University of Rochester

New Edition Restores the Personal and Opinionated Detail in Adams's Letters

December 30, 2003

When Charles Francis Adams published his grandparents' letters in 1876, he left out passages or full letters he felt were irrelevant to Revolutionary War history or were too personal about the lives of John and Abigail Adams. His readers wouldn't be interested in those details, he felt.

But present-day readers and biographers are interested in the public and the private lives, the statesmanship and the personal moments of historical figures. A new edition of the correspondence between the second U.S. president and his beloved wife restores the omissions and provides extensive footnotes to the letters, which reflect national politics and culture as well as personal hardships during the nation's formation.

The Letters of John and Abigail Adams (Penguin Classics, 416 pages, $15), edited by University of Rochester Professor Frank Shuffelton and being published this month, contains correspondence over a decade of key moments in the history of the United States. The letters provides political commentary, news of historical events, accounts of household life, and even family gossip. Details about the Adams children's smallpox inoculations, a servant's bout with dysentery, and John Adams's opinion of his daughter's suitor appear alongside reports about the Battle of Saratoga and Abigail Adams's opinion of George Washington.

"The letters give a sense of the personalities of John and Abigail and other figures from that time period; they get readers inside the history of the Revolution," said Shuffelton.

Shuffelton has added numerous footnotes and annotations that identify or describe political figures and events well known at the time but now forgotten. He also has traced and attributed most of the poetry quoted by Abigail Adams.

In his introduction to the letters, Shuffelton gives insights into the public and private lives of John and Abigail Adams and provides historical background for the time period, from 1774 to 1783, covered by the 200 letters. He notes that Charles Francis Adams saw their original publication as supplementing the factual history of the Revolution with the "home sentiment" of the American population.

John Adams was the Massachusetts delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses. During the Revolutionary War, he served abroad in diplomatic roles and helped negotiate the peace treaty. Abigail Smith Adams was the daughter of a minister; her letters to her husband reflect her education, wit, and intelligence as well as her practical skills of management and economy on the Adams's farm.

Shuffelton is the author of two books on Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson: A Comprehensive, Annotated Bibliography and Thomas Jefferson, 1981-1990: An Annotated Bibliography, and edited the Penguin Classics edition of Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia. He has been a Mellon Faculty Fellow, National Endowment for the Humanities Senior Fellow, and president of the Northeast American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. He served on the editorial boards of Early American Literature and Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture and on the executive board of the Modern Language Association's Division on American Literature to 1800.