Primary Sources: The Letters of John and Abigail Adams
The First White House Correspondence
In Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out, children’s book author Jane Yolen based her delightful, witty poem “The White House First Residents” on the historical letters written by John and Abigail Adams. Those letters are part of one of our nation’s most valuable historical collections, The Adams Papers. Historian David McCullough writes in the acknowledgement notes of his Pulitzer Prize winning biography John Adams:
The Adams Papers . . . may be rightly described as a national treasure. There is no comparable written record of a prominent American family. Housed in the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, the full collection of letters, diaries, and family papers of all kinds, ranges from the year 1639 to 1889 . . . The letters of John and Abigail Adams number in the thousands, and because they wrote with such candor and in such vivid detail, it is possible to know them—to go beneath the surface of their lives—to an extent not possible with other protagonists of the time.
President John Adams arrived in the new Washington City on November 1, 1800, to spend his first night in the new President’s house. The next day he sent the following letter to his beloved wife Abigail in Quincy, Massachusetts. It contained his prayer and blessing for the house. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was so taken by Adams’ words that he asked that Adams’ blessing be carved in stone and placed upon the fireplace in the White House’s State Dining Room, where a copy of that original carving can be still be seen today. The following letter is alluded to in the story, “Testimony of Padraig Thomas O’ ‘Deorain,” that Mary Brigid Barrett wrote for Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out, and Barrett ends her story using Adams’ famous benediction.
President Adams’ Letter to his Wife Abigail
Presidents house, Washington City, Nov. 2. 1800
My dearest friend
We arrived here last night, or rather yesterday, at one o Clock and here we dined and Slept. The Building is in a State to be habitable. And now we wish for your Company. The Account you give of the melancholly State of our dear Brother Mr. Cranch and his family is really distressing and must severely afflict you. I most cordially Sympathize with you and them.
I have seen only Mr. Marshall and Mr. Stoddert, General Wilkinson and the two Commissioners Mr. Scott and Mr. Thornton.
I shall say nothing of public affairs. I am very glad you consented to come on, for you would have been more anxious at Quincy than here, and I, to all my other Solicitudines Mordaces as Horace calls them i.e. “biting Cares” should have added a great deal on your Account. Besides it is fit and proper that you and I should retire together and not one before the other.
Before I end my Letter I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.
I shall not attempt a description of it. You will form the best Idea of it from Inspection.
Mr. Brisler is very anxious for the arrival of the Man and Women and I am much more so for that of the Ladies. I am with unabated Confidence and affection your
Many of the letters of John and Abigail Adams have been published in books, and you and your students can find those books in your local neighborhood library.
The Massachusetts Historical Society has made 1,160 of John and Abigail Adams’ letters available on their website (MassHist.org), where you can read and review handwritten copies as well as contemporary text versions of the letters. Find information about the Adams Family Papers Collection here.
Read more about President John Adams and First Lady Abigail Adams in the Presidential Fact Files and the First Lady Fact Files.
The library of John Adams at the Boston Public Library includes over 2,700 volumes collected during his lifetime, as well as hundreds of additional books later donated by his family. The Adams Library remains one of the largest original early American libraries still intact. The collection is of particular interest to scholars and historians because Adams recorded thousands of interpretive and critical manuscript annotations in the margins of his books. Transcriptions of many of Adams’s annotations can be made available by contacting the library. Learn more at JohnAdamsLibrary.org.
The Miller Center at the University of Virginia includes John Adams information and speeches. Learn more at MillerCenter.org/president/adams.
The “John and Abigail Adams: Private Letters, Public Legacy” project sponsored by WGBH/PBS includes audiofiles of the letters of John and Abigail Adams read by Governor Deval Patrick and his wife Diane Patrick; Senator Edward Kennedy and his wife Victoria Kennedy; former Governor Michael Dukakis and his wife Kitty Dukakis. Learn more at wgbh.org.
C-Span’s Classroom resources include videos: C-Span.org.
The PBS American Experience series offers teacher guides on John and Abigail Adams: pbs.org/wgbh/amex/adams
HBO offers free online streaming to its program based on David McCullough’s book John Adams, as well as an educator’s guide: hbo.com/john-adams.
- White House Historical Society: Primary Document Activities
“The White House as Home and Symbol to John and Abigail Adams, Letters from 1800“
- EDSITEment: Abigail Adams
“Remember the Ladies: The First First Ladies“
©2016 The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance