John and Abigail Adams
The Letters of John and Abigail Adams (2004)
Citation: Adams, John and Abigail. The Letters of John and Abigail Adams. Frank Shuffelton, ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2004
Reading Level: Young Adult / Parent / Adult
Author Biography: John Adams (1735-1826), a native of Braintree, Massachusetts, served as a member of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, where he was a driving force behind the decision to declare the American colonies independent from England and the English monarchy. Following the signing of the Declaration of Independence, he was sent to Europe on many diplomatic missions. He was chosen to serve as George Washington’s vice-president, and later became the second President of the United States. Abigail Adams (1744-1818) was born into a family of high social standing; among her ancestors were some of the most prominent Puritan ministers and military leaders of early New England. In 1764 she married John Adams, and the couple subsequently had four children. During her husband’s long absences from home on political business, Abigail successfully ran the family farm and business, and always remained one of her husband’s most trusted advisors on legal and political matters.
Plot Summary: The 284 letters in this volume span the time period from 12 May 1774 to 18 February 1783, from shortly before John Adams’ departure for the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia to the end of his diplomatic missions to France. They offer detailed views of domestic life in Boston and on the Adams farm, of John’s law practice, of the political context that forces the issue of American independence from England, and of the military and political conflicts that ensue. Although both John and Abigail Adams acknowledge the need for prudence in case their letters should fall into the wrong hands, they nonetheless convey to one another their thoughts about the challenges the colonies are facing and about the personal difficulties brought about by long months of separation during which Abigail must shoulder all of the domestic burden while John faces difficult political and ethical decisions without benefit of daily counsel and support from Abigail, his dearest friend and confidante. Through these letters the reader gains great insight into the thoughts of two important figures in American history, their remarkable strength and dedication to their fledgling nation, their mutual respect and love, and their commitment to a marriage of genuine partnership and equality.
1: In what ways does John Adams describe himself in these letters, as a private citizen, as a husband and father, and as a political figure? How does this “self-portrait” develop and change during the events of the 1770s and 1780s? How do the various elements of his responsibilities fit together?
2: What do you see as the major parallels between John Adam’s personal values and those he believes ought to form the basis of the new nation he is helping to bring into being? That is, how do you see the continuity between the private and public sides of Adams’ personality and character?
3: What impressions does Adams convey of historical figures who come to play a major role in our nation’s history? Consider, for example, his descriptions of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and John Hancock. How do these impressions relate to those that we might already have?
4: What insights into daily life and its struggles do Abigail’s letters provide? What kind of a person/wife do they reveal her to be?
5: What do these letters reveal about traditional and non-traditional gender roles in Colonial America? How would you describe the dynamic between John and Abigail? What sense of their marriage do these letters present?
6: How do the details of these letters help us to understand the day-to-day conditions of life in the 1770s? Consider things like travel, living conditions, diet, health, and commerce. Are you surprised or enlightened by any of the information that these letters reveal?
7: If you were to describe the America that John Adams envisions, how would you do so? On what basis does he argue the need for independence from the English monarchy? What are the principles and goals that guide his decision? What are his hopes and aspirations for this new nation? What realities and obstacles does he struggle against? How does his vision compare to the America we live in today?
Related Activities: Consider watching a portion of one of the many film biographies of John Adams. You may wish to choose a selection that brings out a specific element in Adams’ character. Use the film as a way into a discussion of characterization and interpretation or bias. How does the film portrayal relate to the character that comes through in the letters? Consider incorporating a prayer used by the Continental Congress into the discussion evening. Adams specifies that the 1st Congress opened with Psalm 35 and that Rev. Duché followed with a prayer of his own (this prayer is available full text online). Discuss what these prayers reveal about the Congress’ wishes for and vision of their mission, and how they might be applied to our current national vision. Use the insights that these letters provide into the founding principles of the United States as the basis for writing your own letter to an elected representative on a local, state, or national level. You might wish to explain how the letters have increased your familiarity with national history and have heightened your awareness of the political processes and issues that are relevant today.
Prepared By: Ann-Maria Contarino
Date: August 2008