The Abigail Adams Affairs

SEP 15, 2017 | 4:00 PM



The Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue


4406: English Student Lounge


September 15, 2017: 4:00 PM




Betsy Erkkila, Northwestern University
“To one of the most sensible, virtuous and consequently most lovely of the Loveliest Sex, it will drop its Ink,” James Lovell wrote to Abigail Adams, in one of the many seductively sensual and sexually provocative letters that he addressed to the wife of John Adams while he was serving as minister in France during the American Revolution.  Drawing on the shift in the meaning of the term affair from a primary reference to business to encompass its more modern reference to sexual romance, and the easy slide between sensibility and sex in the eighteenth century, this talk focuses on Abigail Adams’s five-year epistolary “affair” with James Lovell, the Secretary of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Congress, who was rumored to be living with his mistress in a whore house in Philadelphia.  Lonely, emotionally abandoned, and angry at John Adams’s silence for sometimes as long as a year after he departed to serve as a minister in France in 1778, Abigail Adams found in Lovell a source of political intelligence, information about her husband, and witty, flirtatious, and erotically charged epistolary exchange.  Despite continual rumors about Lovell’s dissolute character, and his failure to return home to his family during his five years in Congress, Adams could not and would not let Lovell go until he finally returned home to his wife and family in April 1782.  Like her epistolary flirtations with other men—including Thomas Jefferson, but also younger men such as John Thaxter, Charles Storer, and Royall Tyler—Adams’s sometimes intimate, often teasing, and erotically nuanced exchanges with James Lovell, a married man with a family of nine, reveal a more sexually transgressive side not only of Abigail Adams and the Adams household, but of the American Revolution itself.