Friday, November 16, 2012


JOHN ADAMS (1735-1826) & 

Unlike most other early Presidential couples, John and Abigail were evenly matched. True, John was a highly educated Harvard graduate, as statesman and successful lawyer, while Abigail was largely self-taught. But as the daughter of a minister, Abigail had grown up in a cultured household and enjoyed many advantages not generally available to girls of her time. Abigail was also blessed with a curious mind and sharp wit that made her a delightful, as well as an indispensable, help meet to John throughout their married life.

Americans owe a particularly great debt to this devoted New England couple, separated throughout their lives by service to their country. Constantly yearning for one another, they wrote often; and recognizing the importance of their times, they saved their letters. More than 1,100 Adams letters survive, and since both husband and wife were keen observers, a great deal of what we know about the Founders and the Revolutionary era is what they saw fit to record. 

But lets get back to that innocent time--some 15 years before anyone even thought about breaking with Great Britain--when Abigail was still a girl in her teens, John was a young lawyer, and nothing mattered more than courtship and love.



“Miss Adorable,
"By the same token that the bearer hereof, John Adams, sat up with you last night. I hereby order you to give him as many kisses and as many hours of your company after 9:00 o’clock as he pleases to demand, and charge them to my account.”
--John Adams to Abigail Smith, 1761
   Waymouth, MA

“Humanity obliges us to be affected with the distresses and Miserys of our fellow creatures. Friendship is a bond yet stronger, which causes us to feel with greater tenderness the afflictions of our Friends. And there is a tye more binding than Humanity, and stronger than Friendship, which makes us anxious for the happiness and welfare of those to whom it binds us. It makes their Misfortunes, Sorrows and afflictions, our own. Unite these, and there is a threefold cord - by this cord I am not ashamed to own myself bound, nor do I believe that you are wholly free from it.”
          --Abigail Smith to John Adams, 1763
                Waymouth, MA

Marriage, October 25, 1764

The day before they were married, 19-year-old Abigail wrote John, then 28, to discuss arrangements for transporting her things to their future home in Braintree, then added:

and then Sir, if you please, you may, take me.”
--Abigail Smith to John Adams, 1764

Married Life and Politics

In the 10 years that followed, Abigail and John Adams had six children, three of whom survived. Unlike so many rich Founders, who lived on large landed estates worked by slaves, John and Abigail Adams began their married life on a small inherited farm, where any work that had to be done was either paid for or Abigail did it herself.

In 1776,  Adams used his considerable eloquence to convince his fellow delegates to the Continental Congress to break with Great Britain. Then war came, and the Congress sent him abroad to seek support for the American cause. 

Back in New England, Abigail found herself running the farm, surrounded by the flood of incoming British troops, and raising the children on her own. In France, John had his own troubles. Rather than finding him principled and eloquent, the French courtiers saw Adams as brusque, prudish, bumpkinish, and rude (he didn’t speak French). When it came to securing support for the American cause, he failed miserably. 

[The French court far preferred the famous and worldly Dr. Franklin, who told funny stories, charmed their women, fed their frontier fantasies by wearing a coonskin cap, and ended up securing the French war fleet and millions of francs for the American cause—but therein lies another tale.]

As noted above, John and Abigail's long years of enforced separation, so fruitless and hard, were yet a great legacy to the nation. And in their  correspondence for the ages, Abigail more than holds her own. Her letters gleam with snippets from literature, poetry, and current events, and fairly sparkle—as do John’s—with keen observations, gimlet humor, and ready wit.

From John’s letters we know that this man, who had a sharpish word for everyone, adored his wife. He prized her loyalty and her character and was titillated by her deliciously “saucy” turn of mind. Abigail, who heartily returned this devotion, admired her husband’s independent spirit and eloquence, and hated his enemies with a vengeance. (It was the desire to protect her husband from libelous attacks that made her urge him to support passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, so reminiscent of our Patriot Act today.) 

During all their long years apart, Abigail craved the company of her absent husband, whom she called: “My dearest friend. . . .” As for John, he simply could not do without her.


Remember the Ladies . . .

In 1776, when Abigail wrote the following famous request, she was 31 and had been married for 12 years. Often quoted, it is yet rarely cited in its entirety—or shown together with John’s response. The exchange is a wonderful example of the couple’s habitual and affectionate sparring over  ideas and words. Yet here, unusually, Abigail rejects her husband’s playful tone, sticks to her guns, and stands up for what she knows to be right. (Underlining is mine.)  

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.

"Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.

"That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute; but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up -- the harsh tide of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend. Why, then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity? 

"Men of sense in all ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the (servants) of your sex; regard us 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."
      Abigail Adams to John Adams
          Boston, MA, March 31, 1776


". . . . As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our struggle [for independence from Britain] has loosened the bonds of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their guardians, and negroes grew insolent to their masters. But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe, more numerous and powerful than all the rest, were grown discontented.

"This is rather too coarse a compliment, but you are so saucy, I won’t blot it out.

"Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and in practice, you know we are the subjects.

"We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight."
John Adams to Abigail Adams
   Philadelphia, PA, April 14, 1776


"I cannot say that I think you are very generous to the ladies; for, whilst you are proclaiming peace and good-will to men, emancipating all nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over wives.

"But you must remember that arbitrary power is like most other things that are very hard — very liable to be broken; and, notwithstanding all your wise laws and maxims, we have it in our power, not only to free ourselves, but to subdue our masters, and without violence, throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet."
Abigail Adams to John Adams
   Boston, MA, May 7, 1776

Lessons from John and Abigail Adams
  • In a marriage of equals, the dialogue grows and continues throughout life.
  • Few today appreciate the what it cost the Founders, male and female, to create our country.


Saturday, July 14, 2012


Over the next several weeks, I am going to post a series of small articles on Presidential couples, as they were when they got married. Since the husbands in these couples are well known, I will concentrate on the wives. These are in no way comprehensive--just a brief intro to our First Ladies. It is also fitting that I "remember the ladies" because these sketches were originally designed for a Bride's Luncheon Tour, for I hope you enjoy them.

Thomas & Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson

Martha Wayles Jefferson  (?)
Martha Wayles Jefferson (1748-1782) grew up in rural Virginia in the lap of luxury. Her mother was beautiful, cultured, and as an Eppes from the huge Bermuda Hundred plantation, well born. Her father was John Wayles, a dashing Englishman grown rich on the slave trade. When Martha’s mother died shortly after her birth, her father immediately married again. And when his second wife died, married once again. Finally, after 
losing three wives in short order, John vowed never to marry again. Rather he turned openly to his beautiful mulatto slave Betty Hemings for conjugal comfort, eventually siring six more children. Though accomplished and rich, the young Martha was left to the care of stepmothers and slaves who were not always kind. 

Like so many women of her time (including Martha Washington and Dolley Madison), Martha Wayles was married and widowed young. In fact she was only 22 in 1768, when she met Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). At 27, he had already graduated from William and Mary College, become an accomplished violinist, inherited a fair-sized fortune, and served in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Martha, at 22, had borne two children and  lost a husband and a son.

No images of Martha Wayles Jefferson  survive--with the possible exception of the silhouette shown here. But by all accounts, she was beautiful. She was described as of middle height, slender, with auburn hair and hazel eyes, highly educated, a voracious reader, and accomplished pianist--as one visitor to Monticello noted in 1780, “in all respects a very agreeable, sensible, and accomplished lady." She was also said to have great good nature, spiced with a “vivacious temper that sometimes bordered on tartness.”

Young, gorgeous, and rich (she would inherit from her father 40,000 acres, 135 slaves--and a heavy undisclosed burden of debt), the widow Skelton was soon deluged by suitors. According to a favorite family story, one evening, two young men coming to court her arrived at her father’s house at the same time. While taking off their overcoats warily in the foyer, both gradually became aware of sweet strains from a piano (Martha) and violin (Thomas), coming from the drawing room. When this was followed by two voices blended harmoniously in song, the rivals exchanged a look, took up their coats, and left without a word.

Sketch by Charles Bird
Jefferson's favorite image of himself
During their courtship, Thomas Jefferson's passion for Martha was so great that it caused him to ignore his revolutionary principles. In a blatant violation of the colonial boycott of British goods, Thomas ordered a “forte-piano” from England—along with special instructions about its construction to make sure it would be "worthy the acceptance of a lady for whom I intend it." Thomas was also busy building his dream house Monticello atop a mountain, taking care of his mother whose house had burnt down, and carrying out his legislative duties as a Virginia Burgess. 

The wedding was planned for summer. Then, in June 1771, Martha’s only remaining child suddenly sickened and died. In the end the couple did not marry until January 1, 1772, and on the trip north from Williamsburg to Monticello, they were overtaken by a huge snowstorm. When the drifts became too deep for their carriage, they abandoned it at a neighbors’ and continued on by horseback. Finally arriving at the one-room structure (ever after known as the Honeymoon Cottage) that was then the only building completed at Monticello, the couple found—nothing. No word had been sent that they were coming, no servants were there to meet them, and there were no fires and no food. Too in love to feel hunger or cold, the  newlyweds discovered a leftover half-bottle of wine behind some books and began their new life together with "song and merriment and laughter." The story of that night passed into family lore. Alone on their mountain top with each other, there was no adversity Thomas and Martha Jefferson could not overcome.

The next September, the arrival of a daughter increased their happiness, and over the next ten years the Jeffersons added five more children to the family, but only two—Martha (called Patsy) and Mary (called Maria or Polly)—lived to adulthood. 

How did Mrs. Jefferson spend her days? Her household accounts book shows a constant round of pig slaughtering, soap making, linen counting, and other household duties, which—if she did not do the work with her own hands—she certainly oversaw. 

But a decade of plantation life and pregnancies left Martha so weak that Thomas, then Governor of Virginia, was afraid to leave her. In 1880 he resigned from the Continental Congress and refused the post of consul to France. Weak as she was, Martha was not left in peace. In January 1871, the British invaded Richmond and she was forced to flee with her 3-month-old daughter, who died not long after. In June, when the family were once again forced to flee, Jefferson resigned as Governor.

The following May, when Martha gave birth to their last child, Jefferson wrote that her condition was “dangerous.” Fearing for her children after her own death, Martha made her grief-stricken husband promise never to marry again—thereby laying the seeds for the shameful liaison with his beautiful slave (who happened to be Martha’s 7/8’s white half-sister), Sally Hemings.

Thomas cared for his wife tenderly throughout the months that followed, but she did not rally. On September 6, 1782, he recorded in his account book, "My dear wife died this day at 11:45 A.M." 

In his later years, Jefferson recalled that marriage to Martha was a time of "unchequered happiness." For three weeks following her death he did not emerge from his room, and it was reported that he fainted whenever he saw his children. His daughter Patsy wrote that that, after her mother’s death: "the violence of his this day I cannot describe to myself." In November, Jefferson fled Monticello's haunted halls for Paris, where he would open a new chapter in his life as America's envoy abroad.

What do we learn from the marriage of 
Thomas and Martha?

Perhaps that great love carries with it the shadow of great loss.

Time wastes too fast: every letter
I trace tells me with what rapidity
life follows my pen. The days and hours
of it are flying over our heads like
clouds of windy day never to return--
more. Everything presses on—
From Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy,
Copied by Martha Jefferson just before her death

and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu,
every absence which follows it,
are preludes to that eternal separation
which we are shortly to make!
Completion of Sterne quote
copied by Thomas Jefferson

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


The first question for anyone planning to visit Washington, DC is: “What should we see?” To answer this question, you will need an exceptional guide, and that guide will need a treasure trove of stories about Washington to convey the capital’s unique significance to America and the world. (Excellent guides, private car, and customized tours can be found at:

Everybody knows that Washington (legally, the District of Columbia—hence the “DC”) is the capital of the United States of America. Since 1800, when Congress moved to the partially completed capital on the Potomac, across the river from George Washington’s Virginia plantation, Washington, DC has served as the nerve center of the federal government. Virtually every building, monument, and area within the capital (and in its environs) has, at some time in the past 224 years, played a significant role in American history. There is in fact so much to see in Washington that even well-informed DC residents need a guide to understand and appreciate their native city.
In honor of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial (not, as it sounds, its 600th but rather its 150th) anniversary, I would like to highlight Washington’s importance in that conflict by outlining some highlights from the miraculous career of the Union’s Quartermaster General, MONTGOMERY CUNNINGHAM MEIGS.

Eighty years earlier, Gen. George Washington reported seeing blood in the snow where his shoeless troops had passed. Many of his men, the General lamented to the Continental Congress, had to go shirtless and coatless in the cold. Not so during the Civil War. With Meigs at the helm, the Union lads had stuff aplenty. No soldier lacked for powder, or clothes, or food, or tents, or transport. The Army was sadly lacking in qualified Generals—but it had plenty of stuff.

Marvelous Meigs, who spent the earlier part of his career in the Army Corps of Engineers, was also responsible for fixing navigation on the Mississippi (a project he worked on under fellow West Pointer Robert E. Lee) and building the DC Aqueduct to bring water to the City. This last entailed building a single-span bridge (the Union Arch Bridge, designed by Alfred Rives), which for 50 years held the record as the longest single-span masonry arch in the world.

Clever Meigs installed the iron dome (the one you see behind anchor people on TV) that completed the U.S. Capitol and gives it its iconic shape. When the air inside the Capitol turned out to be fetid (and smelly from the necessaries being too close at hand), he designed and built aeration towers still in use today.

Patriot Meigs bore a personal grudge against Robert Lee, whom he considered had betrayed his West Point oath to protect the Union. After the Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas), it was Meigs who personally saw to it that the Union dead were dug up and replanted in Mrs. Lee's rose garden—thereby establishing our national military burial ground on the ground of the Lee’s Arlington plantation. Fittingly, the gates to Arlington Cemetery today bear an inscription chosen by, who else?—Montgomery Meigs.

Surprising Meigs, who spent most of the war moving around troops and materiel, even had his brief moment of glory in the field. Late in the war, Lee realized that the bulk of Grant’s army was in Virginia, leaving the capital virtually undefended. He sent a Confederate force led by Jubal Early across the Potomac to circle around and march on Washington from the north.

On an insufferably hot July 9th, at Monacacy Junction, MD not far from Washington, Early’s forces met with unexpectedly strong resistance from a small, brave Union garrison. These citizen soldiers fought all day under the blazing sun. By evening, the Rebs had won but were so exhausted that Early decided to rest for a day before advancing on Washington. That decision—plus the fine wine cellar the troops discovered in the Blair mansion in Silver Spring just outside the City—bought Grant just enough time to shift seasoned troops back to the capital.

Early’s troops could be seen advancing on Ft. Stephens on the District’s NW boundary at noon on July 12, 1864, precisely when, five miles to the south, Grant’s troops were disembarking at the city’s harbor. Until Grant's troops arrived to save the day (which they did), responsibility for holding Fort Stephens fell to the unseasoned home forces. And who was the General in charge of Ft. Stephens? Just take a guess. (President & Mrs. Lincoln actually came out to see the fighting, but that is a story for another time.)
By War’s end, Meigs had lost his beloved President (he was one of the few officials admitted to Peterson’s Rooming House during Lincoln’s last hours) and his only son, but iron Meigs was far from defeated.

He continued on as Quartermaster General for another two decades. He built (but did not design) the charming brick Arts & Industries Building, next to the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall. Most remarkably, he designed and built the huge Pension Building, now the National Building Museum—a handsome brick phenomenon (he was economy-minded) encircled by an intriguing and remarkably detailed terracotta frieze by the Czech-American sculptor Caspar Buberl. 

Designed to honor all four branches of military service, the frieze consists of four identical sets of panels (cavalry, infantry, navy, quartermaster corps), which were reshuffled and recombined for economy’s sake to create new combinations all around the building. In line with his abolitionist sentiments, Meigs insisted that the soldier driving the supply wagon be a freed man o f color, and in line with his engineering prowess, the boasts the largest indoor Corinthian columns in the world.

Critics called it "Meigs's brick yard,” and on seeing it,  William Tecumseh Sherman remarked: "Too bad it's fireproof." Yet for the quarter century f ollowing its completion (1885-1909), the Pension Building’s airy main hall (ventilated at the top—another Meigs invention) hosted every Presidential inaugural ball.

At his death, General Meigs was buried in Arlington Cemetery. In the shadow of his large white sarcophagus lies a surprisingly small bronze slab marking the grave of his heroic son, lying dead in the mud amid hoof-prints from the Confederate ambush that had killed him. So ends our tribute to the great but largely unsung U.S. patriot,  engineer, inventor, architect, and indispensable hero of the Civil War  Genl. Montgomery C. Meigs.