So much of our past has present day applications. John and Abigail Adams wrote nearly 1,100 letters to each other over the course of their marriage. It’s a picture of a couple sharing their desires, flaws, problems, and pain. They were apart from each other for nearly a decade as John spent time in France, the Netherlands, and England, and yet they were happily married. So how did they do it?
John Adams was not perfect, far from it. He could be obstinate, self-centered, overly ambitious, and could wield a terrible temper. What made John different, was his ability to share his deepest thoughts, flaws and all, with Abigail and with his other close friends. John was a man not only connected with others, he was connected to his own heart. Adams’ wrote “I feel my own ignorance. I feel concern for knowledge. I have a strong desire for distinction.” Adams’ biographer, David McCullough, wrote, “But if self-absorbed and ambitious . . .the difference was that Adams wrote about it and was perfectly honest with himself.”
Adams shared this honesty through intimate communications with his close friends. McCullough describes Adams as having a “talent for close friendships.” Adams’ friend, Johnathan Sewall, wrote that John had “a heart formed for friendship, and susceptible to the finest feelings.” John described the following very personal feelings in a September 1, 1755 letter to his college friend, Nathan Webb: “At Colledge gay, gorgeous, prospects, danc’d before my Eyes, and Hope, sanguine Hope, invigorated my Body, and exhilerated my soul. But now hope has left me, my organ’s rust and my Faculty’s decay.”
Early on in his life Adams was keenly aware of the importance of close friends as seen in his eloquent and powerful statement in a letter to Webb dated October 12, 1755:
“Friendship, I take it, is one of the distinguishing Glorys of man. And the Creature that is insensible of its Charms, tho he may wear the shape, of Man, is unworthy of the Character. In this, perhaps, we bear a nearer resemblance of unbodied intelligences than any thing else. From this I expect to receive the Cheif happiness of my future life, and am sorry that fortune has thrown me at such a distance from those of my Friends who have the highest place in my affections. But thus it is; and I must submit. But I hope e’er long to return and live in that happy familiarity, that has from earliest infancy subsisted between yourself, and affectionate Friend, John Adams”
Adams carried this affinity for close connected friendship into his marriage with Abigail. The two were married on October 25, 1764. Over the course of their marriage, John continued to share his deepest feelings with his wife through his letters, although John readily acknowledged that Abigail was the better writer. Both John and Abigail recorded that they found it easier to share intimate feelings in their letters rather than in conversation. There are hundreds of examples of the two sharing their feelings in their letters, but the following exchange is just one example. In late 1775, Abigail’s mother Elizabeth Quincy Smith died. Abigail put her feelings in an October 9, 1775 letter to John .
“But the heavy stroke which most of all distresses me is my dear Mother. I cannot overcome my too selfish sorrow, all her tenderness towards me, her care and anxiety for my welfare at all times, her watchfulness over my infant years, her advice and instruction in maturer age; all, all indear her memory to me, and highten my sorrow for her loss. At the same time I know a patient submission is my duty. I will strive to obtain it! But the lenient hand of time alone can blunt the keen Edg of Sorrow. He who deignd to weep over a departed Friend, will surely forgive a sorrow which at all times desires to be bounded and restrained, by a firm Belief that a Being of infinite wisdom and unbounded Goodness, will carve out my portion in tender mercy towards me! Yea tho he slay me I will trust in him said holy Job….Still I have many blessing[s] left, many comforts to be thankfull for, and rejoice in. I am not left to mourn as one without hope.”
Abigail’s October 9, 1775 letter to John
John, who was in Philadelphia attending the First Continental Congress, responded, “Really it is very painfull to be 400 Miles from ones Family and Friends when We know they are in Affliction. It seems as if It would be a Joy to me to fly home, even to share with you your Burdens and Misfortunes. Surely, if I were with you, it would be my Study to allay your Griefs, to mitigate your Pains and to divert your melancholly Thoughts.When I shall come home I know not. We have so much to do, and it is so difficult to do it right, that We must learn Patience. Upon my Word I think, if ever I were to come here again, I must bring you with me.”
John’s October 19, 1775 letter to Abigail
This exchange between John and Abigail is just a taste of the deep thoughts and emotions the couple were able to share with one another. Historian, Joseph Ellis in his book First Family Abigail and John Adams, writes that John and Abigail’s letters “constitute a treasure trove of unexpected intimacy and candor, more revealing than any other correspondence between a prominent American husband and wife in American history.” Ellis summarizes the uniqueness of this type of intimacy as follows:
“The distinctive quality of their correspondence, apart from its sheer volume and the dramatic character of the history that was happening around them, is its unwavering emotional honesty. All of us who have fallen in love, tried to raise children, suffered extended bouts of doubt about the integrity of our ambitions, watched our once youthful bodies betray us, harbored illusions about our impregnable principles, and done all this with a partner travelling the same trail know what unconditional commitment means, and why, especially today, it is the exception rather than the rule.”
So how did John and Abigail do it: Through intimate communication. Today more then ever, and especially with guys, we’ve lost the ability to share our inmost feelings and desires, partly because we don’t really even know what those feelings are. Text messaging our wives about what’s for dinner or who’s picking up which kid is as about as intimate as most marital communications get now days. Somewhere along the way guys have lost the ability to know themselves, faults and all, and openly share their fears, joy, loves, wounds, and inadequacies with a spouse or close friend. John Adams got it when he said that deep friendship is one of the distinguishing Glorys of man. Without it we aren’t really men. Although he lived 200 hundred years ago, John’s message is needed today more than ever.