Historian and author Joseph Ellis' First Family draws from decades of correspondence between John Adams and his wife, Abigail, to reveal the achievements of America's second president, and the sacrifice and influence of his first lady.
Viewing each other as intellectual equals, the two exchanged more than 1,000 letters over the course of their relationship and, according to Ellis, intended for their correspondence to stand as a record of their lives for posterity — though John Adams insisted the letters were meant for his own family.
"But he actually meant us," Ellis tells NPR's Neal Conan. "He was writing these letters as much to you and I at this moment in time, 200 years later."
In fact, the Adams took decisive steps to ensure their letters would be preserved. In 1776, John wrote to Abigail to tell her he'd bought a leather binder to collect her letters in and advised her to do the same.
Ellis says their correspondence stands out because of its volume.
"They're apart so often," he says. "Abigail's in Braintree [Mass.], he's in Philadelphia; Abigail's in Quincy [Mass.], he's in Paris, Amsterdam." Ellis says the Madisons and the Washingtons might have had similarly compelling collections of notes, but the Madisons were always together and George Washington had his wife, Martha, destroy his letters.
"The sheer emotional power of it and the literary sophistication of it is so overwhelming," Ellis says of the Adams collection. "I've written nine books. I enjoyed writing this book more than any of the others in part because it's a great story and in part [because the letters] give you the evidence [of] this story, which is a love story."
In one remarkable letter, Abigail writes to John while she is in labor with one of their children. ("They have to talk elliptically about birth and pregnancy, because in the 18th century," Ellis says, "you didn't do that.")
Despite John's desire to preserve their correspondence for future readers, Ellis says, he was also "very worried about writing letters that would be seen in his own time, revealing his thoughts on this or that — especially political things."
"God help me if they ever see my letters," John once wrote to Benjamin Rush.
Ellis says John didn't realize the magnitude of their letter collection until he began to re-read them as an older man — and then he knew he needed help. He established an archive and hired editors to help sort through the papers.
Fifty years later, those editors still hadn't finished editing and publishing the enormous collection.