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First Family: Abigail and John Adams.

First Family: Abigail and John Adams. By Joseph J. Ellis. New York: Vintage Books, 2010. 299 pp.

Joseph Ellis's latest book on one of the most famous marriages in American history shares much in common with his previous work. It is well written and engagingly told, the historical context is well established, and the personalities are sharply drawn. John Adams needed equilibrium: "Ballast is what I want... I totter with every breeze," he once wrote (p. 12). Ellis argues that "Abigail's chief role as John's wife was to become his ballast. She needed to create a secure domestic environment in which he felt completely comfortable, a calm place where his harangues and mood swings were treated as lovable eccentricities" (p. 12). She did precisely that, running the household; raising and educating the children; and supporting her proud, sensitive husband.

But all this came at a cost. John's driving ambition meant that he consistently chose to spend his time in the service of his country--in Philadelphia and then in Europe--and not with his family. He was a devoted but largely absent and emotionally distant father whose children vied for his attention and approval, often receiving neither. And for Abigail, John's repeated selection of public service over family life meant that she became a single parent, her husband faithful and loving yet chronically absent. For much of their marriage, their relationship consisted solely of letters. When John, distracted by his work obligations, failed to write or wrote back infrequently, it hurt Abigail deeply. John's achievements were "no longer.., adequate compensation for her abiding loneliness. From her perspective, he was simply gone;" thus, "damage had been done to their previously impregnable bond" (pp. 91, 107). Eventually, she joined John in Paris and then, London, and they rebuilt their fraying emotional connection.

Ellis also portrays the couple as demanding parents, by turns, harsh or withholding of praise and frequently distant. "Greatness was the goal" for their boys; indeed, Ellis observes, "John Quincy spent his entire childhood hearing that anything less than the highest office would be regarded as failure" (pp. 92-93). Although John Quincy was always their favorite son, he was treated as "a project almost as much as a person" (p. 129). While he flourished under such unrelenting expectations, his siblings did not, meeting with unhappiness, disaster, and tragedy instead.

Ellis argues that Abigail deserves some of the blame for John's support for the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. Furious at both the French and at domestic political opponents, and fueled, too, by a sense of paranoia, Abigail "allowed herself to get caught up in the ultra-Federalist frenzy, to develop a highly melodramatic understanding of the political forces at play" (p. 188). Relating the episode to his thesis, Ellis notes, "Instead of providing her usual gift of ballast, she helped pull John over the edge and into a free fall" from which his reputation never fully recovered (p. 188). Paradoxically, then, the "very intensity of [Abigail's] love blinded her to the damage she was doing to his political legacy" (p. 189).

After 1801, the couple returned home where their remaining years were spent trying to manage what Ellis calls "a dysfunctional family" (p. 220). "Although the magic between Abigail and John remained intact, they were in fact," he writes poignantly, "surrounded by the kind of human debris subsequently depicted in the plays of Eugene O'Neill" (p. 220).

For all its shrewd observations and well-turned phrases, however, First Family is highly derivative of so many of Ellis's other writings. He covers much the same ground in (and draws upon) his own Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (W. W. Norton, 1993), American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), His Excellency: George Washington (Knopf, 2004), and American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies in the Founding of the Republic (Knopf, 2007). While he offers periodic insights, they seem to come not so much from new research as from flesh ruminations on his own prior work. Accordingly, there is a familiar quality to much of the book, a sense that we've read something highly similar before. It has the feel of a book tossed off quickly for a popular audience that was weaned on David McCullough's book, John Adams (Simon and Schuster, 2008), and then had its collective Adams family appetite stimulated anew by the recent miniseries. For those seeking a smoothly written historical account of a fascinating marriage, Ellis offers just the thing. But, if they want to probe a bit deeper into a marriage that remains as compelling and remarkable today as ever, scholars may learn more from recent work by Edith Gelles, Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage (William Morrow, 2009); G. J. Barker-Benfield, Abigail and John Adams: The Americanization of Sensibility (University of Chicago Press, 2010); and Woody Holton, Abigail Adams (Free Press, 2009).

--Todd Estes

Oakland University
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Author:Estes, Todd
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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