For Dr. Woody Holton, associate professor of history, writing his latest book, “Abigail Adams,” was an exercise in willpower. While researching the biography Holton made some new discoveries about first lady Adams. When it came time to write the book, however, he had to restrain himself and save his big find for the end.

“This is my first attempt at writing for a wider audience,” explains Holton, who has authored three other books. “As an academic historian I was used to saying my conclusion first. The natural impulse is that you want to show everyone what you have discovered. In this book, I had to learn how to save the end for the end.”

Holton’s resolve paid off. His engaging biography of Mrs. Adams reinterprets her life story and reexamines women's roles in the creation of the republic. Published by Simon and Schuster in November 2009, “Abigail Adams” was a “New York Times Book Review” Editor’s Choice and is one of three winners of the 2010 Bancroft Prize, considered among the most prestigious awards in the field of American history writing. The award is given annually by Columbia University.

Holton wrote the book while on sabbatical during the 2008–2009 academic year and was supported by a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Though other books have been written about Adams, Holton’s is the first to examine the first lady’s life through an economic prism. Holton writes about her entrepreneurial endeavors and her involvement in bonds speculation.

While writing his book “Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution,” a 2007 National Book Award nonfiction finalist, Holton became interested in bond speculators during the Revolutionary War. “I was trying to find one bond speculator who was well-documented that I could use to put a face on all of the others,” he explains. “I was surprised to find that bond speculator was Abigail Adams. The notion of a woman being an aggressive bond speculator was so contrary to our notion of women at that time that it really got me interested in her.”

Holton began to think about writing a book about Adams, but it wasn’t until the University's Office of Foundation, Corporate and Government Relations encouraged him to apply for a Guggenheim Fellowship that he saw a way to make it happen.

“I didn’t think it was the sort of thing I had any chance at,” he says of the prestigious award. “The Guggenheim is something to brag about in academic circles, but for me was a practical matter of being able to write for a year.”

Holton consulted the Massachusetts Historical Society’s extensive archives for most of his research, but rarely left Richmond. Nearly every letter Adams wrote is available through the Historical Society’s Web site. The Historical Society also houses more than 600 microfilm reels of Adams’ papers. Holton credits Betty Tobias, interlibrary loan associate at Boatwright Memorial Library, with helping him obtain these reels for research.

Holton also had the help of student research assistants. "It's fitting that the biggest academic prize I've ever won is for the book where I had the most helpers" he says, "especially my students at the University of Richmond, who worked on ‘Abigail Adams’ at every stage of the research and writing."

Holton’s next book is in its formative stages and will be about the slave community at George Washington’s Mt. Vernon. “I envision it as a non-fiction soap opera set at Mt. Vernon in which George and Martha are not the main characters,” he says. “There is amazing, wonderful scholarship on slaves and slavery, but it tends to get focused on slave-owners. I want to look at the relationship among the slaves.”

Next fall, Holton will teach a class called “Slavery at the Time of the American Revolution.” He reports that during the beginning stages of researching “Abigail Adams,” he taught a course with the same name. “In the footnotes to the book, I thank the students in my classes who made some of the best discoveries I report in the book,” he says. “Things would come up during our class discussion and I would say, ‘Hold on a second, I’ve got to write that down.’”