One of the most challenging aspects of writing historical fiction is trying to remove all the fusty layers of time and interpretation to capture the immediacy of the past. Whenever possible, I look to primary sources - letters, diaries, journals - that give voices to long-gone people. Seeing those original words reprinted in a book or on-line is useful, of course, but being able to see the originals of those same letters can take research - and inspiration - to an entirely different level.
Earlier this year, I was fortunate to see first-hand one of Abigail Adams' more famous (or more infamous, depending on your perspective) letters now in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Abigail was no fan of Alexander Hamilton, nor was her husband, John Adams. As young as the American republic was in 1797, vitriol, name-calling, and backstabbing were already part of the political system, and there were few rivalries more bitter than the one between Hamilton and Adams. Each had many reasons, and both were right: Hamilton believed he'd been shut out of the government he'd help create during George Washington's presidency, while Adams felt that Hamilton had undermined his attempts to win a second presidential term himself. Each accused the other of unseemly ambition, and both were justified there, too.
As can be expected, Abigail supported her husband, and loathed Hamilton. The Adamses had always been frank in writing to one another about politics, and her (low) estimation of Hamilton echoed his own. The letter that she wrote in late January, 1797, begins calmly enough, with notes of the weather and the "pain and anxiety of Seperation." Then she launches into gossip she'd heard regarding Hamilton, followed by her own appraisal of his character, only to realize at the letter's end what she's written:
"Mr. Black told me the other day on his return... that Col. H[amilton] was loosing ground with his Friends in Boston. On what account I inquired. Why for the part he is said to have acted in the late Election. Aya, what was that? Why, they say that he tried to keep out both Mr. A[dams] and J[efferson], and that he behaved with great duplicity....that he might himself be the dictator. So you see according to the old adage, Murder will out. I despise a Janus....it is my firm belief that if the people had not been imposed upon by false reports and misrepresentations, the vote would have been nearly unanimous. [Hamilton] dared not risk his popularity to come out openly in opposition, but he went secretly cunningly as he thought to work....
"Beware of that spair Cassius, has always occured to me when I have seen that cock sparrow. O I have read his Heart in his wicked Eyes many a time. The very devil is in them. They are laciviousness itself, or I have no skill in Physiognomy.
"Pray burn this Letter. Dead Men tell no tales. It is really too bad to survive the Flames. I shall not dare to write so freely to you again unless you assure that you have complied with my request."
Obviously, John Adams didn't obey Abigail's request. Read as transcribed here, her words are indeed "bad," but to see them as she wrote them in the original letters showed exactly how angry she was.
Compare the delicacy of Abigail's fond greeting to John in the same letter, above, with the closing paragraphs, below. By the time she reached "Beware of that spair Cassius..." she was driving the pen across the page, her letters growing darker, wider, and less formed as she pressed the nib of her pen furiously across the paper. How much more powerful - and revealing - those words are in their handwritten version!
Many thanks to Sara Georgini, Historian and Series Editor, Adams Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, for showing this letter and others to me. Excerpt from letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, January 28, 1797, Massachusetts Historical Society.
Above top: Abigail Adams by Jane Stuart (after Gilbert Stuart), c1800, Adams National Historic Park.
Above & below: Excerpt from letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, January 28, 1797, Massachusetts Historical Society. Photos by Susan Holloway Scott.