When we look to the past to better understand our world, we often seek the historical documents and correspondences that shaped our governments and their institutions. Yet, romance also left behind letters that continue to shape our understanding of not only the world as it once was, but of our shared humanity.
John and Abigail Adams began their courtship in 1762, several years before the birth of the United States. The couple enjoyed using pen names with one another, John addressing Abigail as Diana, after the Roman goddess of the moon, and Abigail calling him Lysander, after the Spartan war hero. (Facts from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/adams/peopleevents/e_courtship.html) By the end of John’s political career in 1801, he and Abigail had exchanged over 1,100 letters.
Though the couple spent considerable time apart, their correspondence acted as a reminder of their dedication to one another and allowed for a rigorous intellectual exchange pertaining to the pursuit of a democratic nation.
Portrait of John and Abigail Adams. (image courtesy of http://symonsez.files.wordpress.com/2009/03/johnabigail1.jpg)
In perhaps one of Abigail’s most famous letters to John, she showcases her both her assertiveness and commitment to democratic values as she reminds him that he needs to “remember the ladies” in an age where women were taught to remain in the domestic sphere.
Braintree March 31, 1776
I wish you would ever write me a Letter half as long as I write you; and tell me if you may where your Fleet are gone? What sort of Defence Virginia can make against our common Enemy? Whether it is so situated as to make an able Defence? Are not the Gentery Lords and the common people vassals, are they not like the uncivilized Natives Brittain represents us to be? I hope their Riffel Men who have shewen themselves very savage and even Blood thirsty; are not a specimen of the Generality of the people…
I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs. Of this I am certain that it is not founded upon that generous and christian principal of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us.
I feel very differently at the approach of spring to what I did a month ago. We knew not then whether we could plant or sow with safety, whether when we had toild we could reap the fruits of our own industery, whether we could rest in our own Cottages, or whether we should not be driven from the sea coasts to seek shelter in the wilderness, but now we feel as if we might sit under our own vine and eat the good of the land.
I feel a gaieti de Coar to which before I was a stranger. I think the Sun looks brighter, the Birds sing more melodiously, and Nature puts on a more chearfull countanance. We feel a temporary peace, and the poor fugitives are returning to their deserted habitations.
Tho we felicitate ourselves, we sympathize with those who are trembling least the Lot of Boston should be theirs. But they cannot be in similar circumstances unless pusilanimity and cowardise should take possession of them. They have time and warning given them to see the Evil and shun it.-I long to hear that you have declared an independancy-and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.
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. Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in immitation of the Supreem Being make use of that power only for our happiness.
Every one of your Friend[s] send their Regards, and all the little ones. Your Brothers youngest child lies bad with convulsion fitts. Adieu. I need not say how much I am Your ever faithfull Friend.
Excerpt courtesy of: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/adams/filmmore/ps_ladies.html
One of John Adams’ many letters to his wife Abigail. Image courtesy of: http://media.npr.org/assets/artslife/books/2010/10/first-family/letter-c4814ef7a4f1466e8d7a456d7692ba7e643cdcec-s6-c30.jpg
There is truth in saying that the power of the written word continues to challenge and mold our conceptions of what love is. The correspondence between John and Abigail Adams showcases a unique egalitarianism that existed in their relationship—it was that egalitarianism that they had hoped would one day transcend their letters into what would become American democracy.