Book Review - First Family

"First Family: Abigail and John Adams" by Joseph J. Ellis

This book offers a fascinating look into the lives, ambitions, and marriage of one of the foremost families of the Revolution era. I found it to be particularly fascinating because it isn't just a re-telling of their life - it offered a sort of "behind-the-scenes" look into their thoughts, attitudes, and motives through use of their copious amounts of letters and journals. As the reader, you aren't just walking through the events of their life, you're journeying into their heart. I also found the book to be very well-written - the words and thoughts flow so nicely together that it made reading both easy and very stimulating.

The book is about 250 pages with only seven chapters - so needless to say, the chapters can be lengthy. There are quite a few sub-headings in each chapter though so it's fairly easy to find a good stopping point. I haven't done much reading or studying on this family of the Revolution so I was very interested to learn more about them and they era they lived through.

One of the main currents of the book (because it was also the main current of their lives) was the preoccupation with fame. John Adams didn't care to have spiritual goals or be consumed with the pursuit of wealth.
"Mere worldly success in terms of wealth was never enough for him; indeed, it was actually dangerous, since wealth inevitably corrupted men and nations by undermining the disciplined habits that produced the wealth in the first place. Making wealth your primary goal, as he saw it, was symptomatic of a second-rate mind destined to die rich but unfulfilled."
Instead of pursuing wealth, John wanted fame. He wanted to be acknowledged as one of the key leaders of the Revolution and founding of this new country. He adamantly considered himself to be such and took issue with anyone who tried to lessen or demean his impact on history. He spent his entire life grasping after what he never could attain - partially because his reputation was damaged by self-centered, egotistical pursuit of his own fame. That passion also took a turn into angry, almost malicious writing when he came across people who either stood in his way or demeaned his impact on society. On his "villians" list were such notable persons as Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson. (though he later reconciled with Jefferson near the end of his life)
It was sad to see his relationship with his children. He was away most of their formative years and without the benefit of modern communication, they lacked a strong bond and friendship. His children lacked his fatherly guidance through much of their young lives. His two younger sons, though showing early promise, ended their lives in dissolution and lost to alcoholism. All the weight of carrying on both his father's mantle of fame and the great family name and legacy rode on the shoulders of their oldest son, John Quincy. Ironically, late in his life, the elder John Adams tried to dissuade his son from following in his footsteps that had led to such turmoil and dissatisfaction - but by then it was too late.

I found the look into Abigail Adam's life quite intriguing. She wasn't confined to society's views of women. She was very educated and well-read for her day and she kept up with and understood politics better than most men of her day. She was an apt helpmate for John, readily able to understand and discuss any policy or opinion of the day. They were true partners together. She also tempered his personality when they were together - she knew how to handle his rantings and oftentimes overly-hard pursuit of fame and a good name. At the same time, Abigail fully embraced her role as wife and mother. She readily accepted her domestic duties and had to run both the family and her household and farm while John was away. At the same time, she never lost her opinionated mind or her personal independence that led her to do things her own way and not always be dictated to by society. While her parenting may not have been the best and her family later fell apart, I found her ability to fully embrace her roles as homemaker and wife while still retaining her personal opinions and individuality to be a great example.

My favorite quote from the book came from Abigail Adams.
"My pen is always freer than my tongue, for I have written many things to you that I suppose I never would have talked."
As an introverted, reflective person that quote really resonated with me. I've often said similar things. If I didn't have the ability to communicate through written word, there would be a lot that I would simply find very difficult or impossible to communicate. For some reason it's easier to write than to talk for me. So I enjoyed that quote - I'm going to have to put it somewhere!

In ending, I really enjoyed this book. It goes much deeper than regular biographies by digging into who they really were and why they were like that while at the same time giving you plenty of information about all the various events that were taking place and shaping their lives. It was a fascinating look into John and Abigail's life and the Revolutionary era and beyond that they helped mold. I would highly recommend this book.


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