by Elissa Blattman, Project Assistant
2. Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818), wife of John Adams
Abigail Adams is one of the most popular First Ladies. She is often referred to as John Adams’ intellectual equal, confidant, closest advisor, and soul mate. Many people are aware of her “Remember the Ladies” letter to John, which she wrote while he was at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia during the planning and writing of the Declaration of Independence. In the letter she famously states, “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 perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” For urging her husband to consider giving women the vote and other rights when setting the new laws of the land, Abigail is lauded as an early suffragist and feminist.
Unlike the lack of remaining correspondence between Martha and George Washington, Abigail and John wrote over 1,100 letters to each other that continue to provide us with a great deal of information. Being such close partners (John thanked her in one letter for being his partner), the two missed each other greatly when John was away on political business and kept in regular touch. According to some, the couple was acutely aware of the importance of their personal letters and wanted them to be saved for historical purposes. John even bought a leather-bound book to keep his letters from Abigail in and suggested Abigail get one to do the same with his letters to her. The Adams’ letters shed a great deal of light onto the kind of woman Abigail was as well as her relationship with John. Also unlike Martha and George, there is no debating that Abigail and John’s marriage was one full of love, romance, admiration, and respect.
Some of the most interesting of Abigail and John’s letters date back from when the two were courting and they wrote playful love letters to each other. In John’s 1762 “Miss Adorable” letter to Abigail (called “Miss Adorable” because that is what he addressed her as), he flirtatiously demands she “give him, as many Kisses, and as many Hours of your Company after 9 O’Clock as he shall please.” He says, “I have good Right to draw upon you for the Kisses as I have given two or three Millions at least.” According to John, the balance of kisses has been skewed “immensely in favour of” her.
Two years later, John wrote Abigail a list of her faults, as “promised.” According to him, her greatest faults are:
- Not being a master at playing cards – “you have been extreamly negligent, in attending so little to Cards…and whenever you have taken an Hand you have held it but aukwardly and played it, with a very uncourtly, and indifferent, Air.”
- She has “[violated] decency” with her “Effect of a Country Life and Education, I mean, a certain Modesty, sensibility, Bashfulness.”
- She cannot sing – “An Ear for Musick would be a source of much Pleasure, and a Voice and skill, would be a private solitary Amusement, of great Value when no other could be had”
- Reading, writing, and thinking have taken a toll on her posture – “you very often hang your Head like a Bulrush. You do not sit, erected as you ought, by which Means, it happens that you appear too short for a Beauty, and the Company looses the sweet smiles of that Countenance and the bright sparkles of those Eyes. This Fault is the Effect and Consequence of another, still more inexcusable in a Lady. I mean an Habit of Reading, Writing and Thinking. — But both the Cause and the Effect ought to be repented and amended as soon as possible.”
- She crosses her legs – “sitting with the Leggs across. This ruins the figure and the Air, this injures the Health. — And springs I fear from the former source too much Thinking.”
- She walks with her toes pointed inward – “This Imperfection is commonly called Parrot-toed…it gives an Idea, the reverse of a bold and noble Air, the Reverse of the stately strut.”
John tells her that he has spent almost three weeks trying to come up with “more, but more are not to be discovered. All the rest is bright and luminous.”
Abigail, not one to take even playful jabs from her husband, of course wrote back. Her response letter shows us her wit, self-respect, and unabashed equal standing with John. She tells him, “I was so hardned as to read over most of my Faults with as much pleasure, as an other person would have read their perfections. And Lysander [her nickname for John] must excuse me if I still persist in some of them, at least till I am convinced that an alteration would contribute to his happiness.” Knowing John did not see any of the things he mentioned as actual flaws, she goes through his letter stating her case for each of his points, except the one about playing cards.
- Violation of decency – “Especially may I avoid that Freedom of Behaviour which according to the plan given, consists in Voilations of Decency, and which would render me unfit to Herd even with the Brutes. And permit me to tell you Sir, nor disdain to be a learner, that there is such a thing as Modesty without either Hypocricy or Formality.”
- Inability to sing – she concedes this point, admitting she has “a voice harsh as the screech of a peacock.”
- Knowing full well that John admires and appreciates her intellect, she says she will lose the reading, writing, and thinking to improve her posture – “The Capotal fault shall be rectified, tho not with any hopes of being lookd upon as a Beauty, to appear agreeable in the Eyes of Lysander, has been for Years past, and still is the height of my ambition.”
- Crossing her legs – “will endeavour to amend of it, but you know I think that a gentleman has no business to concern himself about the Leggs of a Lady, for my part I do not apprehend any bad effects from the practice.”
- The way she walks – “can be cured only by a Dancing School.”
The two were married five months later.
As the years passed and John became more and more involved with the American cause and in politics, the subject matter of their letters became more serious. During the Revolutionary period, Abigail became very interested in politics and strongly shared her husband’s views on independence. She remained interested in political affairs for the rest of her life. While John was away at the second Continental Congress in Philadelphia from May 1775 to December 1776, Abigail stayed at their home just outside of Boston. Not only did she run their farm and raise and homeschool their children all by herself during this time until he became Vice President, she became one of the main sources of information about the goings on in the Massachusetts colony for the Founding Fathers. Writing to John multiple times a week, she allowed them to gauge the political climate in Boston. During the war, she was an eyewitness to battles being fought right in her backyard. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, Abigail and her son, John Quincy Adams, went atop Penn’s Hill to literally watch the fight. She wrote John a letter the following day telling him their family friend had been killed in the battle and to provide a civilian’s account of what happened. She tells him, “The Day; perhaps the decisive Day is come on which the fate of America depends. my bursting Heart must find vent at my pen.”
In addition to providing the Continental Congress with information from Massachusetts and calling for women’s rights, Abigail Adams was also an abolitionist and civil rights advocate. In one letter, she tells John, “I wish most sincerely there was not a Slave in the province. It allways appeard a most iniquitious Scheme to me-fight ourselfs for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have. You know my mind upon this Subject.” In another from 1797, she recounts to John a conversation she had with a neighbor, Mr. Faxon, who came to complain that a black boy she knew, James, was trying to enroll in a local night school. Mr. Faxon said if James went to the school, all the other boys would refuse to attend because “they did not chuse to go to School with a Black Boy.” She makes a point to tell John James had not misbehaved, but was simply being singled out because of the color of his skin. She says, “Did these Lads ever object to James playing for them when at a dance? How can they bear to have a Black in the Room with them there…This Mr. Faxon is attacking the principle of Liberty and equality…The Boy is a Freeman as much as any of the young Men, and merely because his Face is Black, is he to be denied instruction? How is he to be qualified to procure a livelihood?” When he was elected to the House of Representatives after his presidency, John Quincy Adams was an ardent abolitionist, perhaps taking on his mother’s views from decades earlier.
Abigail continued showing interest in politics as First Lady. She went on to attend debates on the floor of the House of Representatives, advise John on political appointees, and discuss political matters with him while he was in office – all over a hundred years before women could even vote. Unlike her predecessor, Martha Washington, Abigail showed no qualms about voicing her opinions and beliefs. She paved the way for much later First Ladies like Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton, both of with whom she is often compared. Abigail Adams died on October 28, 1818, leaving her “Dearest Friend” heartbroken.
Sources: C-Span, Rating the First Ladies: The Women Who Influenced the Presidency by Roberts, Secret Lives of the First Ladies by O’Brien and Suteski; All letter images provided Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society