- Historic Sites
The courtship and fifty-four-year marriage of John and Abigail Adams was, despite separation and war and tragedy, a moving and highly literate love feast between two
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
Abigail agreed. For she recognized in her outwardly cold and stolid fiancé “a Heart equally warm with my own, and full as susceptible of the Tendcrest impressions. …” She further believed that they were “cast in the same mould,” his of a harder mettle, perhaps, since she had been unable to discover “whether they have both an eaquil quantity of Steel.” Both were passionate Puritans. Suffering, Abigail was convinced, was God’s punishment for sins such as slavcholding. And John, although he had formally renounced the Calvinist creed, was still in the grip of its theology. “He that violates the law in any one instance is guilty of all,” he wrote, foreshadowing his later inability to appreciate the virtues of Alexander Hamilton.
Victims of snobbery, both also practiced it. John disliked most people and could not even bear the smell of the children he once taught in a country school. But “Love sweeiens Life,” he admitted; “I begin to find that an increasing Affection for a certain Lady, (you know who my Dear) quickens my Affections for every Body Else, that does not deserve my Hatred.” And although Abigail once squelched a British peer with the assertion that “In our country … merit, not title, gives a man pre-eminence,” she coidd write scathingly about her younger sister Betsy’s choice of a small-town clergyman as a source of “mortification,” so inferior was he in every way to John. (John favored the match.)
On occasion, however, John was able to convert this besetting New England sin of criticalness into loving advantage. In one letter early in their courtship, John called for kisses due from “Miss Adorable,” for he had “given two or three Millions at least, when one has been received, and of Consequence the Account between us is immensely in favour of yours”; then later he chided his “Diana” upon her need “to conquer your Appetites and Passions.” While still immured with the smallpox, he entertained himself at her request by enumerating a charming tongue-in-cheek “Catalogue of your Faults, Imperfections, Defects, or whatever you please to call them”: You attend to cards, “that noble and elegant Diversion … with a very uncourtly, and indifferent, Air”; your country upbringing has apparently encouraged an innate modesty “that enkindles Blushes forsooth at every Violation of Decency, in Company, and lays a most insupportable Constraint on the freedom of Behavior”; you neither sing nor play a musical instrument; you are what “is commonly called Parrot-toed,” and are ruining your health by “sitting with the Leggs across”; worst of all, your head hangs “like a Bulrush.” “This Fault,” he solemnly intoned, “is the Effect and Consequence of another, still more inexcusable in a Lady. I mean an Habit of Reading, Writing and Thinking. But both the Cause and the Effect ought to be repented and amended as soon as possible.”
Abigail was more than equal to her lover’s jesting compliment. “I thank you for your Catalogue, but must confess I was so hardned as to read over most of my Faults with as much pleasure, as an other person would have read their perfections. And Lysander must excuse me if I still persist in some of them, at least till I am convinced that an alteration would contribute to his happiness.” He would not have to complain twice about her singing, “nor should you have had occasion for it now, if I had not a voice harsh as the screech of a peacock.” She would lift her head, not with any hopes of appearing beautiful, but “to appear agreeable in the Eyes of Lysander.” She would also refrain from sitting incorrectly, though she hardly considered it unhealthy and, she retorted, “you know I think that a gentleman has no business to concern himself about the Leggs of a Lady.” The direction of her toes, she added tartly, “can be cured only by a Dancing School.”
The golden light of autumn was shimmering through Massachusetts, and maple leaves blazed red against the white clapboard walls of the Old First Church in Weymouth on October 25, 1764, when Abigail Smith and John Adams became man and wife. Roguishly, her father read the text for the marriage sermon: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil.”
They settled down in a stark saltbox house in Braintree to the normal domestic life of any young couple. John’s world was a forty-mile law circuit; Abigail churned and baked and spun before the great brick cavern of the kitchen fireplace. Almost from the first, she was knitting baby clothes. Their daughter Abigail was born the following July 14, and three sons arrived within the next seven years; a second daughter died in 1770. “But what shall we do with this young Fry?” John mused in 1767. “In a little while Johnny [John Quincy] must go to Colledge, and Nabby must have fine Cloaths, aye … and there must be dancing Schools and Boarding Schools … and they wil better not have been born you know than not have polite Educations.”
Success he was winning, far beyond the expectations of Abigail’s family, although not of Abigail herself. His Essay on Canon and Feudal Law , more remarkable as propaganda than as history, with its summary of the rights of a colony that might split away, was even published in England and talked about there. Forty Massachusetts towns adopted his instructions on the hated Stamp Act. He was so prosperous that they were able to leave the farm and move into a stately white house on Cambridge’s Brattle Square.