Excerpt from Abigail Adams by Woody Holton, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Abigail Adams

by Woody Holton

Abigail Adams
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2009, 512 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2010, 512 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
BJ Nathan Hegedus

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Having to give up John Quincy's sons was not only humiliating for Elizabeth but a serious financial blow. She and Mary had both taken husbands who were good men but poor providers (twice, in Elizabeth's case). Abigail and her sisters never lost sight of what happened when their brother's addiction to drink prevented him from providing for his family. William's children had to be sent away to be raised by various relatives, including Mary, Abigail, and Elizabeth, and his fate stood like a lighthouse on a rocky shoreline, a constant reminder that the worst consequence of poverty was not material deprivation. Coverture sharply limited Elizabeth's and Mary's ability to compensate for their husbands' financial failings, but they soldiered on, determined to accumulate and retain enough property to keep their families together.

Times were never as hard for Abigail as they often were for her sisters, but she too understood the connection between a family's economic status and its ability to stick together. She once offered to use some of the money she called her own to purchase an additional farm for her husband, but only if he would quit "running away to foreign courts" and return to Braintree. Two decades later she made a similar overture to her youngest son, Thomas, who had moved to Philadelphia to practice law. Abigail's wealth also allowed her to surround herself with other people's children. Louisa Smith, her brother's daughter, spent most of her life in the Adams household. And at various times Abigail's daughter and each of her three sons all felt the need to send their own children to live with "Grandmamma." For instance, her daughter Nabby's boys moved back to Massachusetts after their father spoiled them and then abandoned them (temporarily, as it turned out). Years later, Nabby's daughter Caroline joined the Adams household during her mother's last illness and remained there after her death. After Charles Adams replicated his Uncle William's failures, slowly drinking himself to death, his wife and daughters accepted Abigail's invitation to live with her. And for several years after John Adams's term as president, financial necessity forced his son Thomas's entire family, which included several rambunctious toddlers, to move into the mansion that John had once called "Peace Field."

The widening gap between the Adamses' growing wealth and Mary's and Elizabeth's continuing financial struggles strained Abigail's relationships with both of her sisters. Neither Mary nor Elizabeth could afford to refuse the help that Abigail pressed upon them, but their shared dependence on her embarrassed them terribly. Once in 1797, Mary gratefully acknowledged yet another round of her sister's gifts and then lamented that she and her children were "doom'd to always be the obliged." Abigail's effort to prevent her donations from fraying the sisterly bond called forth diplomatic skills rivaling those displayed on a grander scale by her husband.

Another recipient of Adams's charity was Phoebe Abdee, her father's former slave, who lived in the Adams home rent-free during Abigail's four-year sojourn in Europe. But this relationship was also put to the test when Abdee defied Adams's prohibition against sharing the house with others. Exhibiting a charitable instinct similar to Abigail's, Phoebe sheltered a variety of men and women, black and white, whose circumstances were even more desperate than her own. Whereas Abigail's sister Elizabeth once described Phoebe as "oderiferous," Abigail on at least one occasion referred to her as her "Parent." In 1797, Adams took a courageous stand on behalf of a black servant boy who was being driven from the town school because of the color of his skin. Yet she was by no means a consistent enemy of racial prejudice. After attending a London performance of Othello, she admitted her "disgust and horrour" at seeing the "Sooty" title character "touch the Gentle Desdemona."

If on the one hand Adams has the unnerving capacity to remind us of people we ourselves have known, on the other hand we would do well to remember that much of the apparent familiarity of her world is only a façade. The danger of misunderstanding is especially great in the area of language. While anachronistic terms such as prog and ochlocracy pose obvious challenges, other words sow even more confusion by seeming familiar when they actually are not. In John Adams's first diary reference to Abigail Smith, the parson's daughter who was destined to be his bride, he described her as "not candid." To modern eyes it might appear that he was saying she was dishonest, but his actual meaning was exactly the opposite of that, for he found her too blunt. In the eighteenth century, to be "candid" was to focus on other people's strengths and overlook their faults. Apparently John considered Abigail insufficiently candid because she could not resist teasing him about some of his foibles.

Excerpted from Abigail Adams by Woody Holton. Copyright © 2009 by Woody Holton. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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