Advice on Valentine’s Day and Romance from Abigail Adams by Gregory Hilton–Valentine’s Day brings to mind several presidential couples who were able to maintain romance in their marriages over many decades. The Obama’s, the Reagan’s and the Truman’s come most readily to mind.
The pillow talk between Barack and Michelle Obama is not known, but we are well aware of the strong romantic ties between John and Abigail Adams because of their extensive correspondence and diaries. They were the first couple to occupy the White House, and a true partnership was established at the beginning of their marriage. Abigail was 19, and the 29 year old John immediately began to include her in all of his activities.
They openly adored one another and the passion continued when they were senior citizens. Every young couple shares intimacy, but how many can make it last 54 years? When he was 63, John wrote: “Miss Adorable, By the same Token that the Bearer hereof sat up with you last night, I hereby order you to give him as many Kisses, and as many Hours of your Company after 9 O Clock as he shall please to Demand and charge them to my Account.”
Thomas Jefferson served as Vice President during the Adams Administration, and learned it was best to first convince Abigail before approaching the President. Abigail made political mistakes, most notably the Alien and Sedition Acts which cost him re-election, but she was always her husbands top adviser.
John was of course in the limelight, but Abigail had enormous influence and a profound impact on public policy. Her major cause was advocating the education of women, and it was a goal fully supported by her husband. In the newspapers of that day she was referred to as “Mrs. President.”
Many presidents are long forgotten, but the Adams’ are now back in the news. This is due to a best selling book and the seven part HBO “John Adams” mini-series which won an unprecedented 13 Emmy awards in 2008. “The Adams Chronicles” is also an Emmy award-winner. This thirteen-episode PBS special was released as a DVD in May of 2008.
Abigail knew John Adams from her earliest childhood and their romance began when she was just 17. Her mother opposed the marriage because of the 10 year age difference, and handsome younger men were definitely interested in Abigail. Unusual for that era, Abigail was well educated but with little formal schooling. John was a Harvard educated attorney, but at the outset of their courtship he wondered if she was too intelligent to make a good wife.
Abigail’s mother recommended several suitors, but the daughter had no interest in marrying a farmer. In sharp contrast to herself, Abigail acknowledged that John was overweight and had little money. He was not exciting physically, but he was intellectually. The handsome farmers bored Abigail while she always found John fascinating.
The marriage led to her being present at so many of the historic events of the revolutionary era. From nearby Penn Hill, Abigail and her 10 year old son, John Quincy, watched the Battle of Bunker Hill and the burning of Charlestown. Over 1000 people were killed or wounded and on June 18, 1775 (the day after the battle) she wrote to her husband who was participating in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia: “The decisive day has come on which the fate of America depends. My bursting heart must find vent at my pen. I have just heard that our dear friend Dr. Warren is no more, but fell gloriously fighting for his Country. Great is our Loss.” She was referring to Joseph Warren, M.D., the 34 year old spokesman for the revolutionary cause.
Abigail’s opinion of Thomas Jefferson would fluctuate over the years, but she told her husband Jefferson was the best writer in the Continental Congress. The next day Adams asked Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence. Abigail was also present 13 years later at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.
She expressed reservations to her husband about “the Virginians.” She meant George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. All of them supported slavery while she was an abolitionist firebrand. It was an issue she understood because her family had owned slaves. Her views were dismissed by the Virginians, but she had a substantial impact on her husband and son.
Her son would also become President of the United States and for 17 years he would lead the anti-slavery forces in the House of Representatives. The first chapter of John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” is devoted to John Quincy Adams.
If she were alive today, I would be interested in the former First Lady’s reaction to the book and movie “He’s Just Not That Into You.” It was topic she frequently addressed with her daughter Amelia, who had to endure two years with a striking but unfaithful fiancée, Tyler Royall.
Abigail said many otherwise highly desirable men are commitment phobic, and this was the reason why Tyler would never set a date for the wedding. He had a history of short relationships, and was unfaithful in all of them. Abigail said men such as Tyler could not be changed, and it really did not matter what Amelia did. After many provocations Amelia finally broke her engagement. Tyler later became Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, and Amelia married Colonel William Smith who served on General Washington’s staff for seven years and was later a Member of Congress.
Today’s relationship experts believe a couple should have many things in common, but that was not true of John and Abigail Adams. They had widely different interests. They did not try to change each other, they accepted those differences and learned from the experience. Both of them were flexible and understanding, and they were not self centered. This established the friendship which always remained between them.
Abigail died of tuberculosis at the age 73, while John reached the age of 90 and died on the same day as Thomas Jefferson — the 4th of July. If you would like to read more about the romance of John and Abigail Adams I would recommend:
“My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams,” Edited by Margaret Hogan; “John and Abigail Adams: An American Love Story” by Judith St. George; “The Adams Women: Abigail and Louisa Adams, Their Sisters and Daughters” by Paul Nagel; “Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution” by Natalie Bober; “John Adams” by David McCullough; and “The Adams Chronicles: Four Generations of Greatness” by Jack Shepard.