‘But such of you as wish to be happy’

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/02/12/20013/

John and Abigail Adams forged a happy, successful marriage that was as rare in their time as it is today. What was their secret?

The couple’s correspondence during the 54 years they were married provides many clues. They exchanged over 1,000 letters, which reveal their deep love and respect for one another. Remarkably, their ardent feelings did not subside over time.

Although most 18th century men did not consider their wives as equals, John clearly did. He consistently referred to her as “my dear soul” and “my much loved friend.” John kept his wife abreast of all significant political and military developments, and frequently sought her advice on the most pressing matters of state.

Nor was John alone in his admiration of Abigail. Other leaders esteemed her counsel and judgment as well. In his February 25, 1799 letter to her, John discussed top-secret international negotiations, and noted that other political representatives in Philadelphia missed her presence there: “I have instituted a new mission: which is kept in the dark, but when it comes to be understood will be approved … Oh how they [political leaders] lament Mrs. Adams’s Absence! She is a good counseller!”

“… but such of you as wish to be happy, willingly give up the harsh title of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend.”

For her part, Abigail was knowledgeable and educated, mostly self-taught, and had a sharp, practical mind. Her prowess was evident in her March 29, 1776, letter to John, in which she offered strategic military advice:

“I can think of nothing but fortifying Boston harbor. I want more cannon than are to be had. I want a fortification upon Point Alderton, one upon Lovell’s Island, one upon George’s Island, several upon Long Island, and one upon the Moon, one upon Squantum. I want to hear of half a dozen fire-ships, and two or three hundred fire-rafts prepared.”

During the frequent and long absences of her husband, Abigail also managed their estates and family business with competence and efficiency. Their grandson later credited Abigail’s managerial abilities with saving his grandfather from the financial disaster that many other public officials suffered at the time. For example, when John died, his estate was quite prosperous, whereas Thomas Jefferson’s estate was heavily in debt.

The long correspondence between the Adamses reveals their candid exchange of their deepest wishes and disappointments. For instance, Abigail objected that women did not have the same voting and property rights as men, even though they assumed most of the family responsibilities when their husbands were away. In a March 31, 1776, letter to John, she wrote that America’s revolutionary ideas should include women:

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency,” she said. “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

With her husband’s good example in mind, Abigail exhorted other men to follow suit: “That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute; but such of you as wish to be happy, willingly give up the harsh title of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend.”

John responded with good-humored acknowledgment in an April 14, 1776, letter:

“As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh,” he wrote. “Your letter was the first intimation that another tribe, more numerous and powerful than all the rest, were grown discontented. … Although they [men’s systems] are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and, in practice, you know we are the subjects.”

For all their mutual respect and intellectual exchanges, John and Abigail were first and foremost in love. Just two weeks after their heady discussion of women’s rights, John wrote an impassioned letter that demonstrated both his esteem and his romantic desire for her:

“… with an indescribable pleasure I have seen near a score of years roll over our heads, with an affection heightened and improved by time.”

“Is there no way for two friendly souls, to converse together, although the bodies are 400 miles off? — Yes by letter. — But I want a better communication. I want to hear you think, or see your thoughts. The conclusion of your letter makes my heart throb, more than a cannonade would. You bid me burn your letters. But I must forget you first.”

So what can we discern about the success of the Adams’ marriage? Obviously, profound respect for one another’s talents and abilities, kindness and friendship, regular communication, faithfulness in adversity, and yes! humor. But besides sharing beliefs and treating each other well, they added a key component: they kept the amorous plant watered. John and Abigail remained appealing and attractive to each other, and their courting continued long after the wedding bells fell silent.

After nearly 20 years of marriage, John wrote about their abiding love in this beautiful tribute to Abigail:

“(S)hould I draw you the picture of my heart, it would be what I hope you still would love; though it contained nothing new; the early possession you obtained there; and the absolute power you have ever maintained over it; leaves not the smallest space unoccupied. I look back to the early days of our acquaintance; and friendship, as to the days of love and innocence; and with an indescribable pleasure I have seen near a score of years roll over our heads, with an affection heightened and improved by time.”