American First Lady Abigail Adams (1744-1818), an early proponent of humane treatment and equal education for women, is considered a remarkable woman for her times. Perhaps best known for her prolific letter writing, she is credited with having a notable influence on her husband, John Adams, second President of the United States.
Abigail Smith Adams was born in a parsonage at Weymouth, Massachusetts, on November 11, 1744. Her mother, Elizabeth Quincy Smith, was related to the Bay Colony's Puritan leadership. Her well-educated father, Reverend William Smith, was minister of the North Parish Congregational Church of Weymouth. Despite the fact that many of Adams' relatives were well-to-do merchants and ship captains, Adams was raised in a simple, rural setting. In accordance with the times, she was educated at home. She learned domestic skills, such as sewing, fine needlework, and cooking, along with reading and writing. She took advantage of her father's extensive library to broaden her knowledge. Her lack of a formal education became a life-long regret and, as an adult, she favored equal education for women. She once argued that educated mothers raised intelligent children.
On October 25, 1764, Adams married John Adams, a struggling, Harvard-educated, country lawyer nine years her senior. Although John Adams was not from a prominent social family and his chosen profession lacked high regard, the couple was well matched intellectually and the marriage was a happy one. During their years together, Abigail Adams successfully managed the family farm, raised her children, travelled with her husband on diplomatic missions to Europe, and carried on a voluminous correspondence with many of the well-known political figures of that time. Her character was forged by the events of her life, including the United Colonies' separation from England, the formation of the United States, her husband's political career and subsequent years of separation from him, the deaths of three of her children, and personal illness.
Early Political Years
During the first few years of their marriage, John Adams lived mostly in Boston, Massachusetts, building his law career and becoming more and more involved with the fomenting political unrest. Abigail Adams, however, remained at the family farm in Braintree (later renamed Quincy), Massachusetts. Her successful management of the farm was a feat uncommon for a woman of that era. The profits from this venture, combined with John Adams' legal practice, helped support the family. When John Adams declined to stand for re-election as selectman in Braintree, he rented a house in Boston and the family was reunited in their new urban home.
This was a time of great political upheaval. The Colonists wished to affirm their loyalty to their Sovereign while at the same time refusing to submit to taxation without representation. Rumors circulated that British troops were en route to Boston. The situation was explosive. Leaders like John Adams believed that armed opposition would isolate Boston from the rest of the Colonies. When John Adams was offered the post of advocate general of the Court of Admiralty, a high tribute to his ability as a lawyer and politician, he refused, claiming the position would be incompatible with his principles.
During the next few unsettling months, Abigail Adams suffered from migraines and chronic insomnia, as well as a difficult pregnancy. The Adams' third child, Susanna, was born towards the end of 1768, but the baby girl only lived for a year. Four months after Susanna's death, Abigail Adams gave birth to their son Charles. Despite her own bouts with illness, Abigail Adams gave birth to four children in just over five years.
The Start of the Revolution
During the next two years, hostilities between the Tories (those settlers who supported the English king) and the Patriots increased. John Adams, who had successfully defended British soldiers in two major trials, keenly felt the negative reaction of the Patriots. Then, in 1771, concerned with Abigail Adams' continuing poor health, John Adams returned his family to their home in Braintree. Sixteen months later, after Abigail Adams gave birth to their third son, Thomas, John Adams returned to Boston, leaving the family behind.
After being chosen as a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, John Adams relentlessly travelled the law circuit, earning as much as he could so that he could leave Abigail Adams with a bit of cash reserve until he would be able to return. Riding the circuit, though, gave him time to mull over the problems faced by the Colonies and by himself. His consolation was to write long letters to Abigail Adams, sometimes several a day, expressing his hopes and fears. Abigail Adams, in turn, wrote to her husband of her own loneliness, doubts, and fears.
During this time, John Adams relied strongly on his wife. She was his political sounding board as well as the caretaker and manager of their home and farm. In one letter, he instructed her to encourage the Braintree militia to exercise as much as possible, but to avoid a war if they could. As the Continental Congress drew to a close, Abigail Adams' letters to her husband encouraged his return home.
The War Begins
When word of the Battle of Lexington reached the Adams family in Braintree, there was a sense of relief because the wait and preparation for war were over. John Adams travelled to Lexington to see and hear for himself the accounts of the battle. Upon returning to Braintree, he gave Abigail Adams an accounting of what he'd learned, then took ill. The Continental Congress was reassembling in Philadelphia, and John Adams was determined to attend. Nursed back to health by his wife, John set-out for Philadelphia two days after the other delegates had left. Correspondence to her friends reveals that Abigail Adams sent her husband off with a cake from her mother, a mare from her father, and a young man, John Bass, to take care of him. She wrote that she tried to be "very sensible and heroic" as he left, but her heart "felt like a heart of lead."
Braintree, while in no danger from the British, nonetheless felt the impact of war. Militiamen stopped at the Adams' home at almost any hour of the day or night, seeking a meal, a drink of water, a cup of cider or rum, a place to spend the night. Refugees from the city found temporary shelter there. Although meat was plentiful, many other goods were in short supply; in one letter, Abigail Adams wrote that she especially needed pins-she would gladly give ten dollars for a thousand!
In the fall of 1775, an epidemic of dysentery hit Braintree and neighboring towns. The illness hit the youngest and oldest most hard; it was not unusual for three and four people in a family to die within days of each other. Abigail Adams and her son, Thomas, took ill, but slowly recovered. Even though she was ill herself, Abigail Adams travelled from Braintree to Weymouth to nurse her mother. Despite Abigail Adams' attentive nursing care, her mother died. During the next six weeks, five more members of her family succumbed to the illness. She wrote to her husband, "I cannot overcome my too selfish sorrow…."
The Battle Reaches Boston
Meanwhile, in cities like Boston and Philadelphia, the move for a declaration of independence grew stronger, stirred by Thomas Paine's pamphlet, Common Sense. As the fighting drew closer to Boston in 1776, the militia of Braintree mustered on the North Commons, and marched off to the city, taking rations for three days. Abigail Adams, seated at the top of Penn's Hill, watched the cannon fire between the British and Americans. She later wrote to John Adams, "The sound is one of the grandest in nature, and is of the true species with the sublime! 'Tis now an incessant roar; but oh! the fatal ideas which are connected with the sound! How many of our dear countrymen must fall?!"
Within a week, the militia was once more ordered to be prepared to march at a moment's notice. British ships were in the harbor and it was reported that troops were plundering the city. But it was a British withdrawal-Boston's siege was over. On July 8th, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was published. Unfortunately, the war still raged and the Congress had to write a constitution for the new government. Though John Adams wished to return home, his work was far from over. His wife's letters held him steady; it was the intellectual as well as emotional bond that supported him.
In her letter of March 13, 1776, Abigail Adams suggested to her husband that women be taken into consideration: "[I]n 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 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."'
During their many years of separation, Abigail Adams continued her successful management of the household and family finances. Although women of that time period did not normally conduct affairs of business, and married women were prevented by law from owning land in their own name, it was Abigail Adams who traded stock, hired help, coped with tenants, bought land, oversaw construction, and supervised the planting and harvesting. "I hope in time to have the reputation of being as good a Farmess as my partner has of being a good Statesman," she once wrote. In his autobiography, their grandson, Charles Francis Adams, credited Abigail Adams' sound management skills with saving the family from the financial ruin that affected so many of those who held public office during those first years of the new government.
John Adams Is Sent to France
With the war still being fought, John Adams was asked to replace the Paris commissioner. On a leave of absence from the Continental Congress to visit the family shortly after the request was made, John Adams was asked to handle a difficult legal case in Portsmouth. In his absence, dispatches arrived at the Braintree farm from Congress. Upon reading the dispatches, Abigail Adams was dismayed to learn of her husband's appointment as French minister. She wrote to General Roberdeau, thanking him for his hospitality to her husband, and added, "I have made use of his absence to prepare my mind for what I apprehend must take place lest I should unnecessarily embarrass him." Although John Adams left the decision up to Abigail Adams as to whether he would accept or decline the appointment, she knew what the choice must be. In her letter to her good friend, Mercy Warren, Abigail Adams wrote that she "found his honor and reputation much dearer to me than my own present pleasure and happiness…." It was decided that their 10-year-old son, John Quincy, would accompany his father to France. John Adams and his son left Braintree in early February, 1778.
This separation from her husband was seemingly harder for Abigail Adams to endure than all the years John Adams had spent in Congress. Letters took weeks to travel across the ocean. John Adams, fearing that his letters would be intercepted by the British and published, wrote very little. Nonetheless, Abigail Adams implored him to write more frequently. "Let me entreat you to write me more letters…. They are my food by day and my rest by night…. Cheerfulness and tranquility took the place of grief and anxiety [upon receipt of a packet of three letters]." Abigail Adams also wrote of daily life at the farm. With the war continuing, luxury items became scarce in the colonies. Abigail Adams wrote to her husband to send her goods from France, so that she could sell them at a profit in Massachusetts. During this time, she also speculated in currency.
After eighteen long months, John Adams' homecoming was a time of celebration. But soon after his arrival, Congress voted to send him to France again, as minister plenipotentiary, to negotiate a peace treaty between the United States and several European countries, particularly Great Britain. This time, John Adams took along two of his sons, John Quincy, and his younger brother, Charles. In September, 1783, a treaty between England, France, Spain, Holland, and the United States was signed.
Shortly after, John Adams received notice of another appointment. He, along with Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, were to negotiate a treaty of commerce with Great Britain. Abigail Adams joined her husband and sons in Europe at this point, bringing her daughter, Nabby, with her. After a long ocean voyage, Abigail Adams arrived in London, only to learn her husband had to make a political trip to Holland. She and her daughter waited almost a month for John Adams to return. When the couple finally reunited, it had been five years since they had last seen each other. Although pleased to be together, neither John nor Abigail Adams enjoyed their time in England. In April, 1788, five years after Abigail Adams' arrival, the family set sail for home. During those years in Europe, Abigail Adams had served as hostess for both political and social gatherings and as political advisor to her husband.
John Adams Becomes Vice-President
When the Electoral College tallied votes in March of 1789, George Washington was the clear Presidential winner. John Adams, with 34 votes, placed second and became Vice-President. Although Abigail Adams had been upset by her husband's earlier political assignments, when he had to be away from home for years at a time, she fully supported his decision to accept the vice-presidency.
Once more, the Adams family relocated. This time, their destination was a newly-built home in Philadelphia. Once in the city, Abigail Adams was faced with mass confusion. Boxes and furniture were scattered everywhere, the house was damp and cold, and beds had to be set-up before nightfall. Within days of their arrival, though, her son, Thomas, and the two maids had taken ill. Even while she nursed the invalids, Abigail Adams had to assume the role of hostess and welcome visitors to the Adams' home. With spring's arrival, and her oldest children off in their own directions, Abigail Adams decided to return to Braintree with Thomas, in hopes that fresh country air would hasten his recovery.
With John Adams in Philadelphia, and Abigail Adams in Quincy, the couple once more began their correspondence. Their letters now openly discussed political situations; both were concerned with the antagonistic political atmosphere in Philadelphia. When a Federalist friend of John Adams proposed making Abigail Adams the Autocratix of the United States, Abigail Adams wasted no time in sending her reply. "Tell [him] I do not know what he means by abusing me so. I was always for equality as my husband can witness."
John Adams Becomes President
When John Adams learned that Washington planned to retire in 1797, he promptly sought Abigail Adams' advice. If he ran for the office and didn't win enough electoral votes to become President, he would be obliged to accept the Vice-Presidency under the winner, whom they expected to be Thomas Jefferson. John Adams, although hoping to win the Presidency, most definitely did not want to serve as second-in-command underneath Jefferson; their political positions were too far apart. Abigail Adams' response was filled with reservations, but once again, she knew that turning away from the Presidency would not be in her husband's nature. After winning the election, John Adams asked his wife to join him in the capital city.
Abigail Adams arrived in Philadelphia in early May. The house was shortly put in order, and Abigail Adams quickly held a reception as First Lady. John Adams discussed nearly every important problem with her, and most often followed her advice. Abigail Adams also continued to write many letters to friends, and those who knew the strength of her influence with her husband took pains to enlist her support. She even continued managing the Quincy (formerly Braintree) farm through correspondence with her sister, Mary Cranch, and with Dr. Cotton Tufts.
As was to be expected, John Adams' years as President were filled with political challenges. Abigail Adams fretted about her husband's health, but admitted he had never been in finer spirits. Abigail Adams, on the other hand, was not well. When Congress convened for the summer, the couple set forth for their Quincy farm. By the time the entourage reached Quincy, Abigail Adams was exhausted and ill with fever, diarrhea, and diabetes. When John Adams returned to Philadelphia in November, he had to leave his wife behind.
It wasn't until after the next summer recess that Abigail Adams was able to return with her husband to Philadelphia, where she remained for the term. This time, on her route back to Quincy, Abigail Adams stopped in New York to call on her daughter, Nabby, and her son Charles. Nabby's husband, Colonel Smith, was a wastrel and had spent his family's money. Charles, though glad to see his mother, was in even worse straits than his sister. Charles was an alcoholic, and his health was rapidly deteriorating.
Although John Adams moved into the new Presidential mansion on the Potomac River, his stay was not to be for long. He lost the next election. Before leaving to join her husband in Washington, D.C., Abigail Adams wrote to her son, Thomas, "My journey is a mountain before me, but I must climb it." Once again she stopped in New York to visit her son and daughter. Charles did not have long to live, and it was with great sadness that Abigail Adams bade him farewell. John Adams received news of his election defeat at the same time he learned of the death of his son, Charles.
Retirement to Quincy
After his political retirement, John Adams slowly adjusted to life on the farm, and once again began corresponding with friends. Abigail Adams, concerned about finances, continued to keep herself busy with the day-to-day details of running her home. Throughout the next year, the family remained plagued with illness. Both Mary Cranch, Abigail Adams' sister, and Mary's husband, died within days of each other. Nabby, John and Abigail's daughter, had been diagnosed with cancer. She brought her two daughters to the farm and underwent surgery. John Adams stumbled over a stake in the ground, tore the skin off his leg, and was forced to sit in his chair for several weeks. Once again, Abigail Adams and her two maids nursed the sick. Despite the surgery, Nabby's cancer returned by the summer of 1814. Knowing she would die soon, Nabby made the agonizing journey back to the Quincy farm and died three weeks after arriving. Abigail Adams nursed her daughter until the end.
In October of 1818, Abigail Adams suffered a stroke. She died quietly on October 28th, 1818, surrounded by her family. Her husband, John Adams lived several more years, passing away quietly on July 4th, 1826. Abigail Adams has the distinction of being the only woman in the United States who was the wife of one president (John Adams) and the mother of another (John Quincy Adams).
Although Abigail Adams may be viewed as an early advocate for women's rights, she never saw herself as such. While her management abilities and financial aptitude kept the family solvent, she saw her main role in life as wife and mother and used her talents to maintain the family. Her marriage was a successful and loving partnership, and she considered herself equal to her husband. She freely advised John Adams on a number of topics, and her advice was respected and often followed. She also suggested that the law be amended to protect women from male tyranny; however, she never took an active role in securing change. As a woman of the eighteenth century, she witnessed a great deal of political turmoil, war, and the birth of a new nation. Abigail Adams' voluminous correspondence with her husband, family, and friends provides a historical record of the times as well as showing her as an intelligent and capable woman.
Further Reading on Abigail Adams
Adams, Abigail, and John Adams, The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784, edited by L.H. Butterfield, Harvard University Press, 1975.
Adams, Abigail, and John Adams, Familiar Letters of John Adams and His Wife Abigail Adams, During the Revolution, Hurd and Houghton, 1876.
Adams, Charles Francis, and John Quincy Adams, The Life of John Adams, , reprinted, Haskell House, 1968.
Akers, Charles W., Abigail Adams: An American Woman, Little, Brown, 1980.
Butterfield, L.H., editor, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, Belknap Press, 1962.
Ferling, John, John Adams, A Life, University of Tennessee Press, 1992.
Gelles, Edith B., Portia: The World of Abigail Adams, Indiana University Press, 1992.
Levin, Phyllis Lee, Abigail Adams: A Biography, St. Martin's Press, 1987.
Smith, Page, John Adams, Volume I: 1735-1784, Doubleday, 1962.