Barack and Michelle Obama's fairy-tale love story has captured the
attention of the American public, but their special relationship is not
the first to exist within the halls of the White House. Long ago,
before tabloids and the Internet were around to report on it, there was
a president and a first lady whose extraordinary bond was one for the
ages: Abigail and John Adams.
It was a typical 18th-century
love story that took place in a small town in Massachusetts, says
historian Edith Gelles, author of Abigail and John: Portrait of a
"There is no evidence that Abigail and John did not
know about each other's families from childhood, just because in small
communities like that, families tended to know each other," she says.
"On the other hand, historically, the evidence demonstrates that John
met Abigail when she was only 15. He was 10 years older than she, so he
was 25. But as she grew older, John began noticing her as a possible
romantic figure. She became attracted to him as well."
Abigail Smith and John Adams were married in 1764 and began a relationship extraordinary for their time, as well as for ours.
of them was generous towards the other," she says. "Each one was giving
towards the other and sacrificed for each other and respected each
The couple lived apart for most of the second decade of
their marriage, between 1774 and 1784. John was in Europe while Abigail
remained in Massachusetts, raising their children. As Gelles explains,
they had to conduct their relationship through letters, which were one
of the most important sources she relied on to help her portray their
"Sometimes, it was only one or two letters a year
because the letters were lost or didn't make it across the ocean," she
says. "You can hear them having a conversation in letters. Their
letters reflected probably the way they talked to each other. What's
remarkable about that relationship is that when they did get together
again, it was as if there had been no break in their marriage."
When John Adams became America's second president in 1797, Abigail played an instrumental role in supporting her husband.
were an extremely compatible couple," she says. "Abigail, who didn't
really want to go on serving the public after John's vice-presidency,
did so because she never questioned John's public service. She was
loyal to him. She became his closest confidant and, probably, advisor.
I think he was a very strong president. He made decisions on his own,
but he didn't have political allies with him in the capital who could
"Abigail was his best ally, and because she was
intelligent, well-informed and totally sympathetic with him, she was
devoted to his politics. She probably was the best-informed and most
reliable advisor to a president until Eleanor Roosevelt in the 20th
Gelles also credits Abigail Adams with defining the role of the first lady, even before the term was used.
first lady, she established many of the protocols, which survived. She
wrote about having to have dinners, in which she entertained all the
members of the Senate and their wives, and the House of Representatives
and their wives, and the Supreme Court and their wives," she says. "She
also had to have a great Fourth of July party, in which everyone in the
neighborhood of the capital city was invited to attend. So she was a
great social arbiter."
Gelles spent 30 years doing research for
Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage. She says she got a sense for
why their marriage worked so well.
"I think it partially
happened because there was no 'exit clause' for marriage," she says.
"There was no divorce except under very special circumstances. But it
also had to do with their personalities and their characters and the
fact that they deeply cared for each other and that there was so much
compatibility between them, so very much devotion to each other's
Gelles points to other devoted couples and other strong
first ladies who have lived in the White House over the past two
centuries - including Michelle and Barack Obama.
relationship appears beautiful to me, in many ways similar to the
Adams' relationship, in that they are playful with one another," she
says. "They are affectionate towards one another, intellectually
compatible. Michelle seems a very strong person. It appears that
Michelle is still carving out her role as first lady. She is
sacrificing her independence to serve as first lady. This is, after
all, not an elected office, it's an office that comes to a woman
because of the marriage contract. It's a heavy role to have to fulfill."
and author Edith Gelles says she hopes couples everywhere - not only
politicians - can learn from Abigail and John Adams. Their
relationship, she says, remains an example of how married people can
support each other, help each other navigate through tough times and
enjoy their life together.