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A View from Abroad: The Story of John and Abigail Adams in Europe

By Jeanne E. Abrams, University of Denver

My main thesis in A View From Abroad is that the European journeys of John and Abigail Adams expanded their life experiences and honed their analytical skills. It allowed them a breadth of perspective they could not have experienced in America. They came face-to-face abroad with some of the most powerful people in the world (including the French rulers Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and England’s King George III and Queen Charlotte) and witnessed first-hand national traditions that had been developed there over centuries. Living in France and England influenced their opinions about American nationhood, the formation of an ideal American character, and their definition of what it meant to be American.

Their time in Europe afforded them the firsthand opportunity to contrast the Old World with the New in regards to the manners of the people, the conditions of the respective societies, and the differing forms of government. The Adamses struggled with how to elevate their status as civilized and cultured Americans, who still appreciated many aspects of Old World refinement and culture. At the same time, they also grappled with how to carve out a unique American persona that was independent from British control and unfettered by centuries of English tradition. For years, the area along the American Eastern seaboard was a colonial extension of England, and separating from the mother country was a complicated process on many levels.

While abroad, both John and Abigail Adams enjoyed many excursions in which they examined the works of artistic masters, viewed outstanding dramatic productions and concerts, encountered brilliant thinkers and leading politicians, and visited some of the most renowned palaces and estates in Europe. The Adamses’ articulate, entertaining writings, particularly their letters to family and friends back home, provide us with an intimate and fascinating portrait of life in 18th century Europe from the royal courts to those who barely earned enough to feed and clothe their families.

Yet their time in the Old World only served to enhance their American loyalties as they were transformed from highly intelligent and articulate provincials to sophisticated world travelers. Just a short time after she arrived in France, Abigail declared to her sister that, “I know not whether I shall be able to content myself to tarry out my two years [in Europe].  My Heart and Soul is more American than ever. We are a family by ourselves.”

In Europe, they were exposed to an intellectual and cultural environment far richer than they could have imagined. In significant ways, their sojourn in Europe played a pivotal role in shaping their notions about American identity and nationhood and provided them with a real-life frame of comparison. The Adamses returned to their homeland with a set of attitudes towards American society that had been reinforced, strengthened, and even evolved from those they had held when they set out. As Abigail put it in her usual articulate way in a letter she sent back home in 1787: “I shall quit Europe with more pleasure than I came to it, uncontaminated I hope with its Manners and vices. I have learnt to know the World, and its value. I have seen high Life, I have Witnessed the Luxery and pomp of State, the Power of riches and the influence of titles…”Notwithstanding this, I feel that I can return to my little cottage and be happier than here, and if we have not wealth, we have what is better, Integrity.”

Jeanne E. Abrams is Professor at the University Libraries and the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver, where she is also Director of the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society, and Curator of the Beck Archives, Special Collections. A View from Abroad is soon-to-be published with NYU Press: https://nyupress.org/9781479802876/a-view-from-abroad/