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Adams Family Correspondence, Volume 12, March 1797–April 1798 ed. by Sara Martin, et al. (review)
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John Adams, Abigail Adams, Adams family, John Quincy Adams, Correspondence

Adams Family Correspondence, Volume 12, March 1797–April 1798. Edited by Sara Martin, C. James Taylor, Neal E. Millikan, Amanda A. Mathews, Hobson Woodward, Sara B. Sikes, Gregg L. Lint, and Sara Georgini. (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015. Pp. 688. Cloth, $95.00.)

In 1963, the first two volumes of the Adams Family Papers were published, inaugurating Series Two (of four) of the Adams Papers, a project that will ultimately include letters to and from Adams family members to the fourth generation. The first volumes spanned the years 1762 to 1778, beginning with a whimsical courtship note from John to Abigail Smith (Dec. 30, 1761) and ending in March 1778 with Abigail’s protracted lament to her sister after John’s departure on his first embassy to France. In between those dates, some 800 pages of correspondence recount the [End Page 829] most comprehensive narrative of the coming of the Revolutionary War and its conduct from the point of view of its participants that exists in American archives.

This monumental project to publish the Adams Family Papers through 1889 has now progressed to Volume 12, covering 1797–1798, the first year of John Adams’s presidency. The fourteen months covered in this volume run to over 500 pages, a majority of which are written by or to its matriarch Abigail. Do not be deceived into thinking that the volatile politics and diplomacy of that dramatic year in our nation’s history take a back seat to the story either because the pen is that of a woman or because of self-censorship. Indeed, the magnificence of the Adams project continues to meet the standards of its predecessors, carrying forward the story of a nation, an era, and a family with all the scrupulous scholarship of any similar project in the historical annals. But it’s not only because the contemporary editors have done an exemplary job of selecting and explicating the meaning and significance of the letters. The letters themselves provide peerless material. The Adamses could write, all of them. And many of their voices are heard in these pages, either directly or referentially as the dramatic events of their lives play out over a vast geographical panorama from Boston to Philadelphia, London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Berlin. We can savor the impact of history as told by its makers and its witnesses.

As Volume 12 opens in March 1797, Abigail remains at home in Quincy while John travels to Philadelphia to be inaugurated as the second president. In her opening letter, she blithely describes conditions on the farm and the celebration in Boston of George Washington’s birthday. In response on March 3, the day prior to his succession to the highest office, John writes about his budget for household furniture. Clearly there’s an innocence that prevails in those few days before the reality of the office sets in. Then all fury breaks out as John clamors in letter after letter for Abigail to come to him, while she is beset by responsibilities at home. She extricates herself quickly and joins him in the enterprise of leading the nation through one of the worst crises in its early history, the prospect of war with France.

As the opening of the story reveals, there is no simple way to understand or prepare for the office of the president of the United States (a lesson that should be taught to every voting citizen in our own time), even in its first decade of experimentation under the new Constitution. [End Page 830] Adams begins to comprehend this. He reports to Abigail after the ceremony that he observed his predecessor’s demeanor: “He seem’d to me to enjoy a Tryumph over me. Methought I heard him think Ay! I am fairly out and you fairly in! see which of Us will be happiest” (9).

Happiness, however, wasn’t part of the Adamses’ bargain with life. Their ethical mantra commanded Duty, the responsibility to serve. And serve they all did, despite the level of personal sacrifice. Abigail admits as much...