Day 139: Abigail Adams

Cover for Abigail AdamsI think Abigail Adams suffered from the fact that I had recently read David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, and Woody Holton’s book covers a lot of the same ground. This fact made me ponder a bit about how much a woman’s history is often treated as an echo of her famous husband’s. I am sure that not as much information is available about Abigail as there is about John, especially before they married, but I felt like these two books didn’t need to cover so much of the same territory.

The picture that emerges of Abigail Adams is of a well-meaning but bossy woman of strong views. Her feistiness had two sides. I know that people are captivated by the thought that she spoke her mind during a time when many women didn’t and behaved as if she had rights that she did not, but I had the distinct impression that on numerous occasions she would have driven a lot of people crazy, particularly in her attempts to manage her relatives. When, for example, Abigail interfered in John Quincy’s posting to Russia, he must have been very patient, or very angry.

On the other hand, Holton shows that Abigail was an expert manager of the couple’s property and fortune, actually more astute than John. She took upon herself rights that were not hers legally, from principle, and she stood up for what she believed.

I am not sure I understand the expectation at the time, but I was also struck by the fact that she made very little effort to move into or even visit the White House. I know that it was only partially built at the time and was more like a rustic men’s boarding house than the building we know today, but it seemed that John Adams spent a lot more time without his wife than was necessary, as Abigail also did not accompany him on all of his diplomatic trips. Perhaps this arrangement suited the two of them, but I had the impression that it suited her much more than it did him.

These comments are not a criticism of the biography as such, but here is one. Like many biographers do, I feel that Holton occasionally draws conclusions and makes generalizations based on too little evidence. Perhaps he is trying to avoid the problem of scholarly presentations that provide too much evidence to keep the material interesting, but if so, he goes too far the other way at times. I found myself thinking several times that he had not proven his point of view. At other times, he buries his themes in too much biographical detail. I think he was having difficulty keeping that vital balance between too much information and too little. However, Holton does usually manage to preserve a tone that is light and interesting, and Abigail Adams is certainly a compelling figure in history.