First Family: Abigail and John Adams. By Joseph J. Ellis. New York: Vintage Books, 2010. 299 pp.
Joseph Ellis's latest book on one of the most famous marriages in American history shares much in common with his previous work. It is well written and engagingly told, the historical context is well established, and the personalities are sharply drawn. John Adams needed equilibrium: "Ballast is what I want... I totter with every breeze," he once wrote (p. 12). Ellis argues that "Abigail's chief role as John's wife was to become his ballast. She needed to create a secure domestic environment in which he felt completely comfortable, a calm place where his harangues and mood swings were treated as lovable eccentricities" (p. 12). She did precisely that, running the household; raising and educating the children; and supporting her proud, sensitive husband.
But all this came at a cost. John's driving ambition meant that he consistently chose to spend his time in the service of his country--in Philadelphia and then in Europe--and not with his family. He was a devoted but largely absent and emotionally distant father whose children vied for his attention and approval, often receiving neither. And for Abigail, John's repeated selection of public service over family life meant that she became a single parent, her husband faithful and loving yet chronically absent. For much of their marriage, their relationship consisted solely of letters. When John, distracted by his work obligations, failed to write or wrote back infrequently, it hurt Abigail deeply. John's achievements were "no longer.., adequate compensation for her abiding loneliness. From her perspective, he was simply gone;" thus, "damage had been done to their previously impregnable bond" (pp. 91, 107). Eventually, she joined John in Paris and then, London, and they rebuilt their fraying emotional connection.
Ellis also portrays the couple as demanding parents, by turns, harsh or withholding of praise and frequently distant. "Greatness was the goal" for their boys; indeed, Ellis observes, "John Quincy spent his entire childhood hearing that anything less than the highest office would be regarded as failure" (pp. 92-93). Although John Quincy was always their favorite son, he was treated as "a project almost as much as a person" (p. 129). While he flourished under such unrelenting expectations, his siblings did not, meeting with unhappiness, disaster, and tragedy instead.
Ellis argues that Abigail...