Abigail Adams by Woody Holton

June 5, 2012

Summary (from the publisher): The New York Times Book Review, Editor’s ChoiceAmerican Heritage, Best of 2009In this vivid new biography of Abigail Adams, the most illustrious woman of the founding era, Bancroft Award–winning historian Woody Holton offers a sweeping reinterpretation of Adams’s life story and of women’s roles in the creation of the republic. Using previously overlooked documents from numerous archives, Abigail Adams shows that the wife of the second president of the United States was far more charismatic and influential than historians have realized. One of the finest writers of her age, Adams passionately campaigned for women’s education, denounced sex discrimination, and matched wits not only with her brilliant husband, John, but with Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. When male Patriots ignored her famous appeal to “Remember the Ladies,” she accomplished her own personal declaration of independence: Defying centuries of legislation that assigned married women’s property to their husbands, she amassed a fortune in her own name. Adams’s life story encapsulates the history of the founding era, for she defined herself in relation to the people she loved or hated (she was never neutral), a cast of characters that included her mother and sisters; Benjamin Franklin and James Lovell, her husband’s bawdy congressional colleagues; Phoebe Abdee, her father’s former slave; her financially naïve husband; and her son John Quincy.

At once epic and intimate, Abigail Adams, sheds light on a complicated, fascinating woman, one of the most beloved figures of American history.

Liked:

  • Having never studied the life of Abigail Adams before, all of the information in this book — including the famous “remember the ladies” appeal — was entirely new to me. That’s always a plus, as opposed to reading a rehash of facts and figures picked up in other media.
  • Abigail seemed like such a complex, forward-thinking woman for her time. I’m not only talking about the “remember the ladies” thing; I also mean the way she invested, speculated, and otherwise took advantage of any and all opportunities to earn a buck. The woman was an out and out capitalist, and I can totally see her snapping up Ocean Isle beach nc real estate or other premium properties if she were alive today!
  • Because there are so many surviving letters from Abigail’s lifetime, this biography is chock-full of firsthand accounts of all the major happenings in the Adams’ lives. Much of what is contained in the book comes directly from Abigail or John themselves, with very little speculation from the author.
  • Abigail survived so much and was such a fighter. She was able to carry on without John while he was overseas for years and years; she got past the deaths of children; she put up with business and financial disappointments, etc. She lived a long, full life, which was certainly an accomplishment for that period in history.

Disliked:

  • This book was definitely on the long side. It seems that because there were so many of Abigail’s letters available, the author felt obligated to talk about every little thing that happened to her. While the glimpses of day-to-day living in the early 19th century might be of interest to a historian, they weren’t all that exciting for a casual reader like me who just wanted to know about the highlights of her life.
  • Some parts of the book felt a bit repetitive, particularly the stuff about brother-in-law Richard Cranch being a poor businessman. That was brought up countless times, and was simply dull each and every time.

Rating:

Despite the minor problems mentioned above, I thought Abigail Adams by Woody Holton was a well-written, mostly engaging book about the life of one of America’s most fascinating first ladies. If you know little or nothing about Abigail going into this one, you will emerge with a rather complete picture of her personality, struggles, and accomplishments against the backdrop of the American Revolution and the first years of the new nation. I give this book 4 stars out of 5.

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