POUGHKEEPSIE, NY – He was her “Lysander.” She was his “Miss Adorable.” But, perhaps most importantly, they were both each other’s “Dearest Friend.”
Together, the correspondence between John and Abigail Adams traces one of the most intriguing, romantic, and inspirational partnerships in American history. And, remarkably, their roughly 1200 letters, written over the span of 40 years, have survived the ravages of time. These personal exchanges provide readers with a unique window into life during the founding of our country – and into the character of a man who was one of the driving forces behind independence.
Now, for the first time, some of the Adamses’ most memorable letters will be on display as a collection – outside their permanent home at the Massachusetts Historical Society – as part of an exhibit at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. The Vassar exhibition, My Dearest Friend: The Letters of Abigail and John Adams, will open at the college’s Frederick Ferris Thompson Memorial Library on April 7, 2008 and will run through April 30, 2008. It is free and open to the public.
“You have these people who are wonderfully close, married for fifty years, but who in writing to each other would write ‘my best friend’ or ‘my dearest friend,’” said Peter Drummey, librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society. “There’s an affection and equality of their relationship that I think would be striking even today, especially for someone in public life.”
This exhibition comes at a time when interest in the founding fathers is enjoying a resurgence in publishing, the media, and popular imagination – including a new HBO miniseries entitled John Adams, executive produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, debuting March 16, 2008. Author David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2001 biography John Adams (Simon & Schuster) reawakened popular interest in the founding father from Braintree, Massachusetts. McCullough will be part of the exhibition’s related programs, talking about the Adamses’ papers with Vassar students and local high school teachers, and delivering a lecture to the Vassar community on April 5 with a limited number of tickets available to the public (see details below).
He is campaigning for a memorial to John Adams in Washington, D.C., and says it’s time we take a deeper look into Adams’s contributions and his endearing character – and one of the best ways to do that is by studying his personal correspondence.
“While we have no photographs or motion pictures of the people who were there at the founding of our country, nor any recording of their voices, we do have their letters — letters and diaries — that take us into their lives and speak volumes of the human side of great events,” said McCullough. “To hold a letter of the kind to be found in the great Adams collection in your own hands, as they did, is to make a direct connection with that vanished time and those long departed people in a way nothing can match.”
The My Dearest Friend exhibition will contain more than two dozen letters, including John Adams’s first flirtatious letter to Abigail during their courtship, written in 1762, in which he calls her “Miss Adorable.” It will also include Abigail’s famous 1776 letter to John, who was in Philadelphia, that urged him to “remember the ladies” when planning for their new nation and instructed him: “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.” A letter from John Adams to Abigail from the new White House in Washington, D.C. in 1800, containing the original floor plan of the executive mansion, will be included as well. The exhibit will also include letters between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, exchanged years after their political rift – during their retirement – that reveal the true depth of the men’s friendship.
Also on display will be Adams’s illuminating notes from the Boston Massacre trial, during which he risked his reputation by serving as defense attorney for the British soldiers. A few key holdings from the Vassar Libraries’ own special collections will further supplement the exhibition, including a rare original printing of the United States Constitution (drafted in 1787), and a letter written by a Revolutionary War soldier describing The Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776.
Vassar College will utilize the exhibition to help students learn history through primary sources – one of the priorities of the college’s curriculum. Professor of history James Merrell, two-time winner of the coveted Bancroft Prize for U.S. history writing, will join David McCullough in meeting with Vassar history students to discuss not only the Adamses’ correspondence but also McCullough’s book, 1776, and the challenges – and rewards – of studying the Revolutionary Era. Merrell said studying the Adamses’ correspondence exemplifies Vassar’s historic commitment to having students “go to the sources.”
“Having these extraordinary documents from the Adams Papers at once continues and advances this cherished Vassar tradition by bringing students still closer to the texture, the flavor, of the past,” said Merrell, who is teaching a course called Revolutionary America this semester. “And the chance to talk with David McCullough about his work on the period we are studying is as exciting a prospect for the students in the class as it is for their professor.”
Vassar also has special plans to include high school history teachers and students from across New York’s Hudson Valley in this exceptional learning opportunity. Among the activities, C. James Taylor, co-editor of the book My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams (Harvard University Press, 2007) and editor-in-chief of The Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, will speak to the teachers and students about the importance of this correspondence in the study of American history.
In addition, three lectures in the series are free and open to the public. On Saturday, April 5 at 5:00pm, David McCullough will speak about “Why History Matters” in the Vassar College chapel. A limited number of tickets will be available to the public and may be reserved by calling the Office of Campus Activities at (845) 437-5370.
On Friday, April 11, at 6:00pm, Peter Drummey, librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society, will deliver a lecture entitled “Abigail Adams: Wife, Advisor, and Confidante,” on Abigail’s role in her husband’s career and in the women’s rights movement. And on Friday, April 25, at 6:00pm, C. James Taylor will give a lecture on his work editing the Adamses’ papers entitled, “John and Abigail in Their Own Words: A Relationship in Letters.”
Saturday, April 5, 5:00pm
2008 Randolph Lecture by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough
Limited tickets available to the public – please reserve in advance by calling the Office of Campus Activities at (845) 437-5370.
Monday, April 7 - Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Frederick Ferris Thompson Memorial Library
Monday through Friday, 10:00am-12:00pm and 1:00pm-4:00pm
(*except for Friday, April 11, when the exhibit will only be open from 1:00-4:00pm)
Saturday and Sunday, 1:00-4:00pm
Free and open to the public.
Friday, April 11, 6:00pm
Curtis Lecture by Peter Drummey, librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society
Taylor Hall, Room 203
Free and open to the public.
Friday, April 25, 6:00pm
Curtis Lecture by C. James Taylor, editor-in-chief of The Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society
Taylor Hall, Room 102
Free and open to the public.
Individuals with disabilities requiring accommodations or information on accessibility should contact Campus Activities, (845) 437–5370. Without sufficient notice, appropriate space and/or assistance may not be available.
Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.
Abigail Adams, by Benjamin Blyth
John Adams, by Benjamin Blyth
Letter, John Adams to Abigail Adams, September 14, 1774
All images courtesy of Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society
124 Raymond Ave., Box 9
Poughkeepsie, NY 12604-0009