Performers breathe new life into letters of John and Abigail Adams

Living-history performers Patricia Bridgman and Tom Macy, modeling their 18th-century garb, will read from the romantic correspondence between Abigail and John Adams on three afternoons this summer in Concord.
Tamir Kalifa for The Boston Globe
Living-history performers Patricia Bridgman and Tom Macy, modeling their 18th-century garb, will read from the romantic correspondence between Abigail and John Adams on three afternoons this summer in Concord.

They loved and argued. They pined and parried. They were caring and cranky. You don’t write to me enough, she said. Deal with it, he said. I’m busy.

John and Abigail Adams built the prototype of the stressed and overachieving American couple even before there was a United States of America. They filled parental roles, bringing up baby on two fronts, John helping guide the fledgling nation’s first steps far away, Abigail toiling at the family farm back in Braintree, the war raging around her.

Mostly, they missed each other.


‘‘I long for the day of your return yet look upon you much safer in Philadelphia,’’ she wrote.

Tamir Kalifa for The Boston Glob
Patricia Bridgman and Tom Macy.

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‘‘I want to take a walk with you in the garden — to go over to the common — the plain — the meadow,’’ he wrote.

They not only exchanged lots of letters communicating personal, local, and world events, they did what few if any other of the nation’s first superstars did — they saved them. The Minute Man National Historical Park is glad they did. So are Tom Macy and Patricia Bridgman, who will step into the roles of John and Abigail for readings of their letters on three afternoons this summer in the Buttrick Garden, on a hillside above the North Bridge in Concord.

At 1 p.m. Saturday, and again on July 28 and Aug. 26, the Adams scholars and living-history performers will present ‘‘Love Letters: The Intimate Correspondence of John and Abigail Adams.’’

The 20 or so letters featured in the free presentation span from the early years of their courtship, which began in 1759, to early 1778, when John and son John Quincy sailed to France.


The letters feature lighthearted teasing, the joys of children and farm, optimism on the eve of the birth of a nation, and steadfast love and respect for each other. They also reflect human concerns that are familiar today.

‘‘People will be hearing a married couple talking about things in their marriage, and they’ll be hearing parents talking about their kids,’’ Macy said. ‘‘Some real typical everyday stuff between two married people, but it’s happening at an insane time in our history.’’

The presentation takes about 40 minutes. ‘‘And what we like to do is at the conclusion ask if anybody has any questions,’’ Macy said. ‘‘And we get into some conversation with the audience, some back-and-forth. We’re going to be underneath a beautiful big old maple tree.’’

The setting is not only appealing but also appropriate, since the family had a Concord connection. Abigail’s brother, William Smith, was a captain of Minutemen from Lincoln who fought at the North Bridge on April 19, 1775, joined in pursuit of British forces returning to Boston, and took part in the Siege of Boston, park ranger Jim Hollister said.

Macy and Bridgman have gotten their act together, allowing them to remain in character during their presentations. ‘‘Both of them have spent years researching these two characters and reading the Adams letters, so they really know their stuff,’’ Hollister said. ‘‘Their portrayals are just spot-on.’’


They have refined both the “Love Letters” theme and another exchange of letters centering on the Siege of Boston.

‘I long to fold to my fluttering heart the dear object of my warmest affections.’ ‘In the new code of laws it will be necessary for you to make . . . remember the ladies. . . . Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.’ ‘The great distance between us makes the time appear very long to me.’ ‘I wonder that I write to you with so little restraint.’

‘Miss Adorable, By the same token that the bearer hereof sat up with you last night, I hereby order you to give him as many kisses, and as many hours of your company after 9 o’clock as he shall please to demand, and charge them to my account.’ [Making a list of Abigail’s ‘faults’]‘A sixth Imperfection is that of walking with the toes bending inward. This Imperfection is commonly called parrot-toed, I think.’

Macy, 54, who noted that the Adamses were compared to “a candlestick and a bowling ball,’’ lives in Kingston and is a graphics manager for an advertising promotions company.

Is he the same size and shape as John? ‘‘Unfortunately, yes,’’ Macy said. ‘‘Almost exactly.’’

Bridgman lives in Gloucester. ‘‘I’m 66 and play 34,’’ said the retired public relations executive.

Several years ago a restaurant put out a notice asking for a couple of people to read some Adams letters as part of a presentation it was planning. ‘‘Pat Bridgman and I were in the same historical organization together and had been doing living history presentations together,’’ Macy said. ‘‘So I asked her, do you want to give it a try. She said sure, and John and Abigail were reborn.’’

It’s work that never ends. ‘‘We research all the time,’’ Bridgman said. ‘‘I have about 15 pages of Abigail quotations on various subjects that I have memorized. So that when you ask me, ‘Tell me about your children,’ or ‘What do you think about slavery?’ or ‘What do you think about Ben Franklin?’ I can respond in Abigail’s words. We inhabit the Adamses.’’

Bridgman sometimes wears pearls like those she said Abigail wore in a portrait made on her honeymoon. Bridgman also has two or three work gowns, three silk gowns, a variety of bonnets and hats, two pairs of shoes, and silk stockings among other items that replicate clothing of the late 18th century. ‘‘And I just made myself a cute little jacket that ties with ribbons in front,’’ she said.

One of Macy’s outfits draws from a portrait of John painted by Mather Brown, ‘‘even down to the buttons and the buckles on the shoes,’’ Macy said.

Their letters also express suffering. One baby daughter died and another child was stillborn, ‘‘eyes closed as if in sleep,’’ Bridgman said, recounting Abigail’s anguish. ‘‘Because they were so far apart, a letter came from him to her talking about how excited he was to be having a baby and she got that letter after the baby had died, and she wrote back saying what had happened.’’

The presentation includes its own brand of fireworks, when John becomes irritated and tees off on Abigail, who gives it right back. ‘‘These are real people,’’ Macy said. ‘‘And when the stresses get to be too much, then it starts to show in a marriage. And it did in theirs.’’

Jim Taylor, editor-in-chief of the Adams papers for the Massachusetts Historical Society, which has originals of nearly 1,170 letters between the two, said their situation fueled the flow of ink. ‘‘One of the reasons we have as many letters as we do is that because of John’s service both at Congress and then as a diplomat in Europe, for long periods of time they were separated,’’ Taylor said. ‘‘And of course the only mode of communication at that time was letter.’’

Taylor highlighted one penned by John in July 1774, nearly a year before the Battle of Lexington and Concord, that shows he was aware of the importance of their correspondence: ‘‘I write you this Tittle Tatle, my Dear, in Confidence. You must keep these Letters chiefly to yourself, and communicate them with great Caution and Reserve. I should advise you to put them up safe, and preserve them. They may exhibit to our Posterity a kind of Picture of the Manners, Opinions, and Principles of these Times of Perplexity, Danger and Distress.’’

Bill Porter can be reached at wporter@globe.com