tv [untitled] CSPAN June 14, 2009 8:00am-8:30am EDT
historical events of the period. so, that when you start writing a chronological biography, you keep landing at the stamp act congress. or the first continental congress or the peace treaty. or one or another of the very famous events in which john as involved and the consequence was he was the hero of all of her biographieses: -- biographies:
correspondence between abigail adams and to thomas jefferson tt focused on the way women and men used language differently. i wrote a topic on the correspondence between abigail and james lovell, who was a member of the first continental congress and that focused on gossip, because women talk a lot and this rescued gossip and said it's important in our lives, gossip is how we form communities and now ourselves to be part of a community. anyway, i wrote these -- so i've written for 30 years about abigail adams and along came the clinton candidacy and i thought
wow, now is the time i should start writing about the marriage and focus on the marriage of abigail and john, which i did do. of course, history changed in three years. and hillary has become instead secretary of state. but that was -- that was my starting point for this book. nevertheless when i started, i was left with the same challenge that i had faced when i wrote chronologically about abigail, that is how to write a double biography and keep the focus on abigail and not let it move over on to john. and the way i did that, the way i decided to do that, was to move john adams out of the political or the diplomatic sphere and move him into the domestic sphere, the family sphere. and so mostly this book is about
the marriage and john as a family man, although it has to do, to be accurate history, and to tell the context in which the marriage took place, it has to tell the history of the period as well, and it does tell about john's diplomatic and historical participation in the revolution, but the focus is always on the family, i hope. another problem i had in writing a double biography was how do you write a double biography? that is, how do you write about two people, how do you manage handling two people and giving them equitible time in a biography and at first i thought, well, maybe i'll do like war and peace, one chapter was on war and one chapter was on peace, i could do one chapter on abigail, one chapter on john and then i decided my materials didn't take me that way and it wasn't going to be very interesting, it was too formulaic, so i thought, well, maybe what i'll do you is just
start one chapter focusing on abigail, start the next chapter focusing on john and that didn't work out either, because as i was writing, the material didn't take me there. so then i decided what i would do is just go where the material took me. and kept the focus on the marriage, showing john when there was more material on john and abigail, where there's more material on abigail. so what was great about this marriage? for one thing, it was a 54-year marriage, which was incredible, then as now, because people died a lot. but what was most amazing about their marriage is that in their 54 years of marriage, for about 25 years, they lived apart a good deal of the time, because john was away from home. running the revolution, being a
diplomat in europe, being vice-president, then president of the united states. and so that's why we have all of these letters between them, because they did correspond. so the really remarkable marriage for eight years they didn't see each other, when john went to europe in 1979 until 784, until abigail went to europe as well, and they corresponded sometimes during that period, but letters were lost at sea and john didn't write all of the time, and there weren't very many ships going back and forth in wartime, so there wasn't a lot of correspondence. when abigail finally did go to europe, the marriage resumed again. it's just amazing that this marriage resumed with all of the passion and the interest that they originally had in their
early married years. remarkable to us. of course, there wasn't an exit clause interest the marriage. -- from the marriage. they couldn't have gotten divorced. there were grounds for divorce in that period, but not any grounds for divorce that abigail and john met. so it remains remarkable that they did resume their marriage so compatiblely and i've thought about why this is and where the reasons why this marriage worked so well, and the first of course is they loved each other. and they -- from the early meeting between the two of them, there was an immense attraction. but love is a word that is clicheed. i don't mean in love, i don't
mean love in a poetic sense of all of the beautiful words you find in poetry and pictures. i mean love in what i think was an 18th century sense and that is that they had the capacity to be generous with each other. that each one of them was able to give endlessly to the other without expecting in return. that there would be reciprocity and that certainly was the case on abigail's part. the fact that they could sacrifice their own daily personal, monthly, yearly happiness for the well-being of the other person, and that's the way i came to believe about and think about 18th century love. they were also very compass i object. there was pairity in their marriage. john treated abigail with respect and admiration, which
she deserved, but 18th century was a period of time with women were subordinate to men and there was a great deal of deference that women expected to give and that men accepted from women. and that was not the case. it was a kind of mutual understanding that the other person had great talents and there was -- there was an equality in this marriage that was unusual in the 18t 18th century. another very important factor in the april century was their compatibility of religion and abigail and john both were very religious people, so there was no tension around their religious beliefs. religion in the late 18t 18th century, to both of them, was, i've said, it's like the air people breathe. religion was something that just was.
and it was not something that people chose or didn't choose. it was. it was built into people's beings, a belief system. so that both abigail and john were believers and both of them believed in an after-life. i do think abigail was more religious, or more conservative in her religion than john. but both of them were religious people. and respectful of that, and out of that came a value system. that was unique to their generation, a value system that really confirmed for people the difference between right and wrong. and what was good and what was bad, and out of that still further came the belief that people had a -- people had to give of themselves.
they had to serve their families, they had to serve their community, they had to serve the nation. and both of them believed that. the idea of service. i've called it by its 18t 18th century term, duty. duty wife in the book. they had a sense of duty, and it was that sense of duty that made john serve the nation and that sense of duty that they both had. it was like a calling, a kind of providence in religious terms, that said people existed for the purpose of doing service to the community and the nation, and that was very clearly a part of their patriotism, a major part of their patriotism. the impulse for their patriotism. both of them also were tolerant of each other and they gave each other space to grow. in the entire arc of their 54
years, each of them had incredible experiences that changed their lives. and each of them tolerated that difference that developed in the other, and appreciated it. and that that allowed both of them to change and develop over the period of time, and one the challenges in writing a book, a biography at any time, but particularly a double biography, is to follow the arc of a life, follow the arc of two lives in this case, and see the changes that people made in their lives, how they grew, how they developed, and in this case, to see, to observe the tolerance that each had for the other. and finally, the last component of their wonderful marriage that i would -- that i wrote about and that i would take into account was their playfulness.
they teased each other from the time that they first met and during their courtship until both of them passed away. more than 50 years later. and teasing and playfulness is an important way to develop harmony in a relationship. they could talk about sensitive issues, about potentially antagonistic issues and play it as a joke beings as a tease, as it wasn't really important, and because the issues came through at such a level, that was lighter, rather than combative, confrontational, they -- and this playfulness existed throughout their marriage, they,
i believe, this was an enhancement in their relationship. it made it possible for them to live with each other for 54 years of change and development without having huge antagonisms and con flick. which there was. at time there were conflict, but most of the time it was a very generous and tolerant and equal relation the other thing that i'd like to talk about is how i feel about abigail and john separately, individually, and that -- why is it that i'm able to work on abigail adams for 30 years,. it's unusual for a scholar to write about one person, for this long.
henry -- leon adel wrote eight volumes on henry james and other biographers do it, but it is unusual. of after to tell you, after i finished the first biography, i had withdrawal from abigail. it pained me that i wasn't writing about her anymore and along came a book publisher and asked me to write a second biography for a series. so that's how i happened to write the second one. and then when i was done with that, i was again bereft and the reason is that i love reading her letters. her letters are just a delight to read. and they're endless numbers of letters. i can continue reading probably for the rest of my life and i very well may do this for the rest of my life because she was such an interesting woman. i love the fact that abigail adams was proud to be a woman. that was not something that was
a major factor in women's lives in the 18th century. pride at being a woman. it was a deferential century, it was a century when women thought men were better than women, and men thought men were better than women and abigail, abigail was proud to be a woman and she spoke up for women all of the time, and she expressed her pride and her satisfaction in her life and demanded that from other people. i love the fact that she was self-educated. she was a person who, in her early life, was educated as women were educated, that is, learning to read, and write, maybe a little bit of french, and to do arithmetic. the women were taught to read, not necessarily to write, so that they could read the bible,
and women were taught to do arithmetic, so that they could keep accounts abigail used the time with john was away to read and she educated herself. she was an auto didact. she read broadly in history, in literature, but she also read medical and scientific books as well and she read philosophy and she read political sciencers so that she was able to converse with any human being in her age as an equal. i love the fact that this woman, who experienced huge adversity in her life, and i've often thought about whether i would change places with her. after all, she's famous in the history books. and i wouldn't, because it was not a pleasant life. she had a hard life. for all of her adult years.
she didn't see it that way. life -- the idea of happiness wasn't something that people expected to be a component of life. and she lived through a revolution and a post-revolutionary period. there were very few periods of her life when she wasn't faced with a crisis of some sort. the deaths of two children, three if you count the child -- a child who died in infancy, but the deaths of two adult children. so she was a survivor. she faced adversity and survived adversity, but she grew every time. people confront adversity and shrivel, but abigail faced crises and all the time expanded and grew and it made her wiser and more engaged in life and
more compassionate for other people. i love the fact that she was authentic. she was herself always. when she became first lady, she wrote a letter to her sister, that said if you see me putting on airs ever, please tell me about it, and call me back and remind me of my roots and who i am. she was pleased to be of her social class, of her era, of her gender. she was an authentic person. she was also consistent, and that is the people who were her friends in her youth remained her friends for her lifetime. she didn't discard people because she rose in her social class or because her position became more elevated. she was consistent in her ideas. she condition change her
opinions in order to be a popular person. and that has made her not just a very enjoyable figure to write about, but a model for women, and a model for women in my time who were looking for feminist models in the past. she was always political. she was what i call a pro toe feminist, that is, i don't think she was a feminist. she didn't ask for political rights, she didn't ask for the vote, but she did believe women should be treated respectfully before the law and with equal justice before the law. and she was also anti-slavery. and i'll get to that. so she was a wonderful model, both if her name and ours. i've also come over the years to who have john adams, and one of
the reasons that he is such a great hero to me is that his transparency. john adams is someone we can get to know as a human being. john adams let his feelings show. john adams wrote about his feelings and then did not throw out either his letters or his diaries. he wrote a diary from a very young age, from the time he was in college until the end of his life. and he wrote autobiographies also. , and then he wrote just hundreds of letters, and all the time, in his writings, he would take his temperature and he'd say, am i too ambitious? am i too envious. and the consequence of his exploring his own feelings is that historians have had all this ammunition to say he was too ambitious, he was too envious.
and no other founding father has left the kind of record that john adams did. they burned their letters to their wives. washington's letters to martha washington were burned, so there's no correspondence between either of them. in fact, martha washington leaves us only three letters in her lifetime. thomas jefferson burned his correspondence with his wife. so we don't even know anything about his wife. traces of these women have been lost, but not only did they erase their wives from history, but they erased their own emotions in a way that john adams didn't. he left these documents for historians to work with, and it makes it wonderful, because he was a person who becomes very human if all of his own writings about himself. he was brilliant. he was an amazingly creative man, and it's fun to be around
creative people, so that it's fun to read the ideas that he had. and john adams never used -- he was a wonderful writer, he never used two adjectives when he could use 12 and he did use 12. he just had this amazing capacity to invent and play out ideas in just wonderful prose, so that reading him is reading a very fun person. he was courageous. he was courageous in two senses. he was courageous in a intellectual sense, in that he defended the unpopular members, the british soldiers who participated in the boston massacre, with many other
lawyers of his time would not defend him, because it was a very unpopular stance to take. he did do this, because he said no one should want a lawyer in court. everyone should have a lawyer to go into court. he was also physically courageous. he was courageous in that he went across the ocean several times in winter when traveling in winter in one of those little boats, there were 125 feet long, is not something that anyone chose to do. people traveled in the summer, but he traveled if winter, because that's with he was needed. he was physically courageous in that he handled a gun when it was necessary. he's physically courageous to do that, because if captured, he would have been a traitor, been considered a traitor by the british. so he was really quite remarkable as a person of great
counselor. he was a wit as i've mentioned a couple times. he's very funny in his writings, which makes it a pleasure to read. he was a person of very great passion. he hated wealth and he loved wealth. and that makes john a very fascinating and inspiring person to deal with, so this pretty much explains why i have so enjoyed working on the adams in the course of working on this book but in the entire 30-plus long years that i've worked on the adamses. if you'll indulge me, i'll read a bit of my portrayal of abigail and john from my book and i'll read a portion first about john and then a portion about abigail. and this portion about john
comes from the period 1775, when the revolutionary war had just begun, and he's writing in his diary. and this is particularly a letter to abigail. oh, that i was a soldier. john wrote to abigail from philadelphia. where the continental congress had recently convened in the spring of 1775. i will be. i'm reading military books. everybody must and will and shall be a soldier. john was -- however, since he had no prior military experience and could not expect a rank higher than lieutenant, he concluded that he would be more effective in the halls of congress. by 1775, in fact, john was widely acknowledged in those halls as a leader of the
rebellious faction. he no longer waivered on issues of war and independence, but had committed himself for the duration. my life and my health ought to be hazarded in the cause of my country, he wrote to abigail as well as yours and all my friends. he could foresee that the challenge would be daunting. the difficulty and the intricacy is prodigious. at the same time they have a country of 1500 miles extent to fortify, millions to arm, a naval power to begin, an extensive commerce to regulate, numerous indian to negotiate with, standing army of 27,000 men to raise pay, and officer, i shall pity those 50 or 60 men. that was john's short list. he was in his element, as he never had been, except perhaps
during his youth, when he wanted to become a farmer. never had he experienced such a sense of mission, opportunity, and adventure. he was raging rebellion against the greatest empire in the 18th century. he was inspired by idealism and optimism, that marked the radical wing of the revolutionaries at the beginning of the war. mostly however, he understood the sense of power that came from executing this rebellion. his spirits had never been higher. he was doing something important. something that made him proud. altogether, this was as capricious an experience as could evolve a provincial boston attorney. he couldn't be a already, but he could -- be a soldier, but he could participate in the planning and execution of the war and think about how to frame and compose a new kind of constitution. he was aware of the historic
dimensions of the project in which he was engaged, with all his passions, intelligence, and belief. he was in fact, exhilarated. the practice of law had never exhilarated john adams. he was fascinated by the study of the law. and the opportunity to read law with jeremiah gridly and to participate in the monthly meetings to discuss legal theory, but for some time, even the practice had engaged him, but to a man of his instincts, his intelligence, passion, energy, the tedium of law had begun to wear thin. the days of weeks of traveling on the circuit, boarding at crowded and inhospitalble inns, the routine cases he handled, boundary disputes, family quarrels, business squabbles, portended a life of drudgery. aside from the boston massacre, john's practice involved the
daily disputes that made up the domestic lives of colonial americans. he longed for something greater. he wrote dreary o drearily on hh 37th birthday that more than half of his days had run out and the remainder of my days, i shall rather decline in sense, spirit and finance activity, he complained and yet i have my own and my children's fortunes to make. he hoped, he wrote, another time, to provide for his children the foundation for a happier life than has fallen to my share. john had back bored, if not disenchanted with his life as a lawyer in ptsd. he continued its pursuits as his duty to provide for his family. and now, unforeseen by him and everyone else, he was running a revolution. his spirits were