We’re rockin’ and rollin’ through David McCullough’s John Adams over at Unputdownables. It’s not too late to get on board and join up. You’re missing a great read if you are a nonfiction book lover.
Chapter Six sees the death of Abigail’s beloved father, which is the last remaining reason she has stayed behind in America during her husband’s European stint. Oh yeah, and she hates boats and water, so that hasn’t helped either. But Abigail’s longing for her husband and an unpopular suitor seeking daughter Nabby’s hand finally motivate Abigail to make the move. She leaves her two young sons in the care of her sister and her house in the care of former slaves, and the two women thus embark on what sounds like one of the worst ocean crossings in history. Happily both make it to Britain safely and the family is reunited at last in Holland, only to discover that John has been named envoy to France.
Abigail has much the same reaction to Paris and its extravagances as her husband. Not understanding the language, she struggles to communicate and figure out Parisian customs. She and John struggle to make ends meet financially, since financial “extravagance is taken as the measure of one’s importance”. Suddenly they have to pay for such frivolities as personal hairdressers and extra servants, since those she has would rather die than do more than their particular job assignment requires. Like John was at first, Abigail is horrified by the decadence of Paris society (her anecdote of Benjamin Franklin’s society friend Madame Helvetius wiping up dog pee with her dress is hilarious), but grows to love the theater and her small circle of Parisian friends, which include the wife of the American hero Lafayette and interestingly, Thomas Jefferson, who is also in residence in Paris with his daughter Martha, better known as “Patsy”. Soon enough, the family is on the move again to England, where Adams has been named the first American minister to the British Court, while Jefferson is to stay in Paris as the French minister.
Like he did so artfully with Franklin, McCullough shows us the man behind the man with Jefferson. Devastated after the death of his beloved wife Martha, Jefferson roams the countryside, venting his grief in quiet places, and accepts the assignment to France to escape his pain. The famous man responsible for writing the Declaration of Independence and our third president also frivolously spent money far beyond his means and was deep in debt all during his life, to the point where Adams had to secure loans for him to stay afloat. He lived like an independently wealthy man, yet McCullough notes that the income from Jefferson’s inherited lands (probably slave-generated) was never enough to make ends meet. The man who infamously became involved with one of his slaves wrote vehemently against the institution of slavery in his famous Notes on the State of Virginia. Even more interesting was that Jefferson wrote scathingly of Adams when first acquainted with him, but changed his tune dramatically after the year the Jeffersons and Adams’ families spent together in Paris.
It will be interesting to see how the British take to the new American minister in the next chapter.