Abigail and John Adams
The Americanization of Sensibility
During the many years that they were separated by the perils of the American Revolution, John and Abigail Adams exchanged hundreds of letters. Writing to each other of public events and private feelings, loyalty and love, revolution and parenting, they wove a tapestry of correspondence that has become a cherished part of American history and literature.
With Abigail and John Adams, historian G. J. Barker-Benfield mines those familiar letters to a new purpose: teasing out the ways in which they reflected—and helped transform—a language of sensibility, inherited from Britain but, amid the revolutionary fervor, becoming Americanized. Sensibility—a heightened moral consciousness of feeling, rooted in the theories of such thinkers as Descartes, Locke, and Adam Smith and including a “moral sense” akin to the physical senses—threads throughout these letters. As Barker-Benfield makes clear, sensibility was the fertile, humanizing ground on which the Adamses not only founded their marriage, but also the “abhorrence of injustice and inhumanity” they and their contemporaries hoped to plant at the heart of the new nation. Bringing together their correspondence with a wealth of fascinating detail about life and thought, courtship and sex, gender and parenting, and class and politics in the revolutionary generation and beyond, Abigail and John Adams draws a lively, convincing portrait of a marriage endangered by separation, yet surviving by the same ideas and idealism that drove the revolution itself.
A feast of ideas that never neglects the real lives of the man and woman at its center, Abigail and John Adams takes readers into the heart of an unforgettable union in order to illuminate the first days of our nation—and explore our earliest understandings of what it might mean to be an American.
Part I Origins, Definitions, and Social Circumstances
1. The Metropolitan Sources of the Adamses’ Views of Sensibility
2. The Meanings of Sensibility
3. The Theory of Gendered Sensibility
4. Social Circles and the Reformation of Female Manners
5. Young American Women Enter the World
Part II Particular Applications
6. A Woman’s Struggle over Sensibility
7. Sensibility and Reform
8. Abigail’s Perspective, Public versus Private
9. John Adams and the Reformation of Male Manners
10. The Pleasures and Pains of Public Life
Part III Private Perpetuation
11. Raising Children with Sensibility
12. A Reformed Rake?
13. The Question Answered
Part IV Conclusion
14. The Americanization of Sensibility
"Though Barker-Benfield concentrates on a small group of people, their lives and intellectual and political dealings offer an entree to a much wider appreciation of late eighteenth-century life on both sides of the Atlantic. To their stories he brings an abundance of sympathetic appreciation of people living through complex and painful times and experiences. He has a sharp eye for a telling phrase, and for the nuances of contemporary writing. The end result is a convincing reconstruction of people whose lives were utterly different from our own, but who, in Barker-Benfield's hands, become real and alive to a modern reader. That alone is a major achievement."
"G. J. Barker-Benfield knows how to captivate a reader. His engagement with the inner strengths and utter humanity of Abigail and John is just the beginning of this ingenious and expansive study of the intellectual underpinnings of sensibility and the practical uses to which it was put in Revolutionary America. The author, already well known for his readings of Anglo-American cultural movements, explores widely ignored influences on the couple and adds tantalizing insights other historians do not provide."