Sunday, September 11, 2011

Love letters

Historians spend a lot of time reading through dry and humorless documents. Many of the most reliable sources we have available to us to reconstruct the past do not make for light reading. Tax records, the tedious minutes of long, boring meetings, accounting files, journal entries written by influential people obsessed with recording the the minutia of the weather or plant life rather than the major historic events that they were enmeshed in, and so on.

But there are most definitely times when the opposite holds true, and we find ourselves with a wealth of material that takes us into the hearts and emotions of people lived long before us but loved in much the same way we do. In US history the collected letters of John and Abigail Adams (the second president and second first lady who were deeply involved in American Revolution and subsequent events) are one of the most valuable and pleasurable bodies of primary source documents to read through.

Forty years of abiding affection, insights, wry commentary, teasing, references to classical culture, art, philosophy, and religion, as well as much talk about the leading figures and the events of the day.

By way of example, John writing to Abigail not long before their wedding:

Oh, my dear girl, I thank heaven that another fortnight will restore you to me—after so long a separation. My soul and my body have both been thrown into disorder by your absence, and a month or two more would make me the most insufferable cynic in the world. I see nothing but faults, follies, frailties, and defects in anybody lately. People have lost all their good properties or I my justice or discernment.

But you who have always softened and warmed my heart,shall restore my benevolence as well as my health and tranquility of mind. You shall polish and refine my sentiments of life and manners, banish all the unsocial and ill natured particles in my composition, and form me to that happy temper that can reconcile a quick discernment with a perfect candor.

Believe me, now and ever 

your faithful Lysander

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