Although they lived less than five miles apart and saw each other frequently, John and Abigail Adams began a habit of corresponding during their courtship that would continue during the lengthy separations that characterized their marriage.
My Dearest Friend
Seventeen-year-old Abigail Smith and her 26-year-old suitor John would spend hours together, but their hours apart were also consumed with thoughts of each other -- expressed in love letters alternately playful and passionate. As was the custom of the time, they adopted pen names: Abigail was Diana, after the Roman goddess of the moon, and John was Lysander, after the Spartan war hero. He often addressed his letters to his "Dear Adoreable" or "My dear Diana," but Abigail wrote, as she would for the rest of her life, to "My Dearest Friend."
An Unsuitable Match
Abigail's mother, Elizabeth Quincy Smith, thought John beneath her daughter's station. Abigail was, after all, a descendant of the Quincys, a fine New England family, and her maternal grandfather's home was a Braintree landmark. John was from Braintree too, but he was a farmer's son of decidedly less elevated standing. His diploma from Harvard College calmed Mrs. Smith's fears somewhat, as did his inheritance of a house and land upon his father's death. His lawyer's salary meant that he would be able to support a family, albeit modestly. But Mrs. Smith thought that Abigail was too young to marry. Thus the courtship was long, not only because of Abigail's age, but because John himself wanted to achieve greater financial stability before becoming responsible for a wife and the children who would inevitably follow.
Their First Long Separation
During their courtship, Abigail and John experienced their first long separation, brought on not by politics, but by smallpox. While the epidemic in Boston posed little threat in Braintree, John's work brought him frequently to the city. So in the spring of 1764, he chose to be inoculated against the disease. (At the time, smallpox was one of the few diseases that could be guarded against in this way). During the procedure's six-week quarantine, physical contact was forbidden, and even correspondence had to be handled with care, as it was widely believed that the letters of an infected person could transmit the disease. John had to "smoke" his letters to Abigail before posting them. She would do well, he advised her, to have one of the Smiths' slaves smoke his letters upon receipt as an added precaution.
With his inoculation completed in May, John and Abigail began to plan for their wedding in earnest. On October 25, 1764, 20-year-old Abigail and 29-year-old John were married by the bride's father, a Congregational minister. The intimacy of their courtship remained throughout their marriage, as did their copious letters. Only the signature changed. In middle age, after the birth of their children, Abigail replaced the youthful pen name Diana with that of Portia, the patient wife of the great Roman politician Brutus.