Abigail Adams: An Early Voice Introduction

Abigail Adams:
An Early Voice
For the last two hundred years the world has known Abigail Smith Adams as the wife
of second president John Adams and the mother of sixth president John Quincy Adams.
The towering reputations of her husband and son hid her, casting a long shadow across
her own accomplishments. Her life proved extraordinary in many ways. For example,
she met kings and queens and was friends with the most important statesmen of the
time. But she struggled with many of the same hardships that all colonial women faced.
Adams’s voice still speaks through the hundreds of letters she wrote, revealing the
emotions of a woman who lived through war, long separations from her husband, and
the deaths of two of her children. She cried and laughed and as she revealed her joy
and heartache to her family and friends, she opened a window to American life in the
early national period.
“Abigail Adams“
Abigail was born in 1744, a small baby with large, alert eyes. Her father, William
Smith, was an ordained minister in Weymouth, Massachusetts, a village fourteen miles
southeast of Boston. Fourteen years older than Elizabeth Quincy, he married Abigail’s
mother, who came from one of the colony’s oldest and most prominent families, and the
two set up house. Abigail was the
second of four children born to the
couple, three girls and one boy. Her
father’s good nature balanced her
mother’s severity, which included
worrying incessantly over her children’s
health; an understandable concern in a
period when the infant mortality rate was
so high. If a child lived through the first
perilous year, it might still fall victim to
one of the many dreaded epidemics that
swept through the colonies like
diphtheria or smallpox. Abigail and her
siblings survived several epidemics, and she frequently balked at her mother’s over
protectiveness writing, “My Mother makes bugbears sometimes, and then seems
uneasy because I will not be scared by them.”
Religion helped Abigail ward off a fear of death, and she embraced the liberal
utilitarian truths her father preached, making them central to her daily life. In the same
vein she valued education. Though she never went to school, Abigail learned to read,
write, and do math at home. Her father’s library was not large but she read his books,
ranging from sermons to contemporary novels. At a critical point in her youth, Richard
Cranch, a self-taught intellectual who married her older sister, became friends with the
family and infected Abigail with a zeal for reading. Poetry became a mainstay, and she
grew to love the poems of Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, and James Thomson.
Abigail memorized long pieces of poetry, often recalling lines in her letters to express
her feelings when she felt she could not find her own words. While she often quoted
poems, she also loved to read novels, looking to them to learn life-lessons. Samuel
Richardson‘s novels, especially Pamela and Clarissa, helped shape her perception of
women’s roles in life. Both books detailed the struggle of virtuous women in a wicked
world populated by untrustworthy men.
Living in a world where marriage and motherhood remained the chief aims of a
woman’s life, Abigail prepared herself for such roles early on. Richardson’s novels might
have been entertaining but they also helped reinforce the idea of virtuous womanhood.
Abigail understood that much of her future happiness depended on finding the proper
husband. There were no occupations suitable for women of Abigail’s standing, and
remaining single was hardly a choice. Not marrying meant living off the charity of family,
but marrying meant giving up all legal rights. At the time, married women legally
became femme covert according to English Common Law; they were literally under the
cover of their husbands, unable to own property, make a will, or own any wages they
might make working. They did not even have a legal right to their own children. Marrying
poorly could cost a woman dearly.
Abigail’s brother-in-law Richard Cranch introduced her to
John Adams, a lawyer struggling to begin his practice in
Braintree, Massachusetts. By 1761 he began to think seriously
about Abigail, and their courtship grew over the next year. As an
older woman, she recalled how thrilling it was when he held her
hand and first kissed her. He complained that he had two or
three million kisses for each one he received from her.
The two married in 1764. Later, family members liked to joke
about how Abigail’s family considered John an unsuitable mate
because his family was socially below hers – and he was a
lawyer! Marrying Abigail was good for John; the marriage
brought an alliance with a good family name, a substantial dowry
of household items, and the prospect of inheriting land one day.
“Romance of John and Abigail Adams”
Twenty when she married, Abigail was a lively and spirited woman, who read widely
and vocalized definite opinions on a wide-range of topics. Many men disapproved of her
forwardness but John was entranced, saying that she was “a constant feast. … Prudent,
modest, delicate, soft, sensible, obliging, active,” and also physically passionate. The
two made an excellent match, each respecting each other’s strengths and intelligence.
John had waited until he was near thirty to marry, and the advantages of her family
connections did not compare with what he had found in Abigail’s mind and personality.
Without losing any sense of her femininity, John valued her intellectual command and
found her a partner in the truest sense of the word. Their marriage was companionate, a
loving match of deep abiding friendship that strengthened through years and hardships.
After they married, Abigail and John expected to lead quiet lives similar to their
parents. Their intellectual compatibility compared only with their physical attraction.
Abigail immediately became pregnant. Overtime Abigail gave birth to six children – four
of whom lived into adulthood – one girl, Nabby, and three boys, John Quincy, Charles,
and Thomas. John’s law practice flourished, especially as colonial discontent grew
against the British, thrusting him into more public roles during the protests against the
Stamp Act and as the defense lawyer in the trial of Captain Thomas Preston in the
Boston Massacre. Abigail stayed busy, motherhood consumed much of her time, and
she wrote few letters in those early years, presumably preoccupied as a wife and
“Boston Massacre”
The few letters she wrote were sent to John, who was often away riding the circuit
court, practicing law in Boston, and then serving in the Continental Congress. Abigail
wrote about her daily life, but the two also exchanged information about the rising
rebellion – he excited about sitting in the colonial congress and she growing impatient,
missing his companionship. Despite her prominence as the
wife of one of the three Massachusetts delegates to the
Continental Congress, Abigail struggled to care for her family
by herself. In 1775 an epidemic of dysentery swept through
the Boston area and everyone in the Adams’ household
became ill. Disregarding her own illness, Abigail nursed the
family. She wrote John, “Since you left me I have passed thro
great distress both Body and mind.” Their servant Isaac
groaned in misery with the pain and as he improved, others
fell ill. In another letter she wrote, “Our Little Tommy was the
next, and he lies very ill now. … I hope he is not dangerous.”
For weeks the house suffered, climaxing with her mother’s
death from the sickness.
All colonial women faced epidemics, regardless of their social or economic class.
Even though the Adams family was wealthy enough to have servants, in the midst of the
crisis Abigail was responsible for caring for them, too. Medical practices were primitive
and apart from herbal remedies, housewives had little in their arsenal with which to
battle the dread diseases. Doctors had little more knowledge, but Abigail frequently
turned to them for aid.
A smallpox epidemic threatened her family in the late 1770s, and she sought
professional help. The doctor introduced a crude form of vaccination to her and the
children, smearing smallpox pus into slits cut in the arm, purposefully infecting them
with a mild case of the illness. Once infected the family waited, the vaccination might
result in anything from death or disfigurement to no visible symptoms. Statistically the
survival rate of an inoculated individual was ten times greater than someone who
naturally contracted the disease, but the percentages did not make the wait any easier.
When someone contracted smallpox, they first had a high fever and severe
headache; then suffered pains in the abdomen that resulted in vomiting. A few days
later, the individual broke out in red spots that swelled into pus-filled pimples all over the
body. Two of Abigail’s children suffered dreadfully. Little Nabby had more than a
thousand eruptions and could not sit or stand for days. The whole family survived the
plague, though Abigail’s daughter carried the scars from the infection on her body for
the rest of her life. Smallpox remained a constant worry throughout the Revolutionary
War. The movement of troops from one area to the next exasperated the potential for
an epidemic, as did the coming together of men from all parts of the colonies.
“Edward Jenner’s Smallpox Vaccination”
During the colonial years life was precarious and diseases struck frequently and
often without warning. Women suffered as did everyone else, but their life expectancy
was always shorter than men’s because of the risks inherent in childbirth. Even during
successful births, families often confined new mothers to their beds for up to a month,
guarding them against colds or infections that might result in death. Abigail became
afraid during one pregnancy, writing to
John about a close friend who had died in
childbirth: “Everything of this kind naturally
shocks a person in similar circumstances.
How great the mind that can overcome the
fear of Death!”
Anxious for her own health, Abigail
became sick a few weeks later during the
last month of pregnancy. She had a
“shaking fit,” a symptom she had not experienced in any other pregnancy, the type of
convulsion that a doctor today would have diagnosed as toxemia, a form of blood
poisoning. Abigail told her sisters that she never felt the baby move again and believed
it dead. A few days later she went into labor. During the birth she was given a letter from
John, who was away serving in the Continental Congress, and she answered him,
writing between contractions of the birthing process, the farm, the high price of food,
and the course of the war. She labored all night and the next day delivered a stillborn
daughter, a little girl whose eyes, Abigail said, looked like they were closed for sleeping.
Though she mourned the loss of the child, Abigail recovered and was thankful that her
own life had been spared.
Alone much of the early years of her marriage, Abigail took to voicing her feelings
and thoughts in letters. As the primary means for a woman to express herself, Abigail
used the only medium available to her to record the things that mattered. And for the
rest of her life, she wrote letters daily. Unlike John, who kept a diary, Abigail preferred to
correspond with family and friends in her own genre, what she called her “untutored
“Abigail Adams: A Lecture by Woody Holton”
Abigail Adams and the American Revolution
With John increasingly more involved in the Rebellion, the young family’s life was
largely defined by outside forces. The growing colonial discontent and John’s frequent
absences markedly changed the direction of Abigail’s existence. She became
responsible not only for her own domestic duties but also for the management of the
family’s financial resources. The couple’s separation changed the dynamics of their
relationship, and Abigail often referred to herself as a “widow,” growing more confident
and self-assured over time. Despite a new sense of independence, she still considered
her primary role in life as helpmate to John, a role that would
be tested by the coming war.
The Revolutionary War increased the amount of work
Abigail had to do at home. Boycotts made ordinary
household items scarce, and everyone in Massachusetts
suffered. John’s absence and his political activities made
Abigail the family’s primary breadwinner, a role Abigail had
never anticipated performing but one in which she became
skilled and competent.
For four years Abigail struggled to manage the farm,
fighting the usual agricultural difficulties of weather and
insects but also, because of the conflict, dueling escalating inflation and a severe labor
shortage. For a while she considered herself simply the caretaker of her husband’s
land, writing of the work: “I take the best care I am capable of.” But she proved herself
able and later said in a letter, “I hope in time to have the Reputation of being as good a
Farmeress as my partner has of being a good Statesman.”
“Abigail Adams Was Pretty Incredible”
Abigail considered her new responsibilities as her contribution to the war effort, and
while she remained steadfast in this domestic patriotism, she sometimes chafed under
the workload. She complained to a close friend, “I find it necessary not only to pay
attention to my own in door domestic affairs, but to every thing without about our little
farm etc.” In a short amount of time Abigail learned farm management, and she did so
under unusual pressures and while still running her household and managing four
young children.
Although she kept the farm running, the rising cost of goods caused a drop in her
family’s standard of living. She made do with what she had as well as she could,
manufacturing her own soap and candles, but some things still had to be purchased.
She wrote in 1776 that “Butter is 3 shillings, cheeses 2, Mutton 18 pence…” By the next
year “a hundred Dollars will not purchase what ten formerly would, common sugar is
200 dollars per hundred, flower [flour] 50, cider 12 pounds a barrel…” Abigail became
confident at managing money, enacting business and legal contracts, despite her
inability to do so by law. The war stripped many of the legal realities of life in favor of
practicality because many married women like Abigail were forced to transact business
agreements while their husbands were away fighting.
In an effort to make more money for her family, Abigail became something of an
entrepreneur. After John accepted an appointment to Paris as a diplomatic envoy for
the Continental Congress, he sent goods home to the family – items like tea, china,
silverware, fabrics, and ribbons. Understanding the great demand for such luxuries
because of the boycotts, Abigail sold the majority of the items John sent home for hard
cash or traded them for things she needed.
There is no record of Abigail’s transactions, but it appears that she prospered as a
merchant because she had enough money at one point to negotiate and purchase land
while John was abroad. Her ability to purchase property is ironic, since the law
prohibited her from doing so. Again, as with her business transactions, circumstances
superceded law. Abigail purchased the land in John’s name, but she handled all the
business and legal aspects of the transaction.
Like most colonial women whose husbands left to serve in the war, Abigail remained
at home, taking on greater responsibilities. And while she was competent in performing
them, she never relished the new freedom. She believed that she had taken on the role
of primary support of her family out of need, out of a sense of patriotic sacrifice.
Abigail was not the only colonial
woman making such sacrifices. Facing
wartime scarcity and inflation, many
women banded together to express their
opinions and proclaim their
unhappiness. Some attacked
merchants, especially those loyal to the
King, demanding goods at “just prices.”
When they met resistance, some
women took the merchandise, leaving
the amount of money they thought the
items were worth. Abigail described one
such seizure in which “a Number of Females, some say a hundred, some say more
assembled with a cart and trucks, marched down to the Ware House” that belonged to
an “eminent, wealthy, stingy Merchant.” The women wanted coffee, and they believed
he had some stored away. When he refused to give it to them, “one of them seazd him
by his Neck and tossed him into the cart.” They took the keys, opened the warehouse,
stole the coffee, and drove it off in carts. Men stood by and watched silently, amazed
that housewives used their domestic roles to act politically and aggressively.
“Abigail Adams Was Brilliant”
Abigail prepared herself for more aggression as rebellion broke out into open
fighting. She wrote, “Is it not better to die the last of British freemen than live the first of
British Slaves?” but her resolve would be tested since she lived only a half hour’s ride
from the American lines encircling the British troops around Boston. Although she had
grown accustomed to taking care of her family, Abigail was uncertain whether she could
do so in the midst of war.
Minute men, colonials who rallied at a moment’s notice to fight, frequently marched
past her home, hungry, ill-clothed, and seeking shelter. Despite the confusion around
her, Abigail declared her loyalty to her new country, claiming that she “gloried in calling
herself” a daughter of America. With almost religious intensity she declared her
allegiance, excited by the idea of the coming political liberty.
In June 1775 Abigail took her young son John Quincy to the top of Penn’s Hill to
watch the Battle of Bunker Hill. Afterward she wrote of the roaring cannons and the
flames engulfing nearby Charlestown. A close friend died in the battle, and she told
John about it in a letter, consoling herself that at least he was safe from harm for the
moment and said, “I think I am very brave upon the whole.”
“The Battle of Bunker Hill”
The pressing reality of the nearby battles
brought new pressures for Abigail and
disrupted the rhythms of daily life. All colonial
women who lived near the fighting dealt with
economic and demographic disruption as well
as the horrors of the war itself. One colonist
said that the women “supassed the Men for
Eagerness and Spirit in the Defence of Liberty
by Arms.” Between Cambridge and Boston, he
said, women and children in the houses made
cartridges and bullets and baked biscuits, and
while they lamented the war, urged their
husbands and sons to fight “for their Liberties.”
Abigail complained about John’s absence but she respected his willingness to serve his
country, writing “I must not grumble. I know your time is not yours, nor mine.”
Abigail did her part as John did his. After John left to serve in the Second Continental
Congress, he mailed her a copy of Thomas Paine‘s Common Sense. Thanking her
husband, she wrote, “I have spread it [the pamphlet] as much as it lay in my power,
every one assents to the weighty truths it contains. I wish it could gain Credit enough in
your assembly to be carried speadily into Execution.” She asked how anyone in the
colonies could fail to see the sense in independence from Britain, asking how they
would “hesitate one moment at adopting” Paine’s plan.
“Thomas Paine”
At the same time that activities like seizing merchandise and spreading the word
about Paine’s pamphlet politicized women’s domestic lives, new political theories raised
questions about woman’s place in the conflict. Abigail remained firmly in favor of the
idea of separate spheres, the male role being public and the female private. Masculine
roles in life included public duties and taking care of business matters while feminine
roles centered on the domestic chores of running a house and caring for children.
Abigail never viewed a woman’s role in life as subservient to a man’s but rather as an
equal counterweight.
But domesticity did not indicate intellectual weakness to Abigail – she freely
expressed her opinions to John. During the debate surrounding the writing of the
Declaration of Independence in the spring of 1776, she wrote to her husband, pointing
out that slavery contradicted Whig ideology and Christianity:
I long to hear that you have declared an independency – and by the
way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for
you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more
generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such
unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men
would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid
to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold
ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or
That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly
established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be
happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and
endearing one of Friend. Why then, not put it out of the power of the
vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with
impunity. Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us
only as the vassals of your Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by
providence under your protection and in immitation of the Supreme
Being make use of that power only for our happiness.
Abigail did not question male authority.
She was not boldly declaring sexual
equality, but she was concerned with
justice, particularly legal justice for women,
which is not a surprising concern
considering that at the time she was the
family’s main financial support. When she
said that, “Your Sex are Naturally
Tyrannical,” she argued for the
constitutional protection of women against
men who were unkind or abusive to their
wives. She wanted humane treatment for
her sex, not political equality.
She hoped that John would help create a new legal system under which women
could find fulfillment in their roles as wives and mothers, deferential to men but not
abused by them. Having subscribed to Whig ideology and Paine’s theories about the
abuses of unlimited power, she believed that even a husband should be restricted from
having absolute legal authority over a wife.
As the wife of a lawyer, Abigail understood only too well the legal implications of the
law. It was one thing to have a companionate marriage like her own but a woman in a
violent marriage had virtually no legal protection or recourse. The husband legally
controlled all property, directed the wife’s labor and could punish her like a child.
Divorces were difficult to obtain, and colonial women had little choice but to suffer
Abigail did not ask John for female suffrage or that women be allowed to hold
political office. She wanted some type of separate legal existence for married women
that might make it easier for a woman to get out of an abusive marriage, that would
guarantee her some share of her own wages and their joint possessions, and that would
insure women an education.
Despite Abigail’s continued acceptance of a patriarchically arranged caste system,
her demand for the protection of women reveals distinctly unusual gender
enlightenment. John jokingly dismissed her pleas saying that he had heard that the
Revolution had “loosened the bands of Government every where,” planting unrest
among the young, Natives Americans, and slaves, but Abigail’s letter was the first he
had heard of that “another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were
grown discontent.” He might have joked with her, but she continued to agitate, finally
dropping the issue of female legal justice with the retort:
I can not say that I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst
you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all
Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives. But
you must remember that Arbitrary power is like most other things which
are very hard, very liable to be broken – and not withstanding all your
wise Laws and maxims we have it in our power not only to free
ourselves but to subdue our Masters, and without violence throw both
your natural and legal authority at our feet.
Abigail pursued her other suggestion to John
more vigorously, demanding that women receive
an education equal to that available to men. He
agreed with her on this point, and her commitment
did not falter. Writing to John’s law clerk, she asked
why “when a woman possessed of a common
share of understanding considers the differences of
Education is attended too … Why should children
of the same parents be thus distinguished?” Abigail
wanted girls to be educated because of her
understanding of a woman’s role in society. She
believed that the female’s role was just as
important as the males and to adequately fulfill that role, women needed an education.
“Why should the Females who have a part to act upon the great Theatre,” she asked,
“and a part no less important to society, is it not of great important that those who are to
instill the first principles [to children] should be suitably qualified for the Trust…”
Abigail articulated an ideology that historians later called “Republican Motherhood.”
The war and early republic years were a time of profound change. New political and
social relationships formed, redefined by the democratized government and the altered
relationship of the individual to the state. Yet few American political leaders pondered
how the new independence and egalitarian ideas impacted women in society. Women
were citizens and yet did not share the benefits or privileges of citizenship. What role
would women play in the new republic?
“Republican Motherhood”
In many ways women like Abigail invented their own political character. Her interest
in educating girls reflected her interpretation of what the Revolution meant to women.
Republican Motherhood merged women’s domestic roles with the new ideas of
individual responsibility and civic virtue formed during the war.
Women drew many lessons from the war, realizing that life could be turned upside
down in an instant: husbands could leave, wives might manage farms. Experience
dictated that it was imperative to be prepared for a wide variety of responsibilities, and
the new political theory argued that republics rested on the virtue and intelligence of its
citizens. Though a few individuals called for the complete politicalization of women,
most Americans refused to accept such public roles for females.
If society was not prepared for women to be in political office, it was ready to find
some venue for their new function in the republic. Theorists created the role of a
politicized motherhood and made it crucial to the government, declaring that women
had the great responsibility of raising children. Their boys would go on to be future
political leaders or at least active, voting citizens, and their girls would have more
children and prepare them for their civic duty. An education became essential for
women, necessary to prepare them for their new roles in the republic.
The war years tested Abigail and proved difficult, but
the challenge also helped define her personality. She
discovered who she was and embraced the ideology of
Republican Motherhood that defined her role in life. Her
sisters understood her fears and her triumphs, and the
three Smith girls maintained a close bond through the
years. Their correspondence documents the
importance of sisterhood and female relationships to
women in the eighteenth-century. For more than
seventy years Abigail and her sisters, Mary and
Elizabeth, stayed in close contact, helping each other.
In childhood they played, prayed, and worked together
and in adulthood they meddled in each other’s
courtships and raised and mourned children in the
same manner. Their relationship proved a great
comfort, what Elizabeth once called the “three-fold cord,” and the sisters’ support
enabled them to survive and prosper despite the difficulties they faced.
Letter writing maintained the three sisters over the years as they lived apart;
particularly when Abigail moved to Europe, following John when he became the first
United States Minister to Great Britain. The sisters wrote about their daily lives, “How
often I have wished to be near you that we might mutually comfort and assist each
other.” But the three also discussed politics and the economy.
Presented to the Queen of England, Abigail wrote her sisters, saying that her
highness was not “well shaped or handsome.” She went on to say that “as to the ladies
of the Court, rank and title may compensate for want of personal charm; but they are in
general, very plain, ill-shaped and ugly.” Then added, “Don’t you tell any body I say so.”
Gossip in its various forms marked a mainstay in
their letters over the years, allowing the sisters to
share in the daily happenings of each other’s lives.
The gossip about family, friends, national leaders,
and each other lent an intimacy essential to their
relationship and which confirmed their own place in
society as women.
During the war the sisters often discussed the
role of women in colonial society. Abigail’s older
sister Mary wrote without apology, arguing that as
the wives of a minister and a senator, the two
women needed to express their excitement but also
their dissatisfaction with the state of affairs. Mary
expressed her own political ideas stating, “Let no
one say that the Ladies are of no importance in the
affairs of the nation. Perswaide them to renounce all
their Luxirys and it would be found that they are – and believe me there is not a more
affectual way to do it than to make them acquainted with the causes of the distresses of
their country – we [women] do not want spirit. We only want to have it properly
directed.” Mary proposed that all the women in the country boycott English goods, not a
particularly novel idea because she had already stopped purchasing tea since the
Boston Tea Party, but she did express a radical position to her sister when she
suggested that women could join together and be an economic force worth reckoning.
The crisis and war politicized women and boycotts became one of the primary
means for women to exercise political judgment. They were frequently in charge of
purchasing goods for the household, and the boycotts brought their daily activities of
shopping and home manufacturing into the realm of politics. Colonial women like Abigail
and her sisters understood the ramifications of their actions. In Boston, Ipswich, Long
Island, Providence, and other cities women organized spinning bees, determined to turn
flax or cotton into fabric so they could manufacture their own clothing. By exercising
their own ingenuity to produce everything they could themselves, colonial women could
fight their own war against the British.
The sisters exchanged correspondence about a number of political topics over the
years, largely expressing how the consequences of men’s actions affected their daily
lives. Colonial women bore the brunt of men’s political decisions, facing hardships or
rewards at varying times. Talking of politics breached many eighteenth-century social
conventions for women yet the sisters wrote of it often, expressing their opinions. The
sisters’ intimacy gave them a freedom in their conversation, allowing them to argue,
disagree, and express their true feelings in a way that they could not do so fully with
anyone else. Connections between women grew strong in a society that developed
such clearly defined roles between the sexes; female friendship validated their separate
sphere. The youngest sister Elizabeth wrote, “There is really something so pleasing, so
tender in a sisters care and pity, as stills the nerves as cannot be described by
anything…” expressing the ideal of caring that the female bond represented, a type of
care-taking and understanding that was reciprocal.
Abigail enjoyed a similarly close relationship with her
daughter. Named Abigail at birth, the only girl in the
family was always called Nabby. Through a heartbreaking
first courtship that ended in nothing to a marriage that
eventually proved mismatched, Nabby and her mother
remained close, bound by the same kind of female
solidarity that Abigail shared with her sisters. The two
women faced their greatest challenge together when
Nabby was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Nabby discovered a lump in her breast but failed to
seek help immediately. By the time she did, the lump had
become hard and large and was near ulcerating at the
skin’s surface. The only recourse appeared to be a
complete mastectomy, and Abigail remained with her daughter as a surgeon removed
her entire right breast. The surgery took place only days after her sister Mary died of
consumption and shortly after John’s mother died, and Abigail appeared consumed with
grief and worry in her letters to her son John Quincy in the aftermath.
For a while it appeared that Nabby had recovered completely, losing only a small
amount of movement and strength in her arm. But within a year, she fell ill again. The
cancer had metastasized internally and spread to the other breast. Nabby had rejoined
her husband while her health had improved but when it became obvious that she was
dying, she returned once more to her mother, seeking comfort in the hands of her
mother, her own daughter Caroline, and female friends. Nabby lived just three short
weeks, and her mother fell apart after she died.
Having once been reluctant to speak of her daughter’s illness because of the societal
restrictions on talking about female body parts in public, Abigail wrote incessantly after
Nabby’s death about the cancer, the operation, and the outcome. For the first time in
her life, Abigail was overcome with depression, losing all hope in life for a while,
claiming that a part of herself had died with her daughter. She consoled herself in her
religious beliefs writing, “O my Full Heart, shall I wish for life for her who is relieved [sic]
from pain and sufferings.”
No matter how important these female relationships proved in Abigail’s life, much of
her sense of self was defined by John and his success. Always an ambitious man, John
remained so throughout the war and afterward. Though he doubted he was popular
enough to be chosen for an office in the newly formed government, he desperately
wanted one. There was never a doubt that George Washington would be chosen
president. But no clear candidate emerged for the vice-presidential office. Although he
did not win the full support of the electoral college, John did receive enough votes to
become the new vice-president.
Abigail believed that John deserved the highest offices for the sacrifices he had
made over the years, and for the sacrifices she had made. She believed she had given
of herself equally over the years, insisting that she had suffered more “than any other
woman in the Country.” Consequently she wanted to share in any honors that the
country bestowed upon John.
“John Adams – President Washington – VP John Adams”
The honors proved few and far between. The vice-presidential office held no
responsibility except sitting in the Senate, voting only in case of a tie. Washington rarely
consulted John, and his salary was only one fifth that of the president’s. Abigail
defended his new position, writing to a friend that “if the United States had chosen to the
Vice P’s Chair a man wavering in his opinions, or one who sought the popular applause
of the multitude, this very constitution would have had its death wound during the first
six month of its existence.” Despite his opinion of the vice-presidency, John accepted
the position again when he was re-elected for a second term.
Washington’s refusal to serve as President for a third term
opened new doors for John and Abigail; he wrote to her, “You
know the Consequence of this, to me and to yourself.” Neither of
them was confident that he would be elected president, his
reputation and popularity did not seem great enough. Abigail
advised him as always, saying that he must do his duty and, as
always, she would support him. She was not sure she wanted to
be a president’s wife, writing that she found no “comfort or
pleasure in the contemplation.”
Neither believed that they would command the universal
respect that Washington had, but Abigail especially worried that
that she did not possess the “patience, prudence, discretion” of Martha Washington,
who had managed to avoid all controversy. She worried that her habit of speaking her
mind would get her husband into trouble, “I should say that I have been so used to a
freedom of sentiment that I know not how to place so many guards about me, as will be
indispensable, to look at every word before I utter it, and to impose a Silence upon My
Self when I long to talk.”
Abigail Adams as First Lady
When the electoral ballots were opened in 1796, John Adams had been chosen
president. Abigail described her feelings, “My feelings are not those of pride or
ostentation. … They are solemnized by a sense of the obligations, the important Trusts
and Numerous duties connected with it.” She promised to hold her tongue, keeping
quiet for John’s betterment.
“John Adams Oath and Speech”
But at home she continued to freely express her opinions. Having enrolled her two
black servants into the local school, a townsman objected and she replied, “The Boy is
a Freeman as much as any of the Young Men, and merely because his Face if Black, is
he to be denied instruction, how is he to be qualified to procure a livelihood? Is this the
Christian principle of doing to others as we would have others do to us? I hope we shall
all go to Heaven together.”
Abigail’s experience as the
president’s wife confirmed her belief in
the role of women in the new republic. “I
will never consent to have our Sex
considered in an inferior point of light,”
she wrote, “Let each planet shine in
their own orbit, God and nature
designed it so.” She believed that
American women should participate in
the political process by influencing their
men. Her own relationship with John
proved her point. He called her his
“fellow Labourer” and insisted that he had “never wanted your Advice and assistance
more in my Life.” A few weeks into the presidency he wrote, “The Times are critical and
dangerous, and I must have you here to assist me.”
“Chautuauqua 2001: Abigail Adams 1/3”
“Chautuauqua 2001: Abigail Adams 2/3”
“Chautuauqua 2001: Abigail Adams 3/3”
Long before Eleanor Roosevelt or Hillary Clinton were known as unofficial advisors
to their husband presidents, Abigail Adams proved her importance to John. He needed
her to manage the presidential home and to meet his social obligations, but he also
needed her quick wit and intelligence. He needed the confidence she lent him, and she
wanted to fulfill her duty. Over time she took great pleasure in being First Lady, but she
enjoyed most being the President’s confidant and counselor.
The happy years of the presidency were marred by family problems; most troubling
was son Charles’ increasing alcoholism. Deeply in debt and drinking constantly, Charles
slipped from his father’s favor, but Abigail never did forsake him. Nearly all men drank a
variety of alcoholic beverages during the colonial period; water was considered putrid
and unfit for good health. Despite this, the Adams family proved cursed by alcoholism.
Abigail’s brother William, then her brother-in-law, her son Charles, and eventually her
son Thomas suffered from the illness.
On a visit to Charles, Abigail searched in vain for a “hope of change,” but she found
that “vice and destruction have swallowed him up.” Sadly she reported to her family that
“all is lost – poor, poor, unhappy, wretched man.” The final time she saw Charles, she
found him “upon a Bed of sickness, destitute of a home.” She was saddened by the
sight, knowing that with the “distressing cough, an affliction of the liver, and a dropsy”
that his life would soon end, a “life which might have been made valuable to himself and
others.” Three weeks later he died, with only his wife at his side. Abigail believed that in
his condition, death had been “a dispensation of Heaven in Mercy to his near
That same year Abigail sat for a portrait by Gilbert Stuart. At fifty-six Abigail still had
the piercing eyes and resolute mouth of her youth. Her time as First Lady had come to
an end; John did not win re-election in 1800. By colonial standards she was already old,
and she had suffered through many heartaches and illnesses. Despite the troubles, her
mind remained alert and active.
John and Abigail settled into
retirement, living comfortably but
not extravagantly. During all the
years of John’s public service,
Abigail had slowly preserved and
enlarged their property and
savings. This proved her
retirement gift to him. John
seemed content, but Abigail
chafed with restlessness. John
Quincy, her oldest son, returned from his diplomatic position in Europe that year and
this seemed to settle his mother’s discontent.
She cautioned him against continuing with public service, but when local Federalists
called him to the state senate, John Quincy served willingly. By 1803 his fellow citizens
elected him to the United States Senate. John Quincy’s blossoming career recalled for
Abigail the old ideology of Republican Motherhood, and she frequently sent letters of
advice to her son, telling him to “vote as your conscience aided by your judgment. …”
But she also sent plain motherly admonitions, telling him to never go to the Senate
“without a craker in his pocket for the space between breakfast and dinner is so long…”
Rising political forces worked against John Quincy, and he resigned before the end
of his term. Before long he accepted a position as United States Minister to Russia, and
he and his family left for Saint Petersburg. Abigail was devastated, fearing that at sixtyfive she would never see him again. John Quincy’s reputation grew while he was
abroad, and the mother and son took to writing each other constantly. Abigail became
John Quincy’s greatest correspondent. After several years abroad, the favored son
finally returned in 1817, one of the happiest days of Abigail’s old age.
Well into her seventies, Abigail clung tenaciously to her views of the reciprocal roles
of the sexes. Writing to her sister she said, “No man ever prospered in the world without
the consent and cooperation of his wife.” She still advocated equal educational
opportunities for women: “It behoves us … to give our daughters and granddaughters …
such an education as shall qualify them for the useful and domestic duties of life. … I
consider it as an indispensable requisite, that every American wife should herself know
how to order and regulate her family. For this purpose, the all-wise Creator made
woman a help-meet for man, and she who fails in these duties does not answer the end
of her creation.”
Abigail always insisted that male and female roles were equal in importance,
believing that “nature has assigned to each sex their particular duties and sphere of
action.” Undoubtedly her satisfaction with her own marriage helped affirm her view. As
she neared fifty years of marriage, she wrote that she had “gone through a long Life
with as few Rubs of a matrimonial nature” as any woman could expect. “Yet after half a
century, I can say, my first choice would be the same if I again had youth and
opportunity to make it.”
In addition to her happiness with her
life mate, Abigail continued to find great
pleasure in intellectual pursuits. She
read the latest literature, preferring Sir
Walter Scott to Lord Byron, and
commented freely on Andrew Jackson‘s
biography. She discussed Mary
Wollstonecraft‘s A Vindication of the
Rights of Women, enjoying the attention
that the outspoken English woman called
to the derogation of women.
“Wollstonecraft: Key Thinkers at the University of Sydney”
A year after John Quincy returned from Europe, Abigail contracted typhus fever. She
lay ill for a few weeks, seemingly stable, but then took a sudden turn for the worse and
died in October 1818, a month before her seventy-fourth birthday. John lived on for
eight more years.
Abigail’s life was unlike that of most colonial women, women whose lives were filled
with hard work and poverty. Though not rich, Abigail enjoyed relative prosperity and
always had servants to help with daily chores. Most of her contemporaries had little
education or even the opportunity to study. Abigail had access to books and intellectual
conversation all her life. She traveled widely, living in several American cities and
overseas in Paris and London. The world’s leading statesmen befriended her, and she
counted them among her regular correspondence. Most satisfying for her personally,
she married a man who relished her intellect and valued her vocal and intelligent
But in other ways her life reflected experiences all colonial women shared. Like the
wives of all Revolutionary War soldiers, Abigail faced raising her family alone. She
challenged her abilities and prevailed, earning money and managing the farm. Not all
women had Abigail’s advantages of family connection or education, and so did not
succeed as well as she did, but they all experienced similar concerns and fears.
Additionally all colonial women faced unexpected and devastating illnesses – for
themselves and their families. Childbirth proved an equalizer across all walks of life.
Wealthy or poor, giving birth to children during the period carried great risks each and
every time.
Perhaps because of Abigail’s unique position of being
like other women yet different, she developed a keen
sense of what it meant to be female in her society. She
never relented over the years in her effort to ensure
equal educational opportunities and some form of legal
compensation for married women. Some historians have
wondered if her opinions reflect an early form of
feminism. But no matter how strident she seemed,
Abigail remained bound to the ideology of separate
spheres. Within this limit she maintained that a woman’s
role in life was just as important as a man’s.
Abigail believed that she had played a crucial role in
the building of a new nation. As a representative of
Republican Motherhood she took heart in the belief that
she had the “satisfaction in the Consciousness of having discharged my duty to the
Abigail’s life accomplishments rival those of her more well-known husband and son.
She was an articulate and educated woman whose intelligence and quick wit made her
a match for anyone, male or female. In any period Abigail Adams would have stood out
as an exceptional individual. Her lengthy correspondence gives a voice to the patterns
of life during the colonial years.
Suggested Readings
Akers, Charles W. Abigail Adams: An American Woman. (New York: Longman, 2000).
Using the letters of Adams, Akers pictures the life of Abigail Adams.
Cott, Nancy F. The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman’s Sphere: in New England, 1780-
1835 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977). The role of women in New
England at this time gives insight into the early life of Abigail Adams.
Gelles, Edith B. Portia: The World of Abigail Adams (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1992). The environment of Adams and the influence of the environment on
her life is examined in this book.
______. First Thoughts: Life and Letters of Abigail Adams (New York: Twayne
Publishers, 1998). Study of the life and times of Abigail Adams.
Kerber, Linda. Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980). Kerber pictures Adams and
other women as defying the ideas of the time.
Levin, Phyllis Lee. Abigail Adams (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987). Levin in this
book reconstructs the complex character of Abigail Adams.
Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American
Women, 1750-1800 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980). Landmark book on the
history of women and the Revolution.
Withey, Lynne. Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams (New York: Free press, 1981).
The private and public life of Adams is examined in this work.

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