- Abigail and John Adams: The Americanization of Sensibility by G. J. Barker-Benfield
With this book, G. J. Barker-Benfield uses his expertise in the culture of sensibility, offered in his 1992 book of that title, to shed new light on the marriage and times of John and Abigail Adams. In the introduction, Barker-Benfield usefully explains not only what the culture of sensibility was, but also the various American cultures that it was defined against, thereby setting his elite subjects in the context of the larger population. Part One begins with a close analysis of the intellectual origins of the culture of sensibility in seventeenth-century England, followed by John and Abigail Adams’s responses to these various writers. This discussion will be most accessible to specialists, especially since the author intersperses references to historians with references to contemporary thinkers without distinguishing between them. The ensuing discussion, of how the Adams’s reading figured into their writing and lives, amounts to an engaging conjugal intellectual history. Yet at times the analysis seems over-labored. In scrutinizing the family’s letters for all expressions of sensibility, Barker-Benfield often sheds light on what would otherwise seem exaggerated descriptions of feeling; but sometimes seemingly unremarkable sentiments nevertheless occasion remark.
Parts Two and Three of the book, which focus on Adams family relations, will be of more interest to social historians. Stepping back, the real take from these chapters is a better understanding of the personalities and marriage of Abigail and John. Abigail’s complexity, in particular, is a revelation. Barker-Benfield helps to explain her in new ways by showing how the reactionary gender ideas of James Fordyce and the revolutionary ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft waged war in her heart. Fordyce won, and Abigail managed to stifle her anger at John’s long separation, but it cost her much pain. Arguably, it cost her daughter Nabby a great deal as well, as Abigail seemingly displaced her search for local sensibility on Nabby’s beau, Royall Tyler, and initially encouraged the match with this rake who did not reform. Once John weighed in from afar with skepticism, Abigail stepped on the brakes, but the whole adventure clearly pained Nabby, and may have caused her precipitate flight into an ultimately disastrous marriage with William Smith. It is rare that one ever gets this close to the dynamics of an eighteenth-century family, and arguably the more tedious intellectual genealogy of Part One is essential to getting the meaning of the epistolary conversations of Parts Two and Three. Certainly, the role of sensibility in these family relations is what Barker-Benfield wants to contribute to the veritable field of Adams marriage studies. That said, one wishes that Part Four, which attempts to put the culture of sensibility in its wider context, had done the same for the Adams family. What happened when John and Abigail were reunited? What happened to their sensibility in old age? How did the marriages of Nabby and John Quincy actually play out? The requisite letter sources may be lacking, but some postscript on these matters would have been welcome.
In the end, Barker-Benfield’s exploration of the impact of separation on this marriage and the complicated adventure of Nabby Adams’ courtship with Royal Tyler is engaging, and provides a well-researched and interesting example of the impact of the culture of sensibility on some elite Americans. Yet his larger [End Page 809] contribution is not clear. He does trace the intellectual roots of some aspects of sensibility and shows these ideas at work in the Adams’s correspondence. But scholars have been discussing the hold of various British moralists on American elites for decades. The tenets of sensibility in particular and its vogue among literate American middle and upper sorts have been explored (along with medical understandings of it) by Sarah Knott in Sensibility and the American Revolution (2009). It is not clear what Barker-Benfield is saying about the Americanization of sensibility beyond what Knott lays...