Abigail and John Adams: The Americanization of Sensibility

By Dunn, Elizabeth B. | The Historian, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Abigail and John Adams: The Americanization of Sensibility


Dunn, Elizabeth B., The Historian


Abigail and John Adams: The Americanization of Sensibility. By G. J. Barker-Benfield. (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2010. Pp. xi, 501. $32.50.)

The author of this book revisits the familiar Adams correspondence with a fresh purpose: to analyze the language of sensibility. In eighteenth-century America, educated men and women were steeped in the British ideal of sensibility conveyed in scientific, religious, and philosophical texts; novels and poetry; and prescriptive literature. G. J. Barker-Benfield asserts that, during the second half of the century, sensibility was transformed into a distinctively American virtue, which permeated public and private life among elites. Ultimately associated with civic duty and patriotic fervor, sensibility became central to social norms, gender relations, and child rearing.

Barker-Benfield provides a marvelously detailed analysis of the intellectual framework undergirding "sensibility," drawing on the works of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers in many genres and an extensive bibliography of secondary sources. In chapter 2, he explores the vocabulary of sensibility.

   To writers and speakers of the Adamses' status and era, the word
   sensibility meant a highly developed capacity for what they called
   feeling. Such a capacity was for particular feelings, by no means
   the full spectrum of possible emotions or 'passions.' The feelings
   registered and aggrandized by cultivators of sensibility were those
   signifying certain emotional pains or pleasures in oneself or in
   others (1).

Men and women ideally manifested sensibility differently and to different degrees, reflecting the widespread public discourse on gender roles. Half of the book's fourteen chapters look specifically at gender issues, which the author often touches on in the remaining chapters. …

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