Abigail Adams Letters, are underwritten by private gifts.

Even though few would want to read the Abigail Adams letters from beginning to end like a mystery story, there are wide areas of interest almost hidden in these pages.

For example, the young Abigail, who recognizes her monarch George III is hopelessly out of touch with his American colonies, hopes against hope that the bonds of blood, language and commerce will “not be snapped asunder” by the “horrors of a civil war [that are] threatening us on the one hand and the chains of slavery ready forged for us on the other.”

After Lexington and Concord, she writes: “The die is cast. [The king’s] words will stain with everlasting infamy the reign of George the 3.”

Her letters to her sister and cousin, and later to her daughter, are chatty and unassuming. On meeting George Washington, a year before the Declaration of Independence, she writes of his “dignity with ease ... the gentleman and soldier agreeably blended in him.”

Her eye for politics was strong and true. She wonders how the Virginia gentry (slaveholders) could favor personal liberty “when they deprive their fellow creatures of theirs.”

And to her husband at the Continental Congress: “Remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors [have been].” And “do not put such unlimited power in the hands of the husbands.”

Then in 1784, when she crossed the Atlantic to join her husband and son, the reader feels the anguish of a well-bred New Englander suffering the indignity of seasickness in less than private quarters for the better part of four weeks in a sailing vessel she considered dirt-encrusted.

Following her diplomat husband to France, she writes of the poverty of the French countryside, compared to England or even New England. And “Paris is a horrid dirty city.”

After being snubbed by the English aristocracy, the writes: “I shall never have much society with these kind of people.” And when she and her husband are presented to the English Court, her sarcasm is cutting: “I never felt myself in a more contemptible situation than when I stood four hours together for a gracious smile from Majesty.”

Abigail’s letters are free-flowing and spontaneous. Unlike her husband’s and the letters of many national leaders since, her letters were not written to be published, certainly not the acerbic letters she wrote during her four years as first lady.

The income required to keep the homestead afloat while her husband helped forge a new nation often was foremost in her thoughts. She complained to family and friends of the federal government’s miserly remuneration. She sought her husband’s advice on what to do with a barrel of beer received as payment of a debt, and asked him when to spread the manure on the fields.

Periodically, the reader needs to pinch herself as a reminder this is not fiction, not the literary reconstruction of a long-gone era. No, these are the very real letters of a woman who is plugged into world events and who seems to have no scruples about what she writes in private to her family.

If you can struggle through the spelling, the syntax and the innumerable undefined third parties and references in these letters, the rewards are great.

If you are familiar enough with the bare-bones history of the period, Abigail Adams’s letters are the sounds, the colors, the smells and the personal emotions that flesh out the otherwise drab sentences of so much Early American history.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.