John Adams has gone down in history as the epitome of an uptight New England prude, with an equally prudish wife. His regard of the French when he arrived in Paris, and of his fellow delegate Benjamin Franklin, reflects his standoffish nature. But in his letters to his wife Abigail and in hers to him there is something of a different nature. John and Abigail endured long separations in dangerous times, but in their correspondence, which is our gift as a result, there is much insight into the lives of their contemporaries.
Adams determined early in his life to remain celibate until his marriage, a feat of which he was proud to speak. In his diary an entry reads, “My children may be assured that no illegitimate son or daughter exists,” a claim made with evident pride in the fact, for it was not his intention that his diary be read during his lifetime. He married Abigail Smith in October 1764; the following July she gave birth to their first child. They eventually had five children together, and another pregnancy ended with a stillborn child. This was over a period of twelve years, during which Adams was frequently away for extended periods, so he clearly had an active sex life.
During his long absences they exchanged an extraordinarily large amount of letters and unlike Jefferson and Washington’s correspondence with their wives these letters survive. John Adams would often coin pet names for his wife in his letters, including “Miss Adorable” and referred to her often as his “Dearest Friend.” His wife responded in kind. She also maintained a steady correspondence with other Founders, and used the information and gossip received from these sources to keep her husband up to date with the news from Congress and the other states.
Beyond the number of children the Adams’ raised there is nothing to indicate their views on sex and sexual behavior other than a stern Yankee disapproval of the behavior of some of their contemporaries. When Abigail joined her husband in France and later as the Ambassador to England she was clearly aghast at the licentiousness there, in the salons of Paris and in the streets of London. Abigail once wrote to John of Alexander Hamilton, “Oh, I have read his heart in his wicked eyes many a time. The very devil is in them. They are lasciviousness itself.”
Bawdy drinking songs which used language of a sexual nature and included a great deal of sexual innuendo were common during the days of the Founders and John Adams of necessity spent a great deal of time in taverns. Between leaving the President’s house in Philadelphia and entering the White House he lived in a Washington tavern. But he neither participated nor commented on the widely accepted entertainment with its references to sex. Whatever his thoughts on the matter were, he kept them to himself.