History knows Abigail Adams as one of the founding mothers of the United States. From her humble beginnings and meager education, she found a way to elevate herself and her family beyond anyone’s imaginings. She took her duty seriously to tend the family farm and raise her children, expending every iota of energy to give them the best possible instruction she knew how. Abigail spent 54 years married to the second President of the United States, supporting and guiding him in everything he did. This devoted wife and mother single-handedly raised four children with a strict sense of morals and decorum. She wrote thousands of letters to friends and family expressing her well-informed political and religious views. Both John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams, would later say that they never could have risen to the presidency without this fiery, intelligent wife and mother. This is the remarkable woman that author Phyllis Lee Levin seeks to capture in her biography, Abigail Adams.
Strong women in history have always fascinated me – warrior queens, battle maidens – but I’d never done much research on women in US history. After watching the HBO mini-series, John Adams, in which actress Laura Linney portrays Abigail Adams to perfection, I knew I had to learn more about this fascinating lady. One quick trip to the library, and this detailed book jumped out as a way to fulfill this particular educational desire.
Through this biography, Phyllis Lee Levin helps readers form a very clear – and, as far as anyone knows now, complete – picture of Abigail from the time just before she married John until her death. One can only assume that not much is known of her childhood because she had not yet made many acquaintances to write to, and her life was unremarkable to history before the Revolutionary War.
Abigail’s personality and accomplishments surface through her letters and those of others who could describe her. It’s amazing to see how someone could have gone from such obscure beginnings and be able to adapt so well, whether on the family farm, entertaining the crowned heads of Europe, or navigating the chaos of the US Capital – then assimilate back into farm life again. In a time when women were expected to do their work and be seen and not heard, and men expected themselves always to be superior, Abigail distinguished herself in everyone’s eyes as extremely intelligent. According to anyone she knew, male or female, she was a force to be reckoned with.
This biography is very well-written and gives a good feel for the tone and pace of Abigail’s life, complete with many excerpts from her letters. The only thing I can really complain about is that it did become a bit bogged down and cumbersome after a while; Abigail had a very eventful life, and Levin made certain not to miss anything. We also get a very good feel for both the accomplishments and humanity of such notables as the Washingtons, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and many of the founding fathers.
The cumbersome feel wasn’t really the fault of the author, in my opinion. No matter how fascinating a book is, it’s difficult not to tire of it a bit after nearly 500 pages. It is well-researched, and much of it is expressed in Abigail’s own words by way of the aforementioned letters and through anecdotes from friends. Levin interjects her own words only where necessary, creating and interesting and engaging book that is virtually co-written by the First Lady herself.
Overall, this is one of the most complete biographies I’ve ever read, with the exception of Abigail’s younger life. That omission isn’t a surprise, and only slightly detracts from the story – I just can’t imagine that the information has been recorded anywhere that would survive the centuries. If there’s anything you want to know about this vibrant woman who had a big part in making two US presidents, this is definitely the book to read.