Abigail Adams. After a painting by Gilbert Stuart.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-10016 DLC).


 

Adams, Abigail (11 Nov. 1744-28 Oct. 1818), first lady and woman of intellect, was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, the daughter of William Smith, a Congregational minister, and Elizabeth Quincy. Abigail grew up in a prominent and wealthy family, descended from Puritan leaders and successful merchants. She had no formal schooling, both because of her recurrent illnesses and the limited options available to girls. Yet neither obstacle prevented her from achieving a remarkably broad and sophisticated education. She enjoyed the family's well-stocked library, the stimulating company of educated relatives and parsonage visitors, and the attentive tutelage of her grandmother. Her studies ranged from Shakespeare to Locke, from Plato to French. She also began two lifelong habits: letter-writing to distant relatives and friends, and the practice of a deep Congregational faith.

In 1764 Abigail married John Adams, whom she had met in 1759, a fledgling lawyer from Braintree who had been a visitor at the Weymouth parsonage. The love letters exchanged during the couple's long distance courtship reveal Abigail Adams's emerging epistolary style. Taking the pen name "Diana" in the custom of the times, she wrote witty, conversational letters to her "Lysander." "I think I write to you every Day," she playfully fretted in a letter of April 1764, "Shall not I make my Letters very cheep; don't you light your pipe with them?" The couple spent their first decade of marriage living in Braintree and Boston; they had five children, one of whom died as a toddler.

Adams's life changed drastically with the onset of the American Revolution. Her husband delved ever deeper into politics and diplomacy, moving to Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress in 1774. She remained in Massachusetts with the family, and the couple lived apart for most of the next ten years. The tasks of rearing children, managing a farm, and overseeing business affairs thus fell squarely upon Adams. She met these challenges with confidence and skill: "I hope in time to have the reputation of being as good a Farmeress as my partner has of being a good Statesman," she wrote John in April 1776. Yet she could not always remain so optimistic. The dangers of war moved ever closer to Braintree, bringing the constant thunder of cannons before the British evacuated Boston on 17 March 1776. Disease also threatened the Adams farm, first through a dysentery epidemic and later through a smallpox scare.

These upheavals rendered Adams's letter-writing more important than ever. Her epistles were her sole connection to her absent husband, the means of exchanging business and wartime news, and the forum for her political ideas. She wrote to her extended family and to friends, like Mercy Otis Warren and Thomas Jefferson. Most often, though, she wrote to John, now signing her letters as "Portia." Her writings were steeped in her distinctive style, from their idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation to their candor and spontaneity. She moved easily between wrenching emotion, mundane farm reports, and descriptions of the political scene. Always, her keen observations shared space with her palpable longing for John, "My Much Loved Friend."

Adams was increasingly interested in politics and history, and her letters revealed a growing republican ideology. In March 1776 she remarked on the ills of slavery, suggesting that "the passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs." Later in the same letter, Adams made her most famous request to John. In creating the new government, she bade him "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." Adams struck a delicate balance in the passage; the tone was playful, but the message was clear. She cultivated and valued traditional female virtues, but she also held dear her ideals of liberty. John responded to her request with a mixture of amusement and uneasiness, protesting a potential "Despotism of the Peticoat" and proclaiming, "Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems."

With peace secured, in 1784 Adams traveled to Europe to join her husband, who had been abroad in various diplomatic positions since 1778. They spent nearly a year in Paris and three years in London. Again, Adams's writing skills served her well. In addition to directing the Braintree farm through letters, she sent home vivid descriptions of European sights and society. The luxuries of Paris initially disturbed her religious and republican sensibilities, but she gradually grew more tolerant of the French. After John Adams was appointed minister to Britain, the American couple arrived in London to a chilly reception. Adams complained to her sister in June 1785, "The Tory venom has begun to spit itself forth in the publick papers as I expected." Her view softened over the years in England, but upon leaving she wrote Jefferson that she still found her Massachusetts farm more attractive than "residing at the court of St. James's where I seldom meet with characters so innofensive as my Hens and chickings, or minds so well improved as my garden."

Adams and her family returned home in 1788; beginning in 1789 John served eight years as vice president and four years as president of the United States. Adams became increasingly involved in the world of politics and in the sharp partisan battles of her husband's presidential term. An avid Federalist and defender of John's administration, she strongly advocated the Alien and Sedition Acts. Writing to her sister about the unrelenting attacks of the anti-Federalist press, Adams fumed, "Bache has the malice & falshood of Satin [Satan], and his vile partner the Chronical is equally as bad. . . . An abused and insulted publick cannot tolerate them much longer. In short they are so criminal that they ought to be Presented by the grand jurors." Critics denounced this partisanship and alleged that she held too much influence over her husband's policies; political opponent Albert Gallatin labeled Adams "Her Majesty." During the final months of her husband's term, the couple became the first to live in the White House, still unfinished and barely inhabitable.

After 1801 Adams's life centered on the household at Braintree, now called Quincy. She continued her letter-writing, concentrating her efforts on advising her son John Quincy Adams, later the sixth president of the United States. Her faith remained deep and sustained her through the death of her daughter in 1813. Adams died in Quincy and was buried in the First Church.

Adams's intelligence, inquisitiveness, and dedication shaped her life and her writings. When her grandson Charles Francis Adams published the first volume of her letters in 1840, he sought to contribute to a history of "feeling" rather than of "action" and to glorify the bravery of revolutionary era women. This volume and subsequent fuller collections furthered the view of Adams as a patriotic maternal figure, a model of American female virtue and strength. Her letters, never intended for publication, provide a remarkable and unique portrait of a complex woman and a critical time. They give modern readers, as they gave their original recipients, a witty, unflinching look at marriage, daily life, war, and politics in early America.

 



Bibliography

The bulk of Adams's surviving correspondence is in the Adams Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and this collection has been made available on microfilm. Edited selections of her letters were first published by her grandson Charles Francis Adams in Letters of Mrs. Adams, the Wife of John Adams (1840) and Familiar Letters of John Adams and His Wife during the Revolution (1876). New Letters of Abigail Adams, 1788-1801, ed. Stewart Mitchell (1947), offers previously unpublished letters from Adams to her sister Mary Cranch. Several other collections center on specific relationships, including Lester J. Cappon, The Adams-Jefferson Letters (1959), and L. H. Butterfield, The Book of Abigail and John (1975). The most complete published collection of her letters can be found in The Adams Papers: Adams Family Correspondence, ed. Butterfield (4 vols., 1963-1973).

Adams's eventful life and captivating letters have inspired a number of biographies. Phyllis Levin, Abigail Adams (1987), provides a richly textured overview of Adams's life, largely organized around her marriage and family. Charles Akers's Abigail Adams: An American Woman (1980), and Lynne Withey, Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams (1981), are accessible, detailed portraits; both examine the status of women and situate Adams's life in the social context of her times. Several other works focus on particular facets of her story: Rosemary Keller explores Adams's experiences and accomplishments in the revolutionary decades in Patriotism and the Female Sex (1994), while Edith Gelles takes a critical view of the "Abigail Industry" and seeks to define Adams on her own terms in Portia (1992).



Nancy Neims Parks




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Nancy Neims Parks. "Adams, Abigail";
http://www.anb.org/articles/02/02-00001.html;
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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