Abigail Adams: Awesome and a Little Frightening

My daughter and I were wandering about the J.P. Morgan Library in New York City last week, vaguely looking for whatever they had about Edward S. Curtis, the Seattle photographer who took those incredible black and white images of Native Americans at the turn of the 20th century.

 Photograph by Edward S. Curtis, c. 1908. "Mandan man wrapped in buffalo robe standing on cliff overlooking the Missouri River." From  Wikimedia Commons .

Photograph by Edward S. Curtis, c. 1908. "Mandan man wrapped in buffalo robe standing on cliff overlooking the Missouri River." From Wikimedia Commons.

We saw a range of amazing things in two hours—one of the Morgan’s three copies of the Gutenberg Bible, a manuscript page from Goethe’s Faust in Goethe’s hand, a first edition of one of the most influential books ever written, Rousseau’s Essay Concerning the Inequality of Mankind, a life mask of George Washington, and the Enlightenment’s greatest sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon’s greatest sculpture, his bust of Benjamin Franklin.

We oohed and ahhed and gasped and nodded and whispered our sense of wonder that one of the richest men of his time chose not to buy gold faucets and giant inlaid bathtubs, but instead gave a portion of his vast fortune to the acquisition of some of the greatest rare books, art treasures, and manuscripts in the world.

My daughter Catherine hissed me over to a little glass case. And there was displayed a letter by Abigail Adams to Thomas Jefferson, dated May 20th, 1804. This was the letter of condolence that Mrs. Adams wrote to her old friend, now enemy, Jefferson, after she learned from the newspapers that his younger daughter Maria had died at Monticello a month previously.

Because my daughter did not know the story, I had the joy of explaining the importance of the letter to her. When Maria sailed from Virginia to Europe in 1787 to join her father and her older sister Martha, the ship stopped first in England, where Abigail and John Adams took the nine-year-old child under their wing before sending her on to Paris. At the time Abigail was rather pointedly annoyed that Jefferson did not come himself to Britain to get his daughter, who, after all, had crossed the entire Atlantic more or less alone—and Jefferson apparently was too busy to cross the English Channel to collect her in person.

Maria had been chaperoned on that immense voyage by none other than 14-year-old Sally Hemings, although, in his defense, it must be said that Jefferson had asked that the chaperon be an elderly black woman who had survived a bout of smallpox and was therefore immune. When Abigail met Sally Hemings in London, some little red flag popped in her sharp soul and she recommended that Jefferson send Sally back to Virginia on the return voyage. But no.

Now, 17 years later, Maria Jefferson Eppes was dead, at the age of 25, and Mrs. Adams knew that Jefferson was overcome with grief.

So she broke a self-imposed silence. She no longer trusted Jefferson. She no longer liked Jefferson. She blamed him for some of the newspaper attacks that had been made on her husband in the lead up to the 1800 presidential election. She saw Jefferson as an unprincipled demagogue, an ambitious, unscrupulous, duplicitous politician who loved power more than he loved virtue, and certainly more than he loved his old friend John Adams, whom he had unfairly displaced from the presidency.

Abigail did not unload on Jefferson in this famous letter. She provided a few carefully veiled hints of her dark feelings about Jefferson, and admitted that nothing but Maria’s untimely death could have moved her to write a letter to a man she now detested. At the end of the letter, just to dick with the Deist Jefferson, if I may use that colorful but accurate term, she urged Jefferson to take comfort “from that only source calculated to heal the wounded heart – a firm belief in the Being: perfections and attributes of God.” And to top it all off, she ended the letter by calling herself one “who once took pleasure in subscribing Herself your Friend.” Ouch.

What a letter! Nobody talked to Thomas Jefferson that way! And there it was, the original, in Abigail’s clear penmanship, under glass, at the JP Morgan Library.

Now if Jefferson had had an ounce of good sense, he would have written a brief, polite reply thanking Mrs. Adams for her sympathy. But that’s not what he did. In his reply on June 13, 1804, Jefferson stupidly brought up a grudge he still nursed about President Adams’ conduct during the last weeks of his one-term presidency. “I can say with truth that one act of Mr. Adams's life, and one only,” he wrote, “ever gave me a moment's personal displeasure. I did consider his last appointments to office as personally unkind.” He complained to Mrs. Adams that John’s appointment of judicial officers after the election results were known—the so-called “midnight appointments”—gave permanent government offices to men who were sworn enemies to the “second American revolution” Jefferson had in mind.

All you can say to this is “Oh boy.”

When Abigail Adams replied, on July 1, 1804, she ripped him a new one, as we like to say in our vulgar era. First she gave Jefferson a little lesson in US Constitution 101: Until the end of a person’s administration, she explained, he has not only a right but a constitutional duty to fill federal vacancies. Think about this. This is Abigail Adams lecturing the great Jefferson about the clear meaning of the US Constitution.

And she was only getting warmed up. Now that Jefferson had made the mistake of opening old wounds, Abigail vented her two grievances. First, when Jefferson canceled as many of the midnight appointments as he legally could, one of those appointments was for Abigail’s son John Quincy Adams. Jefferson later protested that he was unaware that JQ Adams was one of those on the chopping block, and Abigail seems to have believed him. But her larger wrath involved Jefferson’s encouragement, including financial encouragement, of the muckraking hack writer James Callender, who had published all sorts of ugly, unfair, and untrue attacks on the life, career, and character of John Adams, including calling him a hermaphrodite wholly unfit for high office.

Mrs. Adams made it clear that she knew Jefferson had sponsored Callender and egged him on, had given him relatively large dollops of cash, and that he done nothing to curb the ruffian’s verbal excesses.

Barely able to modulate her wrath and bitterness, she wrote, “this Sir I considered as a personal injury—this was the sword that cut asunder the Gordian knot, which could not be untied by all the efforts of party Spirit, by rivalship, by Jealousy or any other malignant fiend.” 

And, just to make sure Jefferson knew how bitter and angry she was, Abigail decided to remind him that she was well aware that Callender had later turned on him and broken the Sally Hemings story to the world:

“The serpent you cherished and warmed, bit the hand that nourished him, and gave you sufficient specimens of his talents, his gratitude, his justice, and his truth.”

There’s more to the story but I will leave it there. The correspondence sputtered on for a few more exchanges until Abigail essentially told Jefferson to go jump in a lake. Jefferson attempted to explain and exonerate himself about Callender, but we know that he was lying, and she knew he was lying, and he knew that she knew he was lying.

Jefferson wrote 26,000 letters altogether, and received even more in the course of his amazing life. I can say this with categorical confidence. Nobody else ever dared to write to Jefferson in this way, nobody else assailed him so directly and with such laser-like aggression. And nobody who wrote to him in even milder rebuke could expect to remain his friend.

Somehow Abigail Adams and Jefferson got through this moment of volcanic tension, though it was ten years before either of them dared write to the other again.

There is something breathtaking about Abigail Adams. She is one of the few people who ever made Thomas Jefferson wince. He would not have wanted to be married to such a woman. It’s remarkable that he even wanted to know a woman so outspoken, direct, and unrelenting in her righteousness.

John Adams was unaware of this epistolary exchange at the time, in the spring and summer of 1804. When he read the exchange years later, he did some wincing, too.

To see the letter that touched off that wild correspondence, with my fabulous daughter, at the Morgan Library, was one of those moments I will never forget. I hope two things. First, that she models herself (to a considerable extent) on Abigail Adams. Second, that I never receive from her a letter of such extraordinary disenchantment.