Complementarity: Lessons from the Adams Family


As the history of the Adams family attests, the proper education of the young American requires both father and mother, grandfathers and grandmothers.

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Alexis de Tocqueville called “the strength of American women” the great secret of the strength of the American republic. Likewise, strong women were the backbone of the Adams family and its contribution to the political integrity of the American republic.

The letters of John and Abigail Adams were first published by their grandson, Charles Francis Adams (President Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador to Britain). The diaries and letters of John Quincy Adams’s wife, Louisa, have just been published this year, a project explored by their grandson, Henry Adams. Henry Adams—who called Tocqueville’s Democracy in America the “bible of my own private religion”—worried that American men and women were losing their appreciation for the complementary strengths and gifts of men and women. He thought the best remedy was to hold up for Americans the image of his grandmother.

Part of the charm of John and Abigail Adams’s letters (which are frequently addressed with terms such as “Dear Miss Adorable” and “My Dearest Friend”) is the way that the two weave a life-long conversation about universal human virtue into their ongoing inquiry into their complementary contributions to mothering and fathering their “little flock” of children. Louisa Adams had a hard act to follow in such a renowned mother-in-law, but her journals reveal a woman of profound reflection—on the meaning of piety (filial, patriotic, and religious) and her role as daughter, wife, and mother.

The Only Perfectly Balanced Mind in the Adams Family

Louisa Adams is the only American First Lady to have been born in a foreign country. Her American parents were living in London when she was born, and during the Revolution she was educated in a French convent school. She married John Quincy Adams during his diplomatic work, and the two immediately set off for Prussia, where he was stationed. She had already endured a number of difficult miscarriages and given birth to her three sons—little George Washington, John II, and Charles Francis—before she made her first visit to her “native” land.

She was soon called on to leave her two oldest sons behind and accompany her husband to Russia with her youngest child. In Tsarist Russia, she endured a very personal “winter”: painfully separated from her older children, she lost her only infant daughter, received news of her own mother’s death, and had to travel alone from St. Petersburg to Paris in the midst of the Napoleonic wars.

Late in life, she bitterly reproached herself for having left her oldest sons behind while she accompanied her husband on his diplomatic mission to Russia. Both of those sons were deeply troubled youths, impregnating women before wedlock, and dying young from drink or suicide.

Only the son whom she had kept close to her carried on the family tradition of public service, political integrity, and a lifelong happy marriage with many children. In fact, his sons marveled at Charles Francis Adams as a man “singular for mental poise.” It seemed to them that it was the influence of his mother who had balanced the analytical tendencies of his father, which often led members of the Adams family to deep depression, bitterness, and drink. With a good dose of both mothering and fathering, he struck his sons as “the only perfectly balanced mind that ever existed in the name.”

Sexless as the Bees

When her grandson Henry Adams read Louisa’s diary, he was inspired to compare Russia to Woman, Woman to Russia—the two conservative forces at the beginning of the twentieth century. Russia acted as a conservative political force in Europe comparable to Woman as a conservative social force in America. Perhaps with the help of Russia the threat of an imperial Germany could be contained. Perhaps with the help of Woman the threat of a corroding materialism might be contained.

Each was powerful, but each powerfully directed its forces internally. Russia, he argued, had its axis of rotation around the Church and around agricultural production to feed its enormous population. It had not yet turned its forces toward industrialization and modernization. If Russia’s forces were ever to be ripped from its axis by, let’s say, an atheistic modernizing revolutionary regime, Adams wrote in 1905, it might destroy all of Europe.

But if Woman were to be torn from her axis of rotation around the cradle, it wouldn’t just destroy Europe—it could destroy human society. In his wide-ranging third-person autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, Adams observed:

The woman’s force had counted as inertia of rotation, and her axis of rotation had been the cradle and the family. The idea that she was weak revolted all history; it was a palæontological falsehood that even an Eocene female monkey would have laughed at; but it was surely true that, if her force were to be diverted from its axis, it must find a new field, and the family must pay for it. So far as she succeeded, she must become sexless like the bees, and must leave the old energy of inertia to carry on the race.

In this context of a Tocquevillean fear of whether Russian absolutism or American freedom would triumph in the coming century and whether the American triumph would indeed be a victory for liberty or for the incessant pursuit of petty and paltry pleasures that “enervate the soul and noiselessly unbend its springs of action,” Adams held up, at the beginning of The Education, the image of his grandmother.

Education by Grandmothers

Henry Adams recalled his grandmother as the very portrait of religious peace. She was “a peaceful vision of silver gray” presiding over her old president, her china tea set, and her box walks. She was refined, gentle, fragile, delicate, and remote. As a boy, Adams “knew nothing of her interior life” but he sensed that she was “exotic”—that she did not belong wholly to the political world of Boston, with its confidence that a political utopia could be achieved on earth.

After “being beaten about a stormy world” and enduring a life of “severe stress and little pure satisfaction,” it was clear that she placed her hopes in eternity. The political world believed that absolute democracy, state education, and total freedom of speech would usher in the end times of history. The political creed was that “Human nature works for the good and three instruments are all she asks—Suffrage, Common Schools, and the Press.” All doubts of this creed were political heresy.

From his grandmother, Henry Adams gleaned his sense that there were values beyond the negotiable values of politics. Without her, his education would have been all Mars and no Venus—a purely political education with no religion—all war and no contemplation of beauty, all work and no genuine leisure. In the “Boston” chapter of the Education, Adams wrote:

The children reached manhood without knowing religion, and with the certainty that dogma, metaphysics, and abstract philosophy were not worth knowing. So one-sided an education could have been possible in no other country or time, but it became, almost of necessity, the more literary and political. As the children grew up, they exaggerated the literary and the political interests.

Without religion, the poetic imagination became utopian, and the political imagination became utilitarian. Americans worshipped “the Dynamo”—of the physical and mental energy of man—and were utterly lacking the cult of “the Virgin”—the contemplation of the laws of Nature and Nature’s God, and openness to the grace needed to fulfill them.

Louisa Adams always felt herself a fish out of water in a culture that gave more attention to the virtues of equality than to the virtues of piety and pity. She saw her role as wife and mother as that of an educator in the refined art of deference and condescension—the discernment and acknowledgment of realities of inequality, weakness, strength, power and infirmity, and a careful attunement to the unequal duties such differences gave rise to.

She considered a culture that saw nothing but equal duties, equal rights, and relations of convenience and mutual interest as a tyranny against her own nature. “My temper is so harassed and I am I fear so imbued with strange and singular opinions, and surrounded by persons with whom it is decidedly impossible for me to agree,” she exclaimed. “I feel that I have strange exaggerated ideas on most subjects which must be utterly incomprehensible but are utterly impossible for me to eradicate.”

One of her most ineradicable ideas was the sacredness of the bond between parents and children, the most palpable bond of piety and pity. She wrote:

It has been the fashion to say that as Children were not born to please themselves, no real ties bind them to their parents; and that blood relationship, should exact neither affection or gratitude—To my mind there is no truth whatever in such an assertion . . . From the moment of the birth, we incur a vast debt of gratitude which a life cannot repay

. . . There must be a great dereliction in that mind which could for a moment shrink from the acknowledgement of so vast a debt: founded in the weakest of all vanities, self idolatry!

Louisa Adams herself attributed the deepening of her sense of piety and pity to her experience of motherhood. She wrote that her religious opinions and sentiments had “‘grown with my growth, and strengthened with my strength’ though until I became a Mother; perhaps not properly weighed and considered; one more of precept, habit, and example than of meditated reflection.”

Adams worried that as Americans pursued a culture that was “sexless as the bees,” the complementarity that had produced the remarkable personal poise of his father—the balanced judgment, the eye for both contractual duties, and the more delicate bonds of affection—would be lost. To his mind, the proper education of the young American required both father and mother, grandfathers and grandmothers.

Susan Hanssen is an associate professor of history at the University of Dallas.

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