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John Adams

John Adams Portrait, pastel on paper
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This pastel portrait of John Adams was done by Benjamin Blyth of Salem, circa 1766, shortly after Adams's marriage to Abigail Smith. Please see the online presentation of the companion portrait of Abigail Adams.

"I Embrace with Joy, this Opportunity of Writing You"

John Adams was born in Braintree on 19 October 1735, the son of Deacon John and Susanna (Boylston) Adams. He graduated from Harvard College in 1755, taught school and studied law in Worcester, Massachusetts, and returned to Braintree in 1758 to practice law. In 1759, he met 15-year-old Abigail at the Weymouth home of her parents, Rev. William and Elizabeth (Quincy) Smith. Although the relationship was slow to develop (John thought Abigail and her sister Mary lacked fondness and tenderness), by 1761 John was devoting his full attention to the woman he called "Miss Adorable." The two married on 25 October 1764 and lived in Braintree.

John Adams pursued his law career until his activities in politics and government took him away from Massachusetts. As a member of the Continental Congress, a peace commissioner, the first United States minister to England, first vice-president and second president of the United States, John was away from home for extended periods, leaving Abigail the responsibility for managing the family farm and caring for their four children. Because of John's long absences, a frequent exchange of letters was essential and nearly 1,200 letters between the two survive to this day, the cornerstone of the Adams Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. First published in the nineteenth century by their grandson, Charles Francis Adams (1835-1915), the amazing correspondence between John and Abigail is now available online (please see the website, Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive).

Who was Benjamin Blyth?

The portraits of John and Abigail featured here are the earliest known likenesses of the couple and were drawn by Benjamin Blyth of Salem. Blyth was baptized 18 May 1746 at the First Church in Salem, Massachusetts, the second child of Samuel, a sailmaker, and Abigail (Massey) Blyth. A self-taught artist, the earliest mention of his talents appears in an advertisement in the Essex Gazette of January 10-17, 1769:

"Benjamin Blyth Begs Leave to inform the Public, that he has opened a Room for the Performance of Limning in Crayons, at the House occupied by his Father, in the great Street leading towards Marblehead, where Specimens of his Performance may be seen. All Persons who please to favour him with their Employ, may depend upon having good Likenesses, and being immediately waited on, by applying to their Humble Servant, Benjamin Blyth."

Blyth would have been just twenty years old when he portrayed the Adamses in 1766 on one of their visits to Salem (John had business at the Salem court, and brought Abigail along to visit her sister Mary Cranch). Like the portraits of John and Abigail, almost all of Blyth's surviving portraits are done in pastel crayon. The MHS has two other pastel portraits by Blyth in its collections: Major General John Thomas, circa 1775, and Eunice Diman, circa 1774.

Two Exhibitions of John and Abigail Adams Manuscripts

In conjunction with the John Adams miniseries that will be broadcast on HBO over six weeks beginning on 16 March, the MHS will mount an exhibition, "John Adams: A Life in Letters," beginning Saturday, 8 March 2008. The exhibit will continue through Saturday, 31 May 2008. The exhibition will be open to the public, Monday-Saturday, 1:00-4:00 PM.

Focusing on John Adams's extraordinary correspondence, the exhibition will feature the letters he exchanged over almost forty years with his "Dearest Friend," soul mate, and closest political adviser, Abigail Adams; and his renewed correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, the old friend and colleague who had become his bitter political rival. The exhibition also will include diaries kept by John Adams, his manuscript copy of the Declaration of Independence, and a first printing of Adams's 1780 Massachusetts State Constitution, the oldest written constitution still in use today.

In addition to the earliest portraits of John and Abigail Adams by Benjamin Blyth displayed above, the Society will exhibit Mather Brown's portrait of John Adams, painted for Thomas Jefferson (on loan from the Boston Athenaeum), together with views, engravings, memorabilia, and a costume worn by Laura Linney as Abigail Adams from the HBO miniseries.

From 5-30 April, the Society will mount a second exhibition of Adams manuscripts at the Vassar College Library in Poughkeepsie, New York. "My Dearest Friend" will consist, for the most part, of a sampling of the nearly 1,200 surviving letters exchanged by John and Abigail Adams. The exhibition will include some of the most famous letters in American history: Abigail Adams's admonition to husband John to "Remember the Ladies," as he worked on the "Declaration of Independency," a letter dated 31 March 1776; his description for her of the vote for independence in Philadelphia three months later; and John's 2 November 1800 letter to her from the President's House, the first letter written from the White House, illustrated by James Hoban's original floor plan of the Executive Mansion.

The exhibition at Vassar also will include John Adams's legal notes and his autobiographical account of his heroic defense of British soldiers accused of murder in the aftermath of the Boston Massacre, illustrated by Paul Revere's masterpiece of political propaganda, his engraving of the "Bloody Massacre;" and the gold diplomatic medal awarded to John Adams as the first minister to the Netherlands where he achieved a "signal triumph" in securing financial support for the patriot cause during the American Revolution.

Sources for Further Reading

See a complete list of Adams resources available on the MHS website.

See more information about the letters behind the HBO miniseries.

Foote, Henry W. "Benjamin Blyth, of Salem: Eighteenth-Century Artist," Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, vol. 71 (October, 1953-May, 1857), p. 64-107.

Hogan, Margaret A. and C. James Taylor, eds. My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

McCullough, David G. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Witness to America's Past. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1991, p. 104-108.