Dear Abigail : The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters
by Diane Jacobs

Overview - For readers of the historical works of Robert K. Massie, David McCulough, and Alison Weir comes the first biography on the life of Abigail Adams and her sisters.

"Never sisters loved each other better than we."--Abigail Adams in a letter to her sister Mary, June 1776

Much has been written about the enduring marriage of President John Adams and his wife, Abigail.  Read more...

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More About Dear Abigail by Diane Jacobs
For readers of the historical works of Robert K. Massie, David McCulough, and Alison Weir comes the first biography on the life of Abigail Adams and her sisters.

"Never sisters loved each other better than we."--Abigail Adams in a letter to her sister Mary, June 1776

Much has been written about the enduring marriage of President John Adams and his wife, Abigail. But few know of the equally strong bond Abigail shared with her sisters, Mary Cranch and Elizabeth Shaw Peabody, accomplished women in their own right. Now acclaimed biographer Diane Jacobs reveals their moving story, which unfolds against the stunning backdrop of America in its transformative colonial years.

Abigail, Mary, and Elizabeth Smith grew up in Weymouth, Massachusetts, the close-knit daughters of a minister and his wife. When the sisters moved away from one another, they relied on near-constant letters--from what John Adams called their "elegant pen"--to buoy them through pregnancies, illnesses, grief, political upheaval, and, for Abigail, life in the White House. Infusing her writing with rich historical perspective and detail, Jacobs offers fascinating insight into these progressive women's lives: oldest sister Mary, who became de facto mayor of her small village; youngest sister Betsy, an aspiring writer who, along with her husband, founded the second coeducational school in the United States; and middle child Abigail, who years before becoming First Lady ran the family farm while her husband served in the Continental Congress, first in Philadelphia, and was then sent to France and England, where she joined him at last.

This engaging narrative traces the sisters' lives from their childhood sibling rivalries to their eyewitness roles during the American Revolution and their adulthood as outspoken wives and mothers. They were women ahead of their time who believed in intellectual and educational equality between the sexes. Drawing from newly discovered correspondence, never-before-published diaries, and archival research, Dear Abigail is a fascinating front-row seat to history--and to the lives of three exceptional women who were influential during a time when our nation's democracy was just taking hold.

Advance praise for Dear Abigail

"In a beautifully wrought narrative, Diane Jacobs has brought the high-spirited, hyperarticulate Smith sisters, and the early years of the American republic, to rich, luminous life. . . . A stunning, sensitive work of history."--Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Cleopatra

"Jacobs is a superb storyteller. In this sweeping narrative about family and friendship during the American Revolution, Abigail Adams emerges as one of the great political heroines of the eighteenth century. I fell in love with her all over again."--Amanda Foreman, New York Times bestselling author of A World on Fire

"Beauty, brains, and breeding--Elizabeth, Abigail, and Mary had them all. This absorbing history shows how these close-knit and well-educated daughters of colonial America become women of influence in the newly begotten United States. Jacobs's feel for the period is confident; so is her appreciation of the nuances of character."--Daniel Mark Epstein, author of The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage

  • ISBN-13: 9780345465061
  • ISBN-10: 0345465067
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • Publish Date: February 2014
  • Page Count: 499
  • Dimensions: 9.49 x 6.5 x 1.41 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.91 pounds

Related Categories

Books > Biography & Autobiography > Historical - General
Books > Biography & Autobiography > Women
Books > History > United States - General

Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2013-12-16
  • Reviewer: Staff

In highlighting sorority, Jacobs (Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft) opens a new window on the familiar life of Abigail Adams, wife of American Revolution leader and second President of the United States, John. The most well-known of the three sisters, she was born Abigail Smith in 1744, three years after her elder sister, Mary, and six years before her younger sister, Elizabeth. Their brother, William, was born in 1746 and named for their father, a Congregationalist minister. The family resided in Weymouth, Mass., where William supplemented his preacher’s salary by farming. Matriarch Elizabeth Smith tutored her daughters in housewifery and community charity, as well as reading, writing, mathematics, and Enlightenment precepts. In 1762 Mary wed Richard Cranch, who was 15 years her senior, self-educated, and unlucky in business. Abigail followed her sister into matrimony two years later, marrying the pugnacious young attorney John Adams. Cycles of pregnancy and childbirth bound Mary and Abigail even closer than they had been growing up. By the time young Elizabeth married Congregationalist minister John Shaw in 1777, the Revolution was well underway. Deftly weaving military and political events of the Revolutionary period with the personal lives of these fascinating sisters, Jacobs has crafted a riveting curl-up-by-the-fireside story. Illus. (Mar.)

BookPage Reviews

Celebrating the accomplishments of fearless females

The past is packed with remarkable women whose achievements deserve special recognition. Just in time for Women’s History Month, three new books provide in-depth looks at a few of the courageous, far-sighted women who served as early champions of change. Inspiring narratives about friendship, kinship and the quest for equality, these compelling books salute a group of winning women who were ahead of their time.

Sensational in every sense of the word, The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age by Myra MacPherson looks at the lives of Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin, free-thinking feminist sisters who took New York City by storm in the 1860s by fearlessly addressing the taboos of the time. They were proponents of free love, suffrage, sex education and labor reform, and they stumped for their causes bravely. Originally from rural Ohio, where their father, a snake-oil salesman, used them in his act, the sisters were a canny and intelligent pair, both strikingly handsome and unfazed by public scrutiny. They never shied from a scandal. Their accusations of infidelity against minister Henry Ward Beecher nearly trumped the Civil War for press coverage.

Victoria WoodhullTennessee Claflin

Mathew Brady portraits of free-thinking sisters Victoria Woodhull (left) and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin, who never shied away from challenging the conventions of their era.


The duo’s accomplishments are astonishing: Victoria was the first woman to make a bid for the presidency (her running mate was Frederick Douglass). With the assistance of millionaire magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, Tennie’s reputed lover, the sisters launched the first female-owned brokerage firm. Their taste for controversy and ultra-progressive attitudes (tenacious Tennie proposed that women be trained for army combat) were frowned upon by more reserved feminists, but they remained steadfast in their desire for reform. MacPherson, an award-winning journalist, takes a theatrical approach to these radical proceedings. She provides a cast of characters and unfolds the sisters’ story over the course of five irresistible “acts.” This is a grand tale presented on a grand scale.


Carol Berkin’s Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte features a heroine whose fierce independence and indomitable will made her an early model of change for women.

Bright, well read and remarkably beautiful, Elizabeth Patterson—known as Betsy—came from a well-to-do Baltimore family. When the dashing Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoleon’s spoiled younger brother, arrived in Baltimore and made her acquaintance, he was smitten. The pair wed in 1803, and their union drew the attention of the American government while scandalizing Napoleon, who blocked Betsy’s entry at ports throughout Europe. To Jérôme, the French emperor issued an ultimatum: Give up Betsy or relinquish the Bonaparte fortune.

Jérôme, of course, caved. Betsy, who bore him a son, took a defiant stance in the wake of his betrayal, forging a life for herself that did not include the refuge of another marriage. Thanks to her beauty and intellect, she shone in European society and spent many years overseas. She also set herself up handsomely through investments and profits from Baltimore real estate. Through it all, she remained proud of the Bonaparte name.

Berkin, a historian and the acclaimed author of Revolutionary Mothers and Civil War Wives, brings a fascinating chapter of feminist history to life in a narrative that’s brisk and vivid.


Diane Jacobs explores an intriguing facet of a famous family in Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters. In this artful biography, Jacobs spotlights the friendship that existed between Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams, and her sisters, Mary Cranch and Elizabeth Shaw Peabody, with whom she shared progressive ideas regarding education and gender. The sisters came of age in the mid-1700s in Weymouth, Massachusetts, raised by a minister father and a book-loving mother. They were a tightly bound bunch until marriage parted them. Avid letter writers, over the years they produced a correspondence that was polished and insightful, filled with wit and commentary on current events.

Drawing on their letters and other archival materials, Jacobs has created a well-rounded, thoroughly readable biography of the threesome. Each sister shines in her own way: Mary, the eldest sibling, served as mayor of her small hamlet, while Elizabeth, the youngest and an ambitious writer, established the second coeducational school in America with the help of her husband. Middle sister Abigail took charge of the Adams farm while her husband forged a path to the presidency. The sisters’ independence, integrity and spunk shine through Jacobs’ expertly crafted narrative, which also provides a fresh look at life in colonial-era America.

BAM Customer Reviews