Skip to main content

tv   The Presidency  CSPAN  January 17, 2015 12:00pm-12:46pm EST

12:00 pm
the supreme court of the united states had said the entire strength of the nation may be used to enforce the security of all rights and trusted by the constitution and that included who wanted to go to central high school in little rock arkansas. we were terrence roberts, thelma mothershed elizabeth earnest green, mini jean brown and gloria ray. and we were going to school again. >> author and professor edith
12:01 pm
explores the 54-year marriage between john and abigail adams. she uses the couples letters as evidence of their strong and successful partnership. professor gist spoke at a celebration of john and abigail adams 250th wedding anniversary in massachusetts. this 45 minute event was co-hosted by the massachusetts historical society and the abigail adams historical society. >> and i am thrilled and honored to present our keynote speaker she's a stanford university historian and a senior scholar at the institute for gender research. she is the author of numerous articles reviews in books. among them are of course the world of abigail adams, which won the herbert feist award from the american historical association. also abigail adams a rising life and her most recent book having
12:02 pm
to do with the adams is abigail and john portrait of a marriage which she will discuss today. this book was a finalist for the george washington prize. edith has appeared widely in the media, talking about the adams. and she's also been on the c-span first lady series. she's currently working on editting a collection of abigail adam's letters for the library of america. so, i would like you to welcome her. [cheers and applause] >> according to adams family lore, when abigail smith married john adams on october 25, 1764,
12:03 pm
the reverend smith, abigail's father preached a sermon on a text from matthew. for john came neither eating wed or -- charles francis adams recorded the story in his grandmother's memoir and explains the reverend's choice of text as his response to the weymouth congregation. he suggests that a portion of the parisher ins thought that the son of a small farmer of a middle class was scarcely good enough to match with the minister's daughter, descended from so many of the shining lights of the colony. the reverend smith message may have included his more personal reflections which charles francis preferred to disregard or excuse.
12:04 pm
for many reasons, the reverend smith and his wife elizabeth may have disproved of the marriage of their middle daughter. abigail was not yet 20 years old when she married. young for the middle of the 18th century, where on average women married at the age of 22. further, she appears not to have had previous suitors to john adams whom she met when she was 16. that adams was a full 10 years her senior may have weighed as an advantage had he been other than a lawyer. but abigail's roots went deep into the colonial elite. her mother's family were quincy's norton's, shepherds. the solid bedrock of massachusetts society. the smith's family while more recently arrived, represented the other respectable strain of new england society. the merchant class.
12:05 pm
adams' father was a farmer and a shoemaker. so given either presental or social disapproval of the match, it is clear that abigail smith acted upon her own will when it came to marriage. she chose to marry john adams because she loved him and because she believed that they were compatible. during their more than three years of courtship, she had measured his character, tested her own intuition, as he had in return and in the end, abigail believed that she could live her lifetime in partnership from which there is no escape. the adams' marriage has become legendary in american history. just the mention of abigail and john calls forth an image of an ideal marriage, one founded upon love, loyalty, friendship and courage. which in many respects it was.
12:06 pm
but the adams' marriage is for other reasons. it appears modern. in fact it has many of the attributes of a modern marriage. it was a love match that endured. it produced at least one famous son and established a dynasty of great citizens. it overcame adversity and tact. it was a match of intellectual equals lending legitimacy to the claim of womans status. above all, the adams' marriage is idealized because abigail is available. probably the most available first lady until the mid 20th century, because her correspondent has survived. no other correspondent of this magnitude by a woman of her era
12:07 pm
exists which makes her our best chronicler of the american revolutionary period from a woman's point of view. further, the survival of this correspondent is what makes the adams' marriage appear more modern than it was. the ideal as we read it into the letters surviveses a a testimony to an ideal correspondents, if not an ideal marriage. in fact, scholarship and history and anthropology makes it clear that all human institutions are functions of the culture in which they exist. marriage, as much as anything else. 18th century new england was no exception to this rule. and the prevailing culture of the world into which john and abigail married was that of their pure tan forebearers.
12:08 pm
while pure tainism has transformed and modified overtime into a more 18th century. its characteristic in terms of marriage was pate yarky. the adams' marriage was predicated upon its existence within this. when abigail chose to marry john it was the most spectacular act of will available to her for the remainder of her years. never again would she make a decision of that magnitude to control the direction of her life. there existed no easy exit
12:09 pm
clause from her decision once the vows were taken. she had little control over the kind of wordship reformed ore over he reproductive life. marriage with her obligations became her destiny in that world. the rules that followed from the existing also prescribed very clear separation of male and female spheres, and these spheres were not equally but were organized. in her famous statements requesting john to remember the ladies she closed her remarks by writing -- regard earth then as being placed by providence under your protection, and in imitation of the supreme being make use of that power only for our happiness. the lens through which abigail viewed her world revealed a
12:10 pm
devinely prescribed -- and his choice about place, manner and style. abigail accepted that world. she wrote i believe nature has assigned each sex duties and to act well your part, there all the honor lies. at the same time, abigail was neither slave nor servant and she knew that as well. she had leverage within the marriage bond, both because of her character and john's. and because the patriarchy that existed in new england was flexible. the physical magnetism that charged their early companionship remained alive, mellowed into tender familiarity
12:11 pm
and a deep loving commitment. and rather than contracting under the weight of domestic drudgery, the scope of her knowledge developed over her lifetime so she wame wise. both the emotional and the intellectual aspect overflowed from life into letters once they were parted. in addition to patriarchy, hire arky and separate spheres, two additional aspects marked the adams' marriage. they were the concepts of contractalism and of duty. as all of pure tanism was con tractal, that is binding on human relations so marriage was a contract in which there was no easily obtainable exit clause.
12:12 pm
finally, there's the theme of duty which of all qualities we can discern as primary to the adams' sense of themselves within the human community. duty refers to the principle of virtue and service and sacrifice, as the governing rules of human behavior. in the best sense then, the adams' with their pure tain background represent what historians call the come pain yon marriage. meaning a love match in which their exists enduring friendship and respect. it is for that reason that mere marriage is in the long run idealized. at its best it represents the ideal accommodation of woman to man in western culture. we know this because they wrote
12:13 pm
all to each other, and we can read quite intimate letters that provide amazing insights into their private lives. as they lived apart for a large portion of their married years letters became their way of maintaining their relationship and sustaining their bond. when they married in 1764, both expected their lives to repeat the lives of their parents, family and friends. and for a decade, this was more or less the case. after the wedding they moved to their brain tree home that john had inherited from his father. their first child was born within the first year, a daughter named abigail for her mother and often called nabby. she was followed at approximately two year intervals by john quincy, susanna, who
12:14 pm
died after a year, charles, thomas. a last child was stillborn in 1777. all the while john's law practice grew. he traveled the circuit when the courts were in session, and therefore was frequently away from home. abigail remained at home with children and servants. she visited or was visited by her parents, sisters and friends, but often she was lonely. after eight years she wrote to him alass, how many snow banks divide thee and me and my warmest wishes to see thee will not melt one of them. due to john's thriving business they moved twice to boston returning home in 1770 after john apparently had a broke down. then they moved back to boston and this was the pattern then
12:15 pm
that for their first decade of marriage, john built his law practice and his reputation. and he later wrote i had more business at the bar than any lawyer in boston. abigail gave birth and ran her household. all this occurred within the context of a closely knit extended family. and among many friends. and it was during this time also that abigail met her friend and mentor the great historian and patriot, -- during the same decade of marriage however, public events were taking place and taking on an increasingly dangerous course. the quarrel with great britain was growing which would lead to breach and war. the contest was begun over taxes.
12:16 pm
it escalated with the tea party and the inposition of the the intoller rabble act. in 1774, john was elected to attend the congress of all the colonies in philadelphia, and for that occasion abigail sewed him a new vest. he rode off to philadelphia with sam adams, robert pain and thomas cushion for an undetermined amount of time, and they didn't know what the duration would be, or what would be his role in congress. and it's important to acknowledge at this point that he wasn't famous and he went off to philadelphia and he wondered how he would measure up to the other delegates, and it was very quickly he discovered that he could speak and that he could project, and that he was one of the big shakers and movers of the first continental congress. and in the end, the congress lasted for more than two months, and john had discovered his
12:17 pm
power among the delegates. he returned home in november to practice law but the momentum to hostilities was relentless and he was elected once again to the continental congress in philadelphia. by this time lexington and con chord had occurred and the revolutionary war had begun. and except for a few visits home in 1776, 1777, and 1779, the adams' were separated for a decade. john traveled to france twice, the last time in 1779, with his two younger sons. what is important to realize that at no point during this long period was either abigail or john able to predict the duration of their separation.
12:18 pm
so what may be concluded about the adams' and their marriage during this decade? abigail's role changed in war time as women's roles always change in war time. she became manager of the farm and the director of family finances, which she did for the rest of her marriage. after two years of wrestling with labor and labor shortages and other responsibilities, she rented out the farm to tenants. with her uncle as advisor at first she purchased property and she invested in security. she also began a business, merchandising items that john sent to her. she managed her children's lives, including their education which was very difficult. schools had closed down, she tried to tutor them, she reached the limits of her own ability to teach them, her own knowledge. and variously hired more tutors or sent them off torell tives
12:19 pm
for their education. she also decided to take the small pox innoculation in 1776. and she said she wouldn't have done it for herself but she wanted to do it for her children. she educated herself, reading in john's library. she famously read charles ray men's great ancient history when she was helping john quincy with his history lessons. but the great correspondents between them had begun. the war ended and john did not return from france. so she finally traveled to europe in 1784 with her daughter to join him. and it was an immense challenge for her. she was rightly fearful of ocean travel, and she was also concerned about her lacking manners and cultures to move in the same circles as john was now
12:20 pm
accustomed to moving. she wrote, mere american as i am, i do not know how i'll fit in. in fact, during this long hiatus in their marriage, each had hugely different experiences that changed who they were in many ways. john became worldly, moving in high ranks of european society, and diplomatic state craft. abigail remained a pro ventional new england matron. however, she was no longer the naive young woman of 1764, or even 1774. but rather because of her experience as a single mother in war time, she had matured strengthened. so she went to europe and they came together again and this is the most remarkable thing that i can note about their marriage.
12:21 pm
that marriage came together again when they met after really a decade of separation. with all of the passion interest caring, sympathy, empa thy and generosity of their early marriage. separation had altered who they were but not altered their relationship. so they now became public figures. after 10 months in france they moved to england for two years and then they returned to america, a new constitution had been adopted, john was mentioned for various offices in the new government. even fleetingly mentioned for the presidency. but of course that went to george washington, and john accepted the vice president si. abigail would have preferred retirement. she would have preferred it
12:22 pm
because she wanted, because it was her style. her personal style to live in a much more local and personal community. but her health wasn't good, and one of the remarkable things throughout her letters is her declining health and the immense amount of illness that they all lived in, all of the time. but she wanted also to be with her family and live among her children and her grandchildren. but john could not resist the call of duty, and probably ambition. he had expected a role and he settled on the vice president si. abigail as always overcame her reservations and went along.
12:23 pm
she lived in a patriarchy where men's decisions became a woman's destiny. at a personal level as well she understood him completely and she believed the nation needed him specifically. she had long rationalized his leaving the family as destiny. the war and the new nation would not survive without john's active participation. it was her way of thinking, with her it was an article of faith that grew out of her deeply religious convictions and perspective. it was his duty to serve, and thus it became her duty to sacrifice. john served two terms as vice president, abigail was with him in new york city, which was the first capitol, and then in philadelphia for three years, and then returned home for the following five years of his vice president si.
12:24 pm
he served one term as president she was there as often as health and her home care commitments permitted. and then the presidency ended in 1801 and they retired. we often hear that retirement is not -- and old age are not for the faint-hearted, and that is certainly the case for the adams'. at first abigail was concerned could john retire? what would his life be like without politics? and she discovered very quickly that he returned to the earth and to the ground and returned to farming. and she returned to her domestic household and friends. there were always people living with them. family members, thomas and his family lived there for a while. john quincy and his family came and went. the widow of charles francis lived with them, charles, their
12:25 pm
third son, the second son lived with them for a long periods of time. they always had grandchildren with them and they had visitors. they were celebrities after all. and people liked to drop in to say hello to the ex president and first lady. they also had financial problems. a collapse in 1803 wiped out of their securities in england that they had purchased in england, so forth. they weren't like the other founders. they had immense family difficulties. charles died in 1801. there was the may sect michigan and death of abigail adams smith, the daughter. abigail herself nearly died several times. there was the absence of john quincy, they longed for him. he was in st. petersburg. and then as they aged family members began to die, and
12:26 pm
friends died. they stayed together for those last 18 years and when people would request that abigail would come and visit when her daughter would say come visit, she would say no, i won't leave john. there were no long separations again for the last 18 years of their marriage. until abigail died at the age of 76. so what can we say about the marriage? in the end, they had each other. it was a remarkable marriage. what made it work? theirs was a love match that grew into deep commitment over their lifetime. i love speculating about what makes marriage work, every one of us does. the question was asked earlier which was the better marriage. we all have ore ideas, our opinions about it, here are
12:27 pm
mine. it was a love match that endured and they stayed in love. was it as jim suggested to me clear because they were separated? did separation make the heart grow fonder? there was compatability of legacy of common culture they came from. of religion, intellect. they were both immensely religious, but abigail especially. abigail's letters throughout quote from the bible. she particularly would become more religious in times of an emergency. almost back to the original calvinnists, belief in predestination, a disease that happened was caused because we had done something sinful, or an epidemic, the small pox epidemic caused by something that had been sinful. they shared values.
12:28 pm
they knew the difference between right and wrong, they had a shared belief system about the difference between right and wrong, and how to do right. they had tolerance for each other's differences, and they encouraged each other's growth. and finally as sara has pointed out, they had humor. they teased and they joked. humor is a method of relating that deescalates potential hot spots. it eases social relations. at critical times, both of them used humor. remember the ladies. a new tribe has arisen to protest. so in the end, the adams' provide us with more than insights about their personal lives and more than a window
12:29 pm
into an era. they're more than their letters more than their portraits, more than their artifacts. what they're very famous marriage offers us is a moral compass, a guide to behavior that i believe derives from their pure tain background. they owe bahed a set of val -- they obeys a set of values that were tempered by philosophy, that said somethings are right and somethings are wrong. they were people who understood that the highest human calling was that of the idea that individual virtue entailed service and sacrifice for the larger community. they were citizens who sacrifice personal happiness for a lifetime for the greater good.
12:30 pm
on october 23, 1814, abigail summed up her assessment of marriage to her beloved granddaughter caroline, and she wrote "yesterday completed a half-century since i entered into the married state, then it just your age. i have a great cause for thankless that i have lived so long and enjoyed such a large portion of happiness that has been my lot. the great source of unhappiness that i have known in that time is arisen from the long and cruel separation which was called on in a time of war and with a young family around me to submit to, that you and the rest
12:31 pm
of my posterity may enjoy the fullest city that has befallen to me, is my sincere wish and prayer of your affectionate grandmother." when she was dying, john wrote to a friend "i wish i could lie down and die beside her." he lived for eight more years, stunningly dying on july 4 1826, the 50th anniversary of the declaration of independence. their marriage had lasted 54 years. in most respects, it was an ideal marriage. thank you. [applause] >> thank you, if anyone has questions for edith, we have our mics in action.
12:32 pm
>> i have the first question, it is specifically [indiscernible] about john adams relation with his own mother, and how that colored his relationship with abigail? we don't know much about that. >> there are references here and there in his diary and so forth, and so people read into these very few references, what the relationship had been about. so depending on the historian you can read a lot into very little evidence. that is what has happened. i'm sure he had a fine relationship with his mother. everyone tends to blame mothers for whatever goes wrong with kids whatsoever. [laughter] and that is an easy route to
12:33 pm
travel in our post-freudian age. so in deed, i think his relationship with his mother was just fine, and she lived a very long life, to his presidency and he wrote letters at her death about how much he would miss his mother, that she had been a very kind and warm and generous mother. so that's what. [applause] >> [indiscernible] >> that was her son john quincy who was the linguist. john quincy had many, many languages. john adams -- no, he was great at english. [laughter] he was really fluent. reading john adams is a real pleasure.
12:34 pm
i think of all the founders, i think he was the greatest of the -- and i think, of course we don't have recordings, but his spoken language -- when he is responsible for the acceptance of the declaration of independence, he spoke, and they say between 2-4 hours, i don't know, it's just extemporaneous -- he had good english. he learned french when he went to france, and he probably played around with dutch when he was in holland, but i don't think he was a very great linguist. she had a little bit of french but she -- and she studied it when she went to france, she read moliere, she read the plays, she went to the theater in an attempt to learn french, but i don't think either of them became as fluent as their son did. >> i had a question about happiness.
12:35 pm
how did abigail make that transition from braintree to europe and to london? did she enjoy herself over there? >> she was very nervous about it. she was extremely anxious about going to europe, and she was concerned about what she wore, she was concerned about the manners, and what kind of a figure she would strike, she was a quick study. she learned quickly. and she adapted very well. and she was soon entertaining and being entertained, and did she enjoy it? i suppose so, the way one enjoys travel, it is work, and it is different, it is not at home. she certainly made a lot of observations, she studied, she went to museums, she went to various places and took little side trips and so forth, and always recorded for her sisters back at home and for members of
12:36 pm
the family. i think she was interested in it, i think she loved being at home, and probably like many of us, are very happy to travel and go and see different places, and like being at home. does that answer your question? >> i was wondering, there was a letter and i know you are working closely with the letters now, and i cannot remember the date of it, but it was abigail to her youngest son thomas, in which she is commiserating with him at some level because he is afraid he is going to be an old bachelor, he has not married yet. and in commiserating she says,
12:37 pm
you know i married too young. now, was she really meaning that she married too young, or was it just trying to make him feel better? >> she possibly was reflecting. that is a good one, jim. you know, she was concerned about all of her children's marriages, and she did lots of meddling, and she did lots of meddling, and it is to her credit that she meddled, because she was trying to protect them and she was looking for ways to ensure that they would have good lives. she knew very well that who you married was her destiny, and how your life would unfold, and happiness in life very much depended on what marriage would be like. nevertheless, she was always promoting it, so she was always on the lookout for a match for thomas, yes, and he donald in -- and he was in philadelphia for a while, and she was saying, are there single women in
12:38 pm
philadelphia? she did that also for the other children as well. particularly, with thomas, and married a very well. you mentioned thomas and the letters, and i have been reading the letters now very closely and my impression of thomas has changed so much, the youngest son. first of all, there is a lot of that press with her relation with her sons generally. and how thomas's life turned out, thomas was ill a lot of the time, and she identified with that. she said he had inherited the family disease, rheumatism, and he was apparently very ill a lot of the time. she sent him incredible formulae for medical treatments.
12:39 pm
how they lived with medicines, how anyone survived with the kind of therapies that they suggested, bleeding and purgatives, and on and on -- and thomas was very ill and she cared about him a lot, and he was very happy with nancy, i believe. does that answer your question jim? was that more than you asked? yeah? >> how did john handle those last eight years, was he miserable, was he sick, was he well? >> john continued to live an interesting life, and he was
12:40 pm
very frail, he was probably blind and deaf, and he had many, many relatives all of the time who live the -- who lived around him and many friends, and he was care for -- cared for by the woman who was abigail's niece who had lived with them for their entire life and she became a housekeeper and so forth. i presume lonely, always, but he interested himself in the world, he carried on this incredible correspondence with thomas jefferson, benjamin rush, and the old founders began a correspondence about what it was like, and they said, no one will ever know what it was like, and once we are gone, they will never understand what it was like. and they were right, we don't, we struggle at understanding what they were like what it was
12:41 pm
like. you know, it was a good old age. with disease and all of the frailties that come along with aging, and he did it magnificently, and to the very end, he was going to boston, he was a celebrity, he was a very famous man, people came to him and he went to boston. he was invited to the constitution of massachusetts, which was being rewritten, and he was put on the commission to rewrite it but he could not do it, he was not well enough anyway it was a good last eight years, given the constraints. >> you mentioned the puritan church a number of times, and i was just wondering, how much of a role did her faith play and in who she was and her development? >> central, absolutely central. abigail was a very religious woman, and religion played just an immensely important part in
12:42 pm
her life. intellectually, she knew the bible, she knew it well, she was the daughter of a minister, and she quotes it all the time, and one imagines that she just spoke extemporaneously quoting from the bible and understood it. but her belief system was a very, very deep, and it sustained her absolutely particularly through the deaths of her children, she lived through the deaths of two of her children, charles and abby. religion was of great solace to her. [applause] >> you made a glancing reference to her closeness to her family and circle of friends, could you comment on how her relationship with her two sisters was central throughout her life?
12:43 pm
>> well, it was, she was very close to her two sisters, she was probably closer to mary and spent more time with mary, they had shared a room together as girls and live together, and -- and lived together, and then mary was two years older than she. and she was i think six years older than elizabeth, her younger sister. she and mary were particularly close, but she trusted her sisters, they were her best friends, they were the people whom she trusted more on this planet, other than john, and whom she shared background and experiences. when she was concerned during the war, the revolutionary war about how to educate the children she had at home, she decided she would send them to elizabeth, whose husband was running a private school. when john quincy's children live
12:44 pm
d with her in the later years, she sent them to mary to be educated. the letters that someone was talking about that came later during the presidential years with mary, especially, are very revealing about their intimate lives. they could talk to each other. i called my chapter in "portia" the three-fold cord, and that the reference that abigail made to her sisters and to herself. thank you. [applause] >> thank you. thank you again to the first church for letting us hold this symposium here, take you to our amazing speakers, and thank you to you all for coming. thank you very much. [applause]
12:45 pm
>> you are watching american history tv. 48 hours of history on american history every weekend on c-span3. follow us on twitter to keep up with the latest news. >> the deadline for the c-span student cam video competition is tuesday. get your entries completed now. a 5-7 documentary on that theme, that three ranches and you for a grand prize of 5000 dollars. for a list of the rules go to >> next, a discussion of the correspondence between


info Stream Only

Uploaded by TV Archive on