Our Founding Fathers have their own roles: Washington as Father of our Country, Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence and Madison as Father of the Constitution. Although a giant in his own right, John Adams shares his role with Abigail as the First Family of America. Renowned Revolutionary Era author, Joseph Ellis, tells their story in this informative and eminently readable book.
The story of John and Abigail Adams is unique because their long marriage was not only instrumental in forming our country, but is documented in their well preserved correspondence. This couple was the model for other couples and families to follow. As political partners the yield nothing to Franklin and Eleanor or Bill and Hillary. As founders of a dynasty they are rivaled only by the Bush family.
This dual biography focuses more on John as he was the man on the stage of world affairs, while Abigail was the counselor who advised, steadied and made a home for her man as he guided the affairs of the nation. Ellis does not overlook their son, John Quincy, who would be a distinguished force in his own right, following the pattern, with strengths and weaknesses, of his sire. We know that John and John Quincy were the first father-son team to be president, but I learned, through this book, that they negotiated the peace treaties with Great Britain ending the Revolution and the War of 1812, and were the first Ambassadors to the Court of St. James after each war.
This book reminds the reader of many bits Adams family lore, such as Abigail's letter instructing John to "remember the ladies" and John's observation that "I must study Politics and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Music, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelain." Ellis does not forget John's prayer that "May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof."
Besides tidbits and lore, "First Family" tells a remarkable story. It is a story of a lawyer who represented the accused in the Boston Massacre and the wife who took her children to watch the Battle of Bunker Hill. We read of the husband who drove and coaxed Congress into declaring Independence while his wife maintained the farm and family in wartime Massachusetts. We follow the diplomat who, with his son, eluded the Royal Navy across the ocean, who squabbled with Benjamin Franklin in France, procured a loan from Dutch bankers, negotiated an end to war and then represented his country in European courts before returning as a hero second only to Washington. Through all this Abigail was raising a family, writing him letters and, eventually braving the Atlantic herself to take her place beside him at Court. We then read of eight years a Vice-President followed by a narrow victory in the first contested presidential election.
Adams' presidency was doomed from the start. His Vice-President, Thomas Jefferson, an erstwhile friend, was now the leader of the opposition, while the Cabinet holdovers from the Washington administration were more loyal to Alexander Hamilton than to the President who they nominally served. Add to this the Adams willingness to follow his instincts regardless of their popularity and a few mistakes, such as endorsing the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were strongly encouraged by Abigail, and defeat became a certainty. Despite all of this, news of successful avoidance of war with France, if received earlier, might have secured a second term. Ellis does an excellent job of portraying Adams as one who tried to continue the Washington tradition of a President above party and politics in an era that was rapidly becoming partisan.
Joseph Ellis has written another fine work about giants of our early republic. The prose holds the readers' interest while telling a fascinating tale, one of statesmanship, diplomacy, politics and, at its heart, a love story. I am grateful for this book and look forward to his next one.