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Biography of America's second First Lady, Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams, by Phyllis Lee Levin. New York: A Thomas Dunne Book/St. Martin's Press. Illustrated. 575 pp. $24.95. Abigail Adams is not an unknown American heroine. Most notable as the wife of the second President of the United States and mother of the sixth, she is also the ancestor of generations of distinguished scholars and historians. She lived in truly revolutionary times and left thousands of letters recording her life and thoughts.

First published in 1840, the wartime letters of Abigail and John Adams - with a memoir by her grandson Charles Francis Adams - later became a best seller in an 1876 centenary edition still found on library shelves. Abigail Adams is the subject of at least four previous full-length biographies in this century - two written since the publication of the Adams papers in the 1970s. Numerous short sketches, collections of anecdotes about notable figures, or other tributes to famous American women feature the second First Lady. And no biographer of John Adams can omit his ``best friend.''

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Now Phyllis Lee Levin, a former reporter, editor, and ``Parent & Child'' columnist for the New York Times, has written what is advertised as the ``definitive'' biography of Abigail Adams. It's hard to imagine one that could be more comprehensive. Levin spent 16 years researching and writing her book. In addition to the vast collection of primary sources on the Adamses, she searched other manuscripts, newspapers, and histories, and read some of the books that Abigail read to find details that give impressive breadth and depth to her account. The portrait she presents is also a picture of a period and its major historical events and famous political figures.

Like history, biography reflects the bias of the biographer and the time in which it is written.

When Levin looks at the life of this 18th-century woman from a late 20th-century perspective, she finds contemporary relevance in the familiar facts. In the Adamses marriage, she sees a partnership of equals. Abigail had the primary domestic role, yet she was involved to a remarkable degree in the intellectual and political life of her husband.

During the years that he was away helping to launch and then serve the new nation, Abigail managed their farm, raised and educated four children, and kept up an informative correspondence, reporting major news events as well as daily details. Throughout more than 54 years of marriage, she made tangible contributions to her family's welfare, her husband's career, and perhaps in some degree to the course of history.

Abigail's pen seems never to have been far from hand. Levin quotes her as saying it was her ``only pleasure.'' When John was at home, she wrote to others: family, friends, and public figures. She shared her thoughts on the status and education of women with Mercy Warren, exchanged letters with Thomas Jefferson in an attempt to repair the breach in friendship caused by events at the time John lost election to a second term as President, sent an appeal to President Madison on behalf of her son.

Her pen recorded not only her own thoughts. Levin describes a touching scene when an older Abigail, wearing a green eyeshade to shield her failing eyes, carefully copies a letter from John Quincy. The letter described the signing of the peace treaty between the US and Great Britain in 1814, and she sent it to a friend, urging its anonymous publication as a report from an eyewitness.

While this biography may indeed be the last word on Abigail Adams, at times she does seem to disappear in the dense details. Scrupulous in her documentation, Levin footnotes almost every paragraph, sometimes with half a dozen references. Yet Abigail constantly reappears. The frequent apt selections from her letters (quoted with their original - sometimes very original - spelling and capitalization) and other primary sources are woven into a narrative that is reportorial in tone, but always sympathetic. Given conflicting traditions about the relationship of Abigail and her daughter-in-law Louise, John Quincy's wife, Levin compares the contemporary evidence with Louisa's memories written down many years later and presents an account that seems fair to both women.

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Because of this careful attention to accuracy, it's disappointing to find any factual slips: The ``Battle of Lexington'' on April 19, 1775, began in Lexington and climaxed in Concord, not the reverse.

Abigail spent her last 17 years with John in companionable retirement. Although she had a full share of sorrows and losses, both public and private, and her health was often precarious, this indomitable woman could say, ``At the age of seventy, I feel more interest in all thats done beneath the circuit of the sun than some others do at - What shall I say 35 or 40?'' Throughout her long life, Abigail never lost her lively curiosity and concern for those close to her and for events afar. Levin's life accurately reflects the intimacy and expansiveness these interests.

``Oh Grand! Oh Grand!'' shouted young George when he greeted his grandmother after a long absence. ``You are a heroine,'' wrote John to his wife during the Revolutionary War. Abigail Adams is still a grand heroine.

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