First Family: Abigail and John Adams

by Joseph J. Ellis

Hardcover, 2010




Knopf (2010), Edition: 1st, 320 pages


John and Abigail Adams left a remarkable portrait of their lives together in their personal correspondence: both were prolific letter writers (although John conceded that Abigail was the more gifted), and over the years they exchanged more than twelve hundred letters. Joseph J. Ellis distills them to give us an account both intimate and panoramic; part biography, part political history, and part love story. Ellis describes their first meeting as inauspicious--John was twenty-four, Abigail just fifteen, and each was entirely unimpressed. But they soon began a passionate correspondence that resulted in their marriage five years later. Over the next decades, the couple were separated nearly as much as they were together. When John became president, Abigail's health led to reservations about moving to the swamp on the Potomac, but he persuaded her that he needed his closest advisor by his side. Here, John and Abigail's relationship unfolds in the context of America's birth as a nation.--From publisher description.… (more)


(85 ratings; 4.1)

Media reviews

We may not learn anything appreciably new about the Adams family, per se, but in “First Family” Mr. Ellis employs his narrative gifts to draw a remarkably intimate portrait of John and Abigail’s marriage as it played out against the momentous events that marked the birth of a nation.

User reviews

LibraryThing member jayde1599
Synopsis: John and Abigail Adams, in a way, knew that they were making history. They preserved much of their personal correspondence and journals for future generations. Luckily for history, they spent much of their marriage apart. Abigail stayed at their home in Quincy raising family and keeping
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the household, while John traveled for diplomatic purposes. When he became vice president, her health prevented her from joining him. She did finally join him at her side for his presidency.

Pros: The book was enjoyable and appeared to be thoroughly researched. Ellis included quotations from the letters and journals. He really tried to capture what the Adams' were feeling and their thoughts about the developing nation.

Cons: I thought he portrayed Abigail a bit weaker thought she was, especially regarding the couple's time apart. I visited the Adams National Historic Site last year, and my impression was that she was a lot stronger.

Overall good book - recommended
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LibraryThing member ALincolnNut
Perhaps a book on the marriage of John and Abigail Adams seems to many like a writer scratching for ideas, but I'm amazed that there aren't several books on the topic already. Not only are the two principles well-documented and the subject of several individual biographies, but, more importantly
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for historians, their correspondence is extensive and largely preserved, offering a treasure-trove of material to would-be authors. Even more, these letters, especially during the American Revolution, cover topics from momentous political decisions to Abigail's challenges in maintaining the family farm and raising children largely on her own, providing primary evidence for a range of historians.

Then I remember that one half of the couple is John Adams, who is generally regarded as a vainglorious little man who fails to measure up to other Founding Fathers, especially George Washington. While I find such conventional wisdom to be wrong, even those who are sympathetic to John Adams must admit that he is often scolding and overbearing in tone and easily wounded by, and hyper-reactive to, the perceived slights of others. In short, he is not the sort of person you want to 'get up with and go to bed with each day,' in the description of biographical writing often used by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Happily, Joseph Ellis, professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, has spent many such years getting up and going to bed with Adams, alongside other towering figures of the years surrounding the American Revolution and early republic. Perhaps best known as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Founding Brothers," the brilliant biographical snapshot of the age, Ellis has previously written a full biography of John Adams. Moreover, alongside his thorough understanding of the context of those years of upheaval, Ellis has a great talent for illuminating the characters of the larger than life figures of the era in his books.

In "First Family," Ellis offers a well-considered portrait of the marriage of John and Abigail Adams. Drawing from their extensive correspondence, both between themselves when they were separated due to John's governmental responsibilities and from each of them to others, Ellis fleshes out the mutual dependence which characterized their marriage. Despite frequent physical separation, they relied on each other for counsel and support. John not only trusted Abigail to manage the farm in his absence during the war, he valued her political instincts and advice; Abigail came to expect not only instructions on household affairs, but substantial attention and concern about the children. Also, Ellis consistently presents their obvious love for and devotion to each other.

While their partnership conforms to many contemporary understandings of marriage, for its time it was rather unique. The demands of wartime separation thrust Abigail -- and many other women -- into new responsibilities usually reserved for men. But Abigail demanded, and John seems to have expected, that she be an almost equal partner in their marriage even beyond the wartime years, which makes their marriage a significant foreshadowing of the women's movement that would begin in subsequent generations of American history. It also was a marriage with significant political consequences for American history -- beyond John's active role in politics until 1800, their eldest son John Quincy Adams would serve in government his entire life, also rising to the presidency; in the next generation, Charles Francis Adams would serve in the sensitive position as ambassador to England during the American Civil War (and one of his sons, Henry Adams, would write important histories of the early years of the United States).

For students of the period, "First Family" covers familiar ground; still, it is marked by Ellis' consistent good judgment in interpreting the sometimes conflicting evidence and filling in the gaps between pieces of evidence. As with his other books, it is beautifully written (perhaps especially so when Ellis seamlessly incorporates material quoted from personal letters by John and Abigail) and shows a depth of research.
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LibraryThing member sgerbic
Enjoyable book about the relationship between these two influential Americans. I got a good sense of their motivations and personalities. So sad that their children were such disappointments. Even the son that became a President seemed to be a git. I wish the author would have included the gripping
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account of the breast removal as I read that narrative years ago and it is still with me, even more so now that I have gone through breast cancer treatment. I got a completely different view of Franklin which makes my understanding of this time of history even more developed.
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LibraryThing member stevesmits
In a similar vein to Ellis’s other books on the nation’s founders (First Brothers, Revolutionary Summer, Thomas Jefferson: American Sphinx) Ellis gives us a close look at two who are among the most notable of the pantheon: John and Abigail Adams. The couple left volumes of personal letters that
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let us peer into the political issues of their times, their personalities and their deep marital relationship. The letters provide the basis for greater understand of the tumultuous times and events. We see the successes as well as the failures and frustrations that the founders experienced without, valuably, the rose-colored glasses (or politically motivated distortion) too often seen today.

John Adams was one of the most skillful instigators of the political decisions that led the colonies to strike for independence from Britain. Clearly no founder deserves more credit for maneuvering the disparate and conflicting ideas and factions into the unity that severed the colonial ties with England. As a man, Adams was highly ambitious and decidedly vain; he was constantly motivated by his craving to be remembered and venerated by future generations. He was impulsive and often agitated, traits that Abigail worked hard to help him keep under control. Adams picked up the reputation in the years of and following his presidency of being a closet monarchist. This was undeserved, but Adams did hold a large measure of skepticism about wisdom of the masses that were apt to be swayed by demagoguery and passions of the moment. Adams was a staunch believer in the powers of the central government and he aligned with the federalist faction, although he and Hamilton became bitter enemies. His views were quite contrary to those of Jefferson who tended to support the primacy of the states over a central authority. He and Jefferson, once on the friendliest terms, became estranged during Washington’s administration. Jefferson became Adams’s vice-president due to the flaw in the constitutional method of presidential elections that resulted in the runner-up taking the vice-presidency (soon fixed by the twelfth amendment). As Adams’s subordinate Jefferson is shown to be devious and disloyal to an extreme degree. His manipulations played a part in Adams’s failure to be elected to a second term. In the late years of both men’s lives they reconciled and exchanged a remarkable correspondence. (In one of history’s most poignant coincidences, these two giants died on July 4, 1826 within hours of each other.)

Adams often made decisions from perspectives that ran counter to popular views; he believed that his contrary views supported their correctness. As president he held firm to the unpopular decision to remain neutral in France’s conflict with Britain when opposing factions either favored war with France or unfettered support for revolutionary France. He is long forgotten as the father of the US Navy, built at his insistence to thwart any ambitions of the Europeans with their powerful naval forces. He is often remembered for his most egregious decision to advocate for and sign the Alien and Sedition Act, a law aimed at silencing critics of his administration. What is too little recognized today is his belief in the separation of powers among the executive, legislature and judiciary, a concept he introduced with his authorship of the Massachusetts Commonwealth’s constitution. His “midnight” appointment of John Marshall as chief justice, much resented by successor Jefferson, turned out to have profound impact securing the role of the court in our democracy.

Abigail Adams was a remarkable woman for her times, perhaps for any time. Without formal education and in a society that expected women to eschew political opinions, she was deeply knowledgeable of the political issues that her husband and the country faced. Her advice to him was cogent and sophisticated and he relied heavily on her guidance in reaching his judgments. She was attuned to his weaknesses – his vanity and impulsiveness – and could mitigate the consequences of these traits through her advice to him. John and Abigail were a perfect balance for each other and both had not only deep affection but also complete mutual respect. Ellis points out that we owe to John’s frequent absences from home at Congress or abroad the presence of the volumes of correspondence they shared. Although certainly a hindsight perspective, Abigail can be said to be a forerunner of feminism and notions of gender equality – her complaints about the subordinate status of women in politics and the law are seen in her letters.

The book tells us much about the Adams’s family. John Quincy was the favored son and his parents’ high expectations and demands for his success as an adult were realized. The other Adams’s offspring did not fare so well. Charles became and alcoholic and died an early death. Thomas floundered in his legal profession and took to drink. Nabby had a bad marriage and succumbed to breast cancer while still young.

Ellis would claim that John and Abigail remain the foremost political couple that our nation has seen. One must agree. Franklin and Eleanor were powerful players on the nation’s stage, but her influence seemed to run parallel to his, not conjoined. Bill and Hillary? While effective political partners, one suspects that ambition undergirds the relationship, not affection as was the case of the Adams.

One aside about letters. The qualities of the correspondence shared between the Adams – introspective, thoughtful, expository, lengthy, etc. – are not features of today’s electronic media. One can’t imagine the richness of the Adams’s letters surviving the world of tweeting, instagram and Facebook.
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LibraryThing member MarthaHuntley
This is one of the best biographies, perhaps the best, I've ever read. Or in this case, listened to, as I experienced it on audio CD's. It gives a full, surely a definitive portrait of second U.S. President and Revolutionary spark plug, John Adams. His private life, especially his relationship with
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his family and above all with his wife Abigail, is covered extensively as well as his public life and accomplishments, his personality, his contributions, his frustrations, his wisdom and his wit -- all rendered lucidly, readably, and even-handedly. Joseph Ellis has done a masterful job of writing, and made his own real contribution to history with this excellent book. And the narrator, Kimberly Farr, also does an exemplary job, bringing an excellent book to life. Highly recommend.
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LibraryThing member yukon92
Interesting look at the letters between Abigail and John Adams over the course of their 54 year marriage. Researched in great detail.... but still a little "dry."
LibraryThing member Jarratt
Excellent! I've read a good bit about John Adams (and, via his story, Abigail). But Ellis' book really focuses on an amazing relationship of two amazing people in extraordinary times. And his laid back style is welcoming!
LibraryThing member Schmerguls
5767. First Family Abigail and John, by Joseph J. Ellis (read 3 Dec 2021) This is the 6th book by Ellis I have read and, as always, he does a good job in making it a easy to read and informative book. I have read Page Smith's two-volume biography of John Adams and David McCullough's superlative
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biography of Adams but still found this book full of things of interest. Adams was a hot-headed but able man, very eager to be given credit for his role in gaining independence for his country, and, when he became president he did a great job in avoiding war with France--which Jefferson might have not done had he been president, as he almost was, losing in 1796 by only 3 electoral votes to Adams. I was surprised to learn that Adams was home for as much as he was while president, but it was truly a different world. And it was an amazing fact that both he and Jefferson--the two men most important to the creation of the nation--died exactly fifty years after the day deemed the nation's birthday, on July 4, 1826
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LibraryThing member tuckerresearch
This is basically a dual biography of John Adams and Abigail Adams told through the lens of their letters and relationship. Thus, the "first family" of the title (we don't have any letters for George and Martha Washington, so we can not really know what their relationship was like). It is all told
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with Ellis's easy, engaging style. Along with his decades-long immersion in the source materials. The book could have been improved with images, but it is not a detraction. A pretty good dual bio, all-around. John Adams was an important figure in American history, and this serves as quite the biography for him and his wife. Less grand than McCullough's bio, but quicker and more accessible.
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Massachusetts Book Award (Must-Read (Longlist) — Nonfiction — 2011)


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

320 p.; 9.54 inches


0307269620 / 9780307269621
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