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Favorite First Ladies: Abigail Adams

By Edited Sep 17, 2016 1 4

Miss Adorable

Feminism is not a product of the late 19th century.  It has antecedents in earlier movements and individual struggles.  An interesting, if little considered, early feminist in these United States was the second First Lady of the country, Abigail Adams.  Her opinions and activities were radical for their times, and intellectually and in her outspokenness she walked a fine line between tradition and revolution.

Baby Abby
The bloodline of Abigail Smith contained royalty.  Through an illegitimate spur of British nobility via the Quincy family she was distantly related to George III (King of England during the early Colonial period of America).  She was

Abigail Adams (teenager)
also directly related to many of the first English New England families to settle in America.

Abigail was born November 11, 1744, in Weymouth, a province of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Her literal place of birth was the North Parish Congregational Church.  Her father was a socially and politically well-connected, popular Congregationalist minister and her mother, Elizabeth Quincy Adams, was similarly of Colonial blue-blood lineage.  
She had one brother and two sisters (she was the second child born).  The young Abigail was sickly, and she was considered unhealthy enough that she was never sent out for formal education.  Her mother Elizabeth tutored Abigail and her two sisters at home. [Since nothing is recorded alleging ill-health for the other two girls, it can only be surmised that, typical of the times, a girl's education was not considered a worthy investment].  Her father's more intellectual approach to religion, however, meant the Smith house boasted a large library of secular material, and all the girls studied English and French literature from these volumes.  
Abigail learned more than a passing erudition, though.  She was very bright and inquisitive, and she formed her own opinions readily.  As she matured, she became an object of interest for many young men.  One was her third cousin, a rowdy named John Adams.
"Dear Abby"
Because of their familial relationship, Abigail had known John Adams all her life.  One of Abigail's older sisters, Mary (born 1739, a woman in full bloom at 23) was engaged to a man named Richard Cranch.  Cranch had a wing man he had brought along to see Mary one day in 1762.  This was a friend of his, John Adams.  Adams, of course, knew the Smith family but apparently had not seen Abigail in a long time.  He was completely overwhelmed at how beautifully she had grown.  As a pert but shy and intelligent 17-year-old, Abigail was alluring.  Adams was intrigued by this diminutive brown-eyed brunette (she only stood 5'1" at her adult height).  She seemed to spend more time with her nose buried in a book than anything else, but once Adams got to know her he found she knew much about poetry, philosophy, and politics (unusual for a woman then).  He vowed to win her, and started a courtship with the teen girl; he was over eight years her senior.

A charming reminder of just how human the Founding Fathers and Founding Mothers were (and not just isolated ideals found in history books) comes in the form of a "mash" note John Adams wrote to Abigail Smith on October 4, 1762.  He apparently had been at her ardently the evening before, and his note of the next day reflects that:

letter from John Adams to Abigail Smith (1762)
"Miss Adorable
    By the same token
that the bearer hereof satt up with
you last night I hereby order you
to give him as many kisses and
as many hours of your Company
after 9 o'clock as he shall please
to demand and charge them to
my account.  This order, or Requisition,
call it what you will is in Consi
deration of a similar order upon [indecipherable]
for the like favour and I presume I have
good Right to draw upon you for the kisses
as I have given two or three Millions
at least, where one has been [indecipherable] and of Consequence the account between us is
immensely in favor of you
        John Adams
Oct 4th, 1762"

Both his endearment opening his note ("Miss Adorable") and his gently chiding her over the number of kisses he gave her versus the number she returned is a truly great moment between these two.  They obviously had established a jocular rapport, something one tends to overlook – the humanness – when delving into the lives of such historic figures. [This level of fondness and genuine attachment would not dim for this couple.  Years later, as Abigail had to continually watch over the family's business while John Adams was working on building the future United States government, she wrote to him in December 1773, "Alas! How many snow banks divide thee and me...”].

The courtship was not a lengthy one by Colonial standards.  Abigail's father liked John Adams and approved of him as a suitable mate for his daughter.  Her mother, Elizabeth, however was
Abigal Adams (1766, about 22 years old)
appalled.  Adams was an uncouth rustic as far as she was concerned, a bumpkin country lawyer with bad manners, not good enough for her well-bred daughter.  Adams charmed her ultimately, however, for she finally bestowed her blessing on the pair.

Five days before John Adams' 29th birthday, on October 25, 1764, he and Abigail Smith married in the Smith home in Weymouth.  Abigail was a little more than two weeks away from her 20th birthday.  The clothing choice for Abigail was appropriately tasteful: a square-necked gown of white Challis.  Adams, however, must have looked the picture of a strutting peacock comparatively in his dark blue coat, contrasting light breeches, and white stockings.  He also wore a gold-embroidered satin waistcoat his mother had made especially for the occasion.  His shoes had big buckles on them.  Abigail's father performed the ceremony, and the pair rode off on a single horse to their new home [Adams had inherited a small cottage and farm in Braintree – now Quincy – Massachusetts, about 5 miles NNW of Weymouth].  

Starting in July 1765 and over the course of the next decade Abigail Adams gave birth to six children, four of
Abigail Adams
whom survived to adulthood:

Abigail ("Nabby") (1765–1813)
John Quincy (1767–1848)
Susanna Boylston (1768–1770)
Charles (1770–1800)
Thomas Boylston (1772–1832)
Elizabeth (stillborn in 1777)

As John's law practice grew, the family moved to larger quarters in the city of Boston.  From there, Adams' role in the forming of the United States developed.  Abigail's father was a staunch supporter of independence for the American Colonials, and he threw his considerable political weight and money to the cause.  [Although he lived to see the American Revolution play out, Rev. William Smith died in 1784 well before the Republic was fully formed]. 

Abigail was left to tend her two younger sons throughout John's increasing absences during the years of the Continental Congress, the writing of the Declaration of Independence, and the following formative years.  [She later also raised her elder grandchildren (one of whom was John Quincy Adams' son while he was away as minister to Russia)].

As the country began agitating for independence, many colonists remained loyal to the British Crown.  In a strange covert move, the Massachusetts Colony General Court appointed Abigail Adams and two other women (one of whom was the Colonial governor’s wife) to covertly, and under pretext, question their fellow Massachusetts women who had been accused (by their speech or actions) of remaining loyal to the Crown and undermining the independence movement. John learned of this, and wrote to her (as he was away much of the time), “…you are now a politician and now elected into an important office, that of judges of Tory ladies, which will give you, naturally, an influence with your sex”.  Abigail Adams was the first of America’s First Ladies to hold any quasi-official government position.

Political Peers
John Adams appreciated his wife’s intellect and grasp of politics and he treated her as an equal, and the two discoursed at length on the subject (both orally and in correspondence). Abigail Adams enjoyed a close association with some of the most brilliant minds of her day, Thomas Jefferson first among them, and a lifelong family friend. 

John Adams left for Europe in 1782 as a diplomatic envoy for the US.  Abigail caught up with him in 1783.  He was then posted to Paris in 1784 as a diplomat.  Abigail, her daughter Nabby, and their sons accompanied him.  Adams was then assigned as the first US Minister to the Court of St. James in 1785; concurrently he also acted as a US Ambassador to the Netherlands.  Abigail stood by his side as both a political wife and as a peer.  The family returned to the US in 1788 and took up residence in Braintree [renamed Quincy in 1792 in honor of Abigail's grandfather, Col. John Quincy (1689-1767)].

The Adams clan established themselves in a pile they called "The Old House". The oldest part of this residence, also called "Peacefield", had been built in 1731 by Leonard Vassall, a sugar-planter from Jamaica.  John and Abigail got it in 1787 – its former Loyalist owners had fled Massachusetts during the Revolutionary War. The Adams lived in London, but returned in 1788 to  take full possession of the home and its 40 acres of land with orchards.   Compared to where they'd lived abroad this place was a disappointment to Abigail.  It only had two low-ceiled rooms on the ground floor, two bedrooms, and an attic. She wrote, "It feels like a wren's nest." 

John Adams was elected Vice President of the United States under George Washington in 1789.  He moved to Philadelphia, the capital then.  Abigail stayed behind in Braintree and kept after the farm work.  She started a 12-year long renovation/expansion project of The Old House. She added to the front façade, expanded the lower floor to include a hallway and large parlor.  A large study was added to the second floor.  As an assertion of her belief that women can hold material wealth on their own, Abigail did the unmentionable: she purchased over $3100 worth of US Treasury bonds, in her own name solely in 1792.

Abigail Adams Treasury Bond receipt (1792)

Although titled with the honorarium of Second Lady (as the wife of the Vice President) Abigail did not spend much time in Philadelphia when John was second in command, though she intermittently lived there. She had work at The Old House to attend; she still felt a duty to her hearth. [Thomas was the only child left at home.  Charles was a lawyer by then, having graduated from Harvard at age 19, he set up his practice in New York City]. John Adams was impressed with her management skills.  He told her she was so successful in budgeting, planting, managing staff, regulating live-stock, buying provisions, nursing, and educating their children, that neighbors surely remarked on how much better things seemed to run in his absence.
The President's New Home
Adams served two terms under George Washington as Vice President.  He was elected President in 1797.  The Nation's Capital had been removed from Philadelphia later in his term, and established in the new District of Columbia, a useless malarial swampland whose lands were “generously” donated by Maryland and Virginia (in 1846 Congress actually “gave back” the part Virginia had donated).  [During the time of John Adam’s residency in Philadelphia as President and then later in Washington, DC,  Abigail only lived in either place for a total of 18 months off and on, preferring to spend her time at The Old House on her own]. 

Washington, DC was a rutted mire under construction.  Abigail loved the challenge however, and she John Adams moved into the new President’s House while it was still under construction (she was the first First Lady to occupy the manse, spending four months there).  Although not obvious today, the White House once lay in rural remoteness.  The lands around it were surrounded by marshy scrub and forests.  Abigail was 52 years old when she moved in, but she rolled up her sleeves and saw the house and property for what it could be and not what it was at that moment. She thought the unfinished mansion was “habitable”, its site “beautiful” in its wilderness setting.  Unlike her immediate successors, she did not have slaves to work the Presidential manse. She apparently did a lot of her own household chores, famously hanging her family's laundry in the unfinished East Room to dry.  The President’s House was a cavernous stone structure so cold and damp that fires had to be kept lit constantly to make a few rooms habitable.  Abigail lamented she could find no one to chop and haul firewood for the First Family in spite of the virgin forest near at hand.

Abigail Adams was not content to merely sit back passively as a Presidential wife as her immediate predecessor, Martha Washington, had done.  Because John’s health was never robust, and the climate and environs of the new District of Columbia were not good, he suffered much while in office from various infirmities.  Abigail helped John during his more debilitated periods to almost the same degree Edith Wilson later aided the partially paralyzed Woodrow Wilson toward the end of his second term.  After a tour of a New Jersey Army encampment, Abigail engaged in a “Presidential” review of the troops stationed there as proxy for John Adams.  Her opinions and actions were often mentioned in the press.  Unlike Edith Wilson’s quietly assuming the role of President without public knowledge, Abigail’s political involvements were abundantly clear to Congress and the public.  Political opponents sarcastically called her “Mrs. President”. 

Abigail Adams was on the vanguard of women’s suffrage.  She, perhaps recalling her own childhood lack of formal education, was an advocate of education for women. She promoted a married woman’s rights to share equally in property (generally, men held the property, the women were chattel). She also believed women should not submit to laws that had not been drafted in their interests. And a key element in her personal crusade for bettering women’s opportunities was that no woman should content herself with merely being her husband’s companion or plaything. Women should educate themselves.  With this education, they could be recognized for their intellectual capabilities, so they could more properly guide and influence the lives of their children and husbands. [Abigail Adams really believed as the woman of the house it was her job to keep the concepts of virtue and dignity in the fore, and it was her job to see to the children’s education.  But she also believed she was part of her husband’s political world since she was his wife].

One of her earliest recorded arguments was in a letter to John Adams when he was working with the Continental Congress in March 1776 drafting the early versions of laws.  She wrote that when considering new regulations, the Continental Congress should:

“…remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable 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 Representation.”

John Adams gently rejected Abigail’s “extraordinary code of laws”.  In doing so, though, he capitulated to her, “We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight.” In other words, he was saying that he believed in what she proposed but men had to pretend they were in charge. 

Both John and Abigail Adams thought slavery was an abomination.  They considered it as an actual evil, not merely a social wrongdoing.  Both believed it was a threat to what all the framers of the nascent government thought of as “The American Democratic Experiment”.  Again, earlier in her life, Abigail had chastised those she felt falsely believed in liberty.  She wrote to John on March 31, 1776, that she doubted the sincerity of “Virginians” (residents of the wealthiest and most politically influential state at the time) claiming “passion for Liberty” since they “deprive[d] their fellow Creatures” of freedom.  This is a remarkable and not very subtle dig at Thomas Jefferson (whose Declaration of Independence was in its earliest phases of discussion and drafting).  Jefferson was an unapologetic slaveholder, and it had not occurred to him at all to include Africans in his moral discourse on the virtues of Liberty. 

The Adams’ were abolitionists, with little tolerance for racism and the institution of slavery.  One key event to illustrate their commitment to true equality happened when John was Vice President and living in Philadelphia.  During one of Abigail’s dwelling periods there in 1791 a free black youth had come to her house.  He knew she was an educator for her own children, and he asked her to be taught to read and write.  She made a place for this boy in an evening school.  One of her neighbors expressed annoyance on behalf of several other neighbors over her helping him, however.  Abigail’s response was this boy was “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? … I have not thought it any disgrace to my self to take him into my parlor and teach him both to read and write.”  John Adams backed her up in this argument.

Home Again
Their son Charles died of alcoholism in 1800 at about the age of thirty.  He was estranged from the family for the most part.  John Adams lost his re-election bid for a second term, ironically

Abigail Adams (portrait, some time between 1800 & 1815)
to his Vice President Thomas Jefferson.  He and Abigail returned to The Old House in 1801 after his election loss.  Their son, John Quincy Adams (now in his early thirties) also retreated with them after completing his ambassadorial term in Berlin. Abigail worked on the house. 

In 1810, Nabby (the Adams’ firstborn) was diagnosed with breast cancer.  She was married with four children.  She endured a brutal surgical procedure to remove her cancer, but to no avail.  It metastasized, and she suffered three agonizing years of excruciating pain before dying in 1813.  She was 48.

The Old Lady
Abigail kept up a healthy correspondence all of her life (as late as 1817, she received a lengthy letter from Thomas Jefferson).  She died of typhoid fever on October 28, 1818, just about two
letter to Abigail Adams from Thomas Jefferson (18170
weeks short of her 74th birthday.  Her last words were, “Do not grieve, my friend, my dearest friend. I am ready to go. And John, it will not be long.”

John Adams was devastated by her death.  The letters between these two early Colonial figures (over 1200 of which are known) show a genuine caring and fondness for each other that apparently lasted a lifetime.  One historian notes their correspondence “constituted a treasure trove of unexpected intimacy and candor, more revealing than any other correspondence between a prominent American husband and wife in American history.”  Further observed is that Abigail, although self-educated, was the better and more colorful writer of the pair, even though John was one of the best letter-writers his time. Abigail has also been described by historians as the more resilient and emotionally balanced of the couple.

During her lifetime, because of the stellar quality of both her writing and the caliber of her correspondents (one of whom was Dolley Madison when she became First Lady), Abigail had been approached for permission to publish some of her political letters.  She flatly refused, saying it was improper for any woman’s private correspondence to be aired publicly. One of her grandsons, however, later arranged for the publication of some of her more famous letters in 1848; thus the first book published about any First Lady had Abigail Adams as its subject.  

John Adams died on July 4, 1826, at the age of 90, coincidentally just hours after Thomas Jefferson died the same day and year.  His son, John Quincy Adams, was President at the
Abigail Adams (obverse, commemorative coin)

Abigail Adams was the first in her position to involve herself in the country’s politics.  She helped clear a path for later political dynamos such as Dolley Madison, Edith Wilson, and Hillary Clinton.  Abigail Adams was honored by the National Organization of Women as an inductee into their National Women’s Hall of Fame (only two other First Ladies have been inducted:Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosalynn Carter). More recently, she was struck on a coin commemorating America’s First Spouses (the more acceptable, politically correct, non-gender-biased term for First Lady).

Abigail Adams (signature)

Finally, though, what America is left with is an attractive and highly intelligent teenage girl who was an object of desire for a man who became the second US President.  It is a woman who through her own machinations learned the ways of the world of politics, and who lobbied early in this country’s history for equal rights for all of its citizens, regardless of race or gender.  She deserves her place of honor in the NOW Hall of Fame, and she certainly deserves her place among the most memorable women this country spawned.

Abigail Adams: A Life
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Dec 11, 2011 6:09pm
Another great article on American first ladies, well done.
Dec 11, 2011 6:17pm
Thanks - I liked the little love letter Adams sent her (I thought it was kind of fun.
Dec 20, 2011 7:51pm
i'm finally catching on, vic, about that first source you always list. i stopped just short of looking for it on amazon. ;)

when i read this, i thought the romance between john and abigail adams would make a wonderful screenplay!

another choice article!
Dec 20, 2011 8:06pm

I've been putting that on DOZENS of articles, and to date (if anyone noticed it) they've said nothing. I am, however, legitimately using some of my own material as source material and it is appropriately cited. I wish I had a prize to give you!!

As for John and Abby I think there is a book out of their letters, and I'm not 100% positive, but I think their personal relationship was explored and dramatized in a PBS series (don't hold my feet to the fire on it, though). Oh, yeah, and thanks for reading my stuff.
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  1. Vic Dillinger My Brain. Chicago, IL: Evolution & The Cosmos, 1963.
  2. David C. Whitney The American Presidents. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1985.
  3. "John Adams." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.
  4. "First Lady Biography: Abigail Adams." firstladies.org. 8/12/2011 <Web >
  5. Laurie Carter Noble "Abigail Adams." www25.uua.org. 8/12/2011 <Web >
  6. Carol V. Hamilton "Right-Wing Sedition." laprogressive.com. 18/6/2009. 8/12/2011 <Web >

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