Born: 1744 Died: 1818
Occupation: first lady
From: A to Z of American Women Writers, Revised Edition, A to Z of Women.
As the matriarch of one of America's first families, Abigail Adams strongly influenced two presidents—her husband, John Adams, and her son John Quincy Adams. She is also recognized as one of the country's greatest and most prolific letter writers.
Abigail Smith was born on November 11, 1744, in Weymouth, Massachusetts. One of three daughters of a Congregational minister, William Smith, and his wife, Elizabeth, Abigail was a sickly child and was unable to attend school. Petite, quiet, and reserved, with piercing dark eyes, she was also strong-willed and had a quick and inquisitive mind.
In spite of her lack of formal schooling, Abigail was a voracious reader who took advantage of her father's well-stocked library to study literature, history, and philosophy. She taught herself French and was tutored by her maternal grandmother, whom she adored and who favored a "happy method of mixing instruction and amusement together."
John Adams, an ambitious young lawyer from Braintree (now called Quincy), Massachusetts, met Abigail Smith in 1758, when she was 14. He was struck by her wit, verve, and intelligence. After a six-year courtship, John and Abigail married in a meetinghouse on October 15, 1764. They moved to Braintree, where Abigail Adams gave birth to five children, one of whom died when she was two.
In the 1770s, John Adams became deeply involved in revolutionary politics. Abigail Adams too was a staunch revolutionary and strongly supported her husband in his commitment to colonial independence and freedom from the "tyranny of the aristocracy." When in 1774 John was called to Philadelphia as a delegate to the first Continental Congress, Abigail took complete responsibility for managing the farm and raising and educating the children. Her husband was the first to acknowledge that it was his efficient and capable marriage partner who provided the family income and enabled the Adamses to grow quite prosperous during their 10-year separation.
In spite of her many demanding responsibilities, Adams somehow managed to write a stream of animated, informative letters to her husband, keeping him abreast of important domestic, social, and political news. Her wartime letters offer a descriptive and realistic portrait of what it was like to live through the turbulent American Revolution. "The constant roar of the cannon is so distressing that we cannot eat, drink, or sleep," she wrote John, adding that "the continual epidemics and sickness seem to strike nearly every household."
Left alone to protect the farm with her young children, Adams never let the British attacks intimidate her; she knew how to use a rifle, and was not afraid to do so. John correctly called his wife a "heroine" for displaying such valor as the head of the household. On Independence Day, 1776, Abigail Adams wrote: "Thus ends royal Authority in this State, and all the people shall say Amen."
For more than 40 years, Adams would continue to write to her husband, to friends such as the author Mercy Otis Warren, and to relatives, especially her sister Mary Cranch. In all, she wrote more than 2,000 letters. Together they comprise the private and public experiences—from rearing children to befriending Thomas Jefferson—of a middle-class, self-taught woman who observed and recorded many of the pivotal events that took place during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Adams was a staunch advocate of equal education opportunities for women and often wrote about her own distressing lack of formal education. Although she firmly believed in family, religion, and preserving women's domestic roles, she never failed to encourage her husband to support legislation that would improve women's legal rights.
On March 31, 1776, in what is perhaps her most famous letter, Adams urged her husband, then a delegate at the Continental Congress, to "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."
She was unmoved when John scoffed at her proposal; she wrote him back that she hated the concept that "Men retained absolute power over Wives." She never went so far as to suggest that wives should be equal to their husbands, but she steadfastly refused to accept the intellectual inferiority of women. For that reason, Adams is considered an early champion of women's rights.
Adams also was an early opponent of slavery. For example, she defended her right to teach a black servant to read. In 1774 she wrote John that she wished "most sincerely there was not a slave in the province."
Abigail and John Adams shared an extremely close relationship; their marriage was one of mutual love and respect, and their correspondence was often amorous. "My pen is always freer than my tongue," she wrote to her husband in 1775. "I have wrote many things to you that I suppose I never could have talked."
She always addressed her husband as "Dearest Friend" and missed him terribly when they were apart. "Give me the man I love. … I know I have a right to your whole heart, because my own never knew another lord," she wrote to him in 1782, while he was a diplomat in France. Her letters to Europe offered her husband news, advice, encouragement, and sorely needed affection. In January 2006 Public Broadcasting Corporation (PBS) produced "John & Abigail Adams," which showed the astounding collaborative effort on paper between husband and wife.
In 1784, with the end of the Revolutionary War, Adams was finally able to arrange to join her husband in Europe. Upon hearing the news that at long last he would soon be seeing his wife, John wrote: "Your letter has made me the happiest man upon earth. I am twenty years younger than I was yesterday. Yours, and with more ardor than ever, John." After her arduous month-long voyage across the Atlantic, they were reunited.
The Adamses lived in France (1784–85) for eight months, followed by three years in England. Abigail Adams wrote detailed, gossipy letters to her friends and family in New England in which she shared her impressions of Europe, both positive and negative. "There is a rage of fashion which prevails here with despotick [sic] sway," she observed wryly, while continuing to dress as plainly as she had at home.
Adams longed for the simplicity of her life in Massachusetts. In the fall of 1784 she a wrote to a friend, "I turn my thoughts to my lovely cottage, to my rough hewn garden, as objects more pleasing than the gay and really beautiful one which now presents itself to my view."
Two years after returning to America in 1787, John Adams was elected vice president. From 1797 to 1801, he served as president of the United States. Abigail Adams split her time between the farm in Quincy and the capital cities of Philadelphia, New York, and Washington. She was the first First Lady to occupy the new official presidential residence in present-day Washington, D.C., if only for a few months. She described the White House as being a "great castle which is built for ages to come" and noted that the unfinished mansion was "cold and damp."
In spite of her deteriorating health, Adams loved being at the center of the political universe, surrounded by important statesmen and visiting diplomats. Unlike her predecessor, Martha Washington, Adams was a staunch Federalist (as was her husband) and a very involved First Lady. Some of her husband's political enemies accused "Her Majesty" of having too much behind-the-scenes influence over him, but John Adams continued to value his wife's opinions, her common sense, and her zeal for politics.
The Adamses left Washington in 1801 and returned to their beloved Quincy to live as tranquilly "as that bald old fellow, called Time" would allow. Abigail Adams resumed her farm tasks and could often be seen at the crack of dawn, skimming milk or doing the housework, accompanied by her pet dog Juno or one of her grandchildren.
Once again, Abigail Adams took complete control of managing the family's finances and properties, all the while continuing her letter writing. Although she was a master at her craft, she was self-conscious about her unrefined penmanship and poor spelling and grammar, the result of not having been formally educated. She often told her correspondents to burn her letters.
Adams died of typhoid fever on October 28, 1818, at the age of 74, six years before her son, John Quincy Adams, was elected the sixth president of the United States. She had often written to him, offering him sound political advice, some of which he heeded. According to biographer Lynne Withey, Adams was "voluble and outspoken" and was never afraid of asserting her opinions, whether in the "company of friends, family, or heads of state."
Abigal Adams was one of the most accomplished and influential women in early America, and one of the first and most important letter writers. Although she had never considered publishing her letters, her grandson, Charles Francis Adams, recognized their importance as a primary source of social history. In 1840 he published 114 of his grandmother's letters, and in 1875 he edited and published the dramatic and loving wartime correspondence between his grandparents.
Kort, Carol. "Adams, Abigail." A to Z of American Women Writers, Revised Edition, A to Z of Women. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2007. American History Online, Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?
ItemID=WE52&iPin=AWWP0001&SingleRecord=True (accessed September 24, 2008).