Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Abigail Adams

I set a goal for myself a couple of years ago to read a biography of every American president. Of course, while reading their bios, I've gotten a bit distracted to read about other famous Americans in their orbit: Alexander Hamilton, Dolley Madison, etc. And some presidents suffer from a lack of good biographies. For James Madison I was forced to choose between a dry 783 page tome or a equally dry 200 page volume that focused only on his presidency. I chose the shorter one with the hopes that eventually a better book will be released and I'll revisit Mr. Madison. The fifth president, James Monroe, gave me only one option, a bland recitation of the facts of his presidency written by former presidential hopeful Gary Hart. After finishing it, I couldn't tell you a single thing about the man, including a coherent definition of his famous Monroe Doctrine. Thank goodness Harlow Giles Unger released a fantastic biography of Monroe that really shed light on the president and his wife Elizabeth. I'm currently up to John Quincy Adams in my quest, which means I'm averaging about three presidents a year. At this rate, I won't be done for another twelve years, but by that time we'll have at least one more president, maybe three more, and I'm certain that I will again get distracted and end up reading several more related books (Mary Todd Lincoln anyone?).

The two books I'm reviewing today were delightful detours on my quest.

Abigail Adams by Woody Holton is a timely and vital update to the well-known second First Lady of the United States. Abigail Adams has gained a place in history as the Dear Friend of her husband John Adams, as well as for her famed Remember the Ladies letter to him during the American Revolution. Previous biographies of her and her husband have treated her as a spunky but devoted wife of a Founding Father, but Holton brings completely new aspects of her to life in this well researched and enjoyable read. The author views Adams through the lens of her desire for women's right to education and to own property, so many anecdotes and letters are related strengthening support for that portion of Adams' life. While several other Founding Fathers ended up in abject poverty after their terms in office, John Adams' family lived in comfort and prosperity. Much of this was due to Abigail's watchful care of their property as well as her selling of European goods during the War when those goods were hard to come by. She carefully avoided becoming known as a merchant, but added to the family's wealth, as well as her own. In a time when women couldn't own property or manage their own money, Abigail was accruing enormous wealth through speculation on government bonds. She never allowed worries about money to distract her from caring for her large extended family. She took in children belonging to her sisters, cousins, and own children, always providing a place of refuge for those in need. She kept an active hand in the lives of those she loved, never afraid to offer her opinion and advice. She faced much tragedy in her life: the death of a thirteen month old girl, stillbirth, the death of her wastrel son Charlie, and breast cancer in her beloved eldest child, Nabby. John and Abigail were also separated for many years of their marriage as he served the emerging nation, but that led to a wealth of correspondence between the two that allows Holton, and other biographers, to interpret and understand the relationship between the two. Abigail, under Holton's pen, emerges as a fascinating and intelligent woman determined to care for those she loved and unafraid to buck tradition in order to do so.

The Ninth Daughter by Barbara Hamilton is the first in a historical mystery series starring Abigail Adams. Abigail stumbles upon a brutal murder of a mysterious woman when she stops to visit her friend, Rebecca Malvern. Before alerting the watch to the death, she informs Sam Adams and the other Sons of Liberty because Rebecca was a contact within the organization. In the course of ensuring that the British authorities won't discover any information about the revolutionary group, they destroy much of the evidence. Abigail is so enraged at the idea of the murderer escaping justice that she starts investigating the crime herself, especially when she discovers that Rebecca has disappeared and may have fled the scene because she recognized the man. Perhaps he is a Son of Liberty, putting the entire group under suspicion. Abigail must work with a British lieutenant when her husband John is arrested for the crime. This murder may put the entire American cause in jeopardy. Hamilton has done her research about the life of Adams and fills the pages with many real people along with historical detail that brings 1774 Boston to life. Hamilton also portrays Adams remarkably well and by making the crime one that threatens friends and family makes her interference in the investigation realistic. Those familiar with Adams will be pleased by the portrayal, and those who aren't will be intrigued by this spunky, smart Founding Mother. I can't wait to read the next book in the series.

An interesting fact about the first five presidents: only one had a son who accomplished anything in his life. George Washington had no children of his own. John Adams had three sons; two of which became drunken wastrels who destroyed their families, and his only daughter who lived to adulthood married a man who couldn't keep a job. Of course, his son John Quincy Adams became the sixth president and was an illustrious statesman. Thomas Jefferson had only two daughters, one of whom died young. James Madison had no children of his own, only a stepson whose gambling debts and financial mismanagement drove the entire family into debt. James Monroe had only two daughters. It's interesting to note that these men who founded our country had a difficult time founding a family.