“The untitled Man to whom I gave my Heart”: John and Abigail Adams’s Courtship

By Gwen Fries, The Adams Papers

Late on the night of 25 October 1782, after company departed and children were put to bed, Abigail Adams sat down to write a letter to her dearest friend. “Look to the date of this Letter—and tell me, what are the thoughts which arise in your mind? Do you not recollect that Eighteen years have run their anual Circuit, since we pledged our mutual Faith to each other,” she asked her husband John. They were spending their eighteenth wedding anniversary apart—as they had spent their sixteenth and seventeenth anniversaries as well—because John was in Europe to negotiate a treaty.

It was always in the night, when the rest of Braintree had drifted to sleep, that Abigail felt the pangs of John’s absence most severely. In the quiet she could all but hear his footstep on the stair, coming up to bed. It had been years since she heard him laugh, and when they were young, they seemed to do nothing but laugh. She continued her letter, “It is my Friend from the Remembrance of the joys I have lost that the arrow of affliction is pointed. I recollect the untitled Man to whom I gave my Heart, and in the agony of recollection when time and distance present themselves together, wish he had never been any other.”

The house of Rev. William Smith and the birthplace of Abigail (Smith) Adams,
Weymouth, Massachusetts, [1765?]

It was a fateful day in 1759 when the young lawyer John Adams accompanied his good friend Richard Cranch to the Reverend William Smith’s parsonage to meet the girl on whom his friend was so sweet. But it wasn’t Mary, the object of their five-mile journey, who would radically change John’s life—it was her younger sister with the dark eyes and rapier wit, Abigail.

He didn’t fall in love with her immediately. She was only fourteen, after all, and his heart belonged to somebody else at the time. Still, his friendship with Cranch kept him coming back to the parsonage time and time again, and by the end of 1761, John was scribbling teasing messages to Abigail at the bottom of Richard’s letters to Mary.

John Adams to Abigail Smith, 4 October 1762. Adams Family Papers Collection, MHS.

By 4 October 1762, their relationship had changed. John wrote a letter to “Miss Adorable,” demanding “as many Kisses, and as many Hours of your Company . . . as he shall please to Demand.” This was only fair, he reasoned, as he had given her, “two or three Millions at least.”

Between this first extant letter and their wedding on 25 October 1764, John and Abigail exchanged more than thirty flirtatious, teasing, and charming letters—a selection of which will be on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society through February. These letters, filled with cheeky comments and inside jokes, introduce us to John and Abigail before they knew their correspondence would belong to posterity. These letters belong not to Founders with the eyes of history upon them, but to John and Abigail, two witty, besotted young people who couldn’t wait to be married.