John and Abigail Adams remained faithful to what they believed were the permanent things. How might twenty-first-century Americans use their correspondence to better address the public questions that touch upon the fundamentals of American constitutional liberty?…
When I look back to the Year 1761, and recollect the Argument concerning Writs of Assistance, in the Superiour Court, which I have hitherto considered as the Commencement of the Controversy, between Great Britain and America, and run through the whole Period from that Time to this, and recollect the series of political Events, the Chain of Causes and Effects, I am surprized at the Suddenness, as well as Greatness of this Revolution. Britain has been fill’d with Folly, and America with Wisdom, at least this is my judgment.— Time must determine. It is the Will of Heaven, that the two Countries should be sundered forever. It may be the Will of Heaven that America shall suffer Calamities still more wasting and Distresses yet more dreadfull. If this is to be the Case, it will have this good Effect, at least: it will inspire Us with many Virtues, which We have not, and correct many Errors, Follies, and Vices, which threaten to disturb, dishonour, and destroy Us.— The Furnace of Affliction produces Refinement, in States as well as Individuals.
—Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776*
The aftermath of the current Presidential election has left far too many Americans in confusion. Across the land there has been a cacophony of emotions pouring out from the winners and the losers alike, emotions that tend to inhibit rather than enhance understanding of the significance of the moment. It is as if the moment became occasion for a narrowing tunnel vision with many seeming incapable of seeing beyond their own inchoate emotions. Many have claimed that the stakes have been very high. Very few have been clear about just what those stakes are. Could this be true in part because people appear to be running from understanding rather than seeking it, not at all like brave people anywhere, anytime who meet danger with courage rather than collapse?
Some people may claim they have had no trustworthy place to turn for understanding. There was no help from candidates who were more self-absorbed than thoughtful. Of no more help was a short-sighted, self-serving media that sought heat rather than light. What American people have not done is to stop and take a good look back into their own history. If they did they would find a cornucopia of scenes and stories through which they might acquire a perspective which becomes a powerful aid in understanding better the significance of moments such as these that now press in on them. Starting is easy—a quick glance back reveals that few if any American presidential elections including the present one can match those of 1800 and 1860, the first of which resulted in the first peaceful change of political power ,and the second of which resulted in a tragic rejection of the election’s result, and then war. There have also been other moments, seismic moments, in American history—Pearl Harbor Day, 9-11—unexpected days that became hinges in American time that altered our shared public life.
There have been troubled years in the life of America as well, none more important than 1776. What had started after 1763 as policy disputes with constitutional implications between the center, England, and the periphery, America, erupted, starting in 1774, as a crisis. And then the dam broke. In April 1775 at Lexington and Concord deadly force was used to settle a constitutional dispute, a moment that changed forever the course of American history. As Thomas Paine would write, those became times “that tried men’s souls.”
People may be hard-wired to think that the times in which they walk are singular. A vigorous reading in and thinking about history would temper such temptations. The troubled times of the American Revolution, the outcome of which was very unclear to those who lived through them, can lend us perspective when our own times become trying. How might we get there?
Over the years one of the most satisfying ways people have found to travel back is to bypass historians (who can too often be caught using the past for their own contemporary polemics) and read what the people who came before us left for us to read. One of the most compelling sources has been personal letters, particularly collections that have concentrations on specific time periods. It is rare and endlessly gratifying to have a collection of letters of two friends. The letters, for instance, between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson have become among the most treasured of such correspondences.
Something quite special can happen as one takes up this conversation. Despite the passage of time, even the modern reader can begin to join in as a party to this distant conversation. This reader slowly but surely becomes attached to the letter writers in such a way that gradually they lose the trappings of strangers in some history book and become real, immediate. Intellectually and emotionally the modern reader begins to walk in a different world. People who came before come to reveal their characters in ways that the reader sees directly without any intermediary comments or directions. The reader begins to understand what gave these people joy; what caused them to weep; who were their friends and enemies; what were their political and constitutional convictions; and how they came to understand and approach both man-made and higher law.
Even more rare and precious among collections of American letters are those between a wife and her husband, such as the letters of Abigail and John Adams. The most recent edition, published in 2007, is My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams, edited by Margaret Hogan and James Taylor. If Americans of all ages and interests would pick this book up and read carefully, quietly, and with consideration just their letters from the fateful year of 1776, the consequences would be memorable. Better yet if they would read these letters in the company of family and friends, there would follow conversations that would begin to range from 1776 to 2016 in ways that would be deeply consequential.
Picture the world of these two people at the start of 1776. Abigail Adams, mother of four children, is just shy of thirty-two; John Adams is nine years older. The beginning of this year marks the continuation of their second extended separation, the first extending from August to November, 1774 when John Adams served in the First Continental Congress; the second starting just after the battle of Bunker Hill in April 1775 and extending with two brief trips home into October 1776. From the first words of these letters in January come the lineaments of a remarkable portrait of love and thoughtfulness combined. Their correspondence, made more difficult by space and the contingencies of war, became a conversation that offers a window into their shared and distinctly different worlds. Abigail Adams stayed home in Braintree, Massachusetts, within earshot of the cannons that besieged Boston until March 1776. John Adams made the difficult and increasingly dangerous journey to Philadelphia, detouring around New York to avoid the British. Both were devoted to American liberty, a devotion born of their experience as Massachusetts citizens and of their prodigious reading of the Bible, history, and the classics. Both understood with distinct immediacy the frightful dimensions of the ongoing emergency, each day seeming to bring new contingencies, all of which had to be faced and reckoned with immediately.
As correspondent, Abigail Adams writes more frequently and more openly. As she admitted in a letter written on October 22, 1775,”My pen is often freer than my tongue. I have wrote many things to you that I suppose I never could have talk’d.” John Adams wrote less often. Forever pressed for time and constrained by necessity from discussing in any detail what was going on in the Congress, he often commended that she rely on newspaper reports that he sent, stuff that never satisfied the penetrating precision of her political interest.
The letters of Abigail Adams ranged widely—memorably beautiful comments about her love and care for her too distant friend, her husband; news about the children’s health; news about local politics; news about civil-military matters; news about friends and family; and details about how she was managing the twenty-acre farm and its finances. John Adams commented most frequently about major congressional initiatives and engaged in occasional discussions of visits to church services in Philadelphia, services different than his much beloved Congregational Church at home. Together they discussed details of the education of the children, both dissatisfied that it fell to the mother to be the sole teacher. During March 1776, Abigail Adams, acknowledging that if the Congress might be constructing grand codes of law (it was not), stated quite smartly, “I desire that you would Remember the Ladies.” Many historians have noted this comment; few have given fair notice of its full context and the extraordinary extended conversation it invited about women and education that is both energetic and substantive, all taking place while the demands on John Adams were staggering, drafting the Declaration of Independence being only one of them.
Readers will find other important subjects that often enter into the exchange. Foremost is the couple’s shared religious faith, one that gives both of them the resolve to face what may resonate with readers today as insurmountable trials of health, of war, of economic survival, and the eviscerating pain of separation endured by two people very much in love and faced with a forbearance that any of us would find inspiring… and humbling.
The other major theme is their shared love and devotion for a life of civil and religious liberty. To build a country that was based upon a firm understanding of and a clear reliance on the rule of law was ever present in their letters. It was this hope for America, this ambition for Americans that served as fuel for them during this terrible year. They both believed that their faith in such a hope was not in vain. Early in July, John Adams wrote to Abigail Adams with the news of the signing of the Declaration of Independence: “Time has been given for the whole people, maturely to consider, the great Question of Independence and to ripen their Judgments, dissipate their Fears, and allure their Hopes, by discussing in it News Papers and Pamphletts, by debating it, in Assemblies, Conventions, Committees of safety and Inspection in Town and County Meetings, as well as in private Conversations, so that the whole People in every Colony of the 13, have now adopted it, as their own Act. This will cement the Union….” (Philadelphia, 3 July 1776)
Truly it can be said that Abigail and John Adams, remaining faithful to what they believed were the permanent things, at great cost during the greatest emergency in American history, confronted the dreadful distresses through which they lived with courage, ever seeking wisdom and reliance upon Providence. After reading these deeply moving letters from the American world of 1776, how might twenty-first-century Americans better address the public questions that touch upon the fundamentals of American constitutional liberty? Can we, with attention similar to that which those people and their countrymen gave to the Declaration of Independence, consider the constitutional questions of our day and deliberate with sobriety the health of our union? The questions before us merit careful consideration. They should compel us not to forget the lessons our forbears have bequeathed to us, a legacy to be celebrated with abiding devotion.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
*From the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society