In HBO’s marvelous mini-series, John Adams, there is a perfect and poignant scene in which Abigail Adams, with her children arrayed before her, is instructing them in the ways of the ancient world.
Her three young pupils are bundled together on a couch, warmed by the glow of a crackling fire, she in a wing-backed chair. All three children, two years or so apart in succession, have chalkboards nestled in their laps, on which they are busy scrawling while their mother recites the opening line of Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico or Commentaries on the Gallic Wars.
“Gallia est omnis divisa in partas tres,” she says in a sturdy but cheerful tone. Young John Quincy, with a tinge of self-satisfaction responds to her queue, “All of Gaul is divided into three parts.” And so begins their daily lesson.
Caesar’s Gallic Wars had served, even in Abigail Adams’ time, as the preeminent introductory latin text for students. This owing to its simple, elegant prose and for its extraordinary detail in revealing myriad disciplines of study including geography, history and customs. Study of the ancient text was, and is, so immersive and so rich in content that to learn the one thing is to learn much more.
To Abigail Adams, educating her children was not some routine, rote exercise, it was the lifeblood of her children’s (and those they were to touch) fortunes here on earth. She viewed it not only as a duty she owed to her young but one she believed she owed to the world at large.
To her, children were God’s gift to a parent and were, in turn, to be polished and presented to the world in kind. This prescribed mindset was so ingrained and so edge-bound in her mind that she was willing to do whatever it took to educate her progeny — even to the point of risking their lives!
On a cold winters day in 1778, Abigail sent her eldest son John Quincy, barely 10 years-old at the time, across the most dangerous ocean in the world, and in the midst of a Revolutionary War, to accompany his father who had been appointed Minister to France. John Adams was singled out by the Great Britain as a traitor to king and country; a crime punishable by hanging.
On the ocean voyage, they came under fire and were hounded by the British Navy but escaped only to be caught in a harrowing storm. The storm pummeled the ship as the ship twisted and roiled upon the wrathful waves. Lightening struck the main mast splitting it in two.
Another bolt had seared a hole in one sailors head, he would die later, “raving mad.” Twenty more were injured. Luckily, Both of her John’s were shaken but otherwise unharmed. Abigail wanted her young “Johnny” to be exposed to the great centers of learning in Europe but to get there she knew he would have to first expose his life.
So great was the importance of her children education, both to her and to the world, that she, in a paradox which confounds the modern mind, would risk Johnny’s very life in order to enrich it. And so it would be. For John Quincy Adams is considered by many to be rivaled only by Thomas Jefferson as the most brilliantt man ever to occupy the White House. That is not surprising as Jefferson himself was one of “Johnny’s” teachers.
I have an “Abigail” too. She is my beautiful wife. “Abby” is my furtive nickname for her because the dedication she bears to our children is like that of Abigail to hers.
Just like the bygone “Abby,” my wife works with little repose to teach our children the ways of the world. She instructs them the 4 R’s: reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic and Republic. The first three so the they can make their way in the world. The fourth, so that will have a world to make their way in.
She teaches them civility, restraint and humility; to finish the work you are in. She teaches them that one should listen to others, even to those with whom they disagree; that one should sit on the edge of ones seat, ready to be convinced of an argument, with but one caveat: that it does not violate ones own virtuous principles. She teaches that everyone one meets is superior in some way; in short, she teaches respect.
By example she teaches them to serve others, to love thy neighbor and that in order to be truly happy, one must believe in something larger than ones self. Just like Abigail, she teaches them to believe.
As I look at her from afar, I marvel at her unselfishness; the way she gives and gives and gives. I am in awe at how she daily tends to our children’s souls.
It is because of this that when I learn of a friend who is to become a father, I send them a letter of congratulations, sometimes accompanied with box of cigars. The letter is always brief and always the same. I share my joy at learning of their newborn child and end with this simple bit of advice: That “the best way to love their children is to love their mother.” Do this, I tell them, and your children will grow up happy and possess a resonance born of their mother’s love which will linger and comfort them all their lives.
My wife is always beautiful. But she is never more so than when I see her reflection in the mirror of my children’s eyes. So I send this day, a message to my children. I love your mother.
Ellen “Abby” Adams was born on this day, August 9th 1966. Though but a wee lad of barely a year, that day was, is, and shall ever be the best day of my life.