Abigail Adams is probably best remembered for urging husband John Adams to “Remember the Ladies.” Abigail made that remark in 1776, at a time when John was working on the Declaration of Independence. Specifically, she lobbied her attorney husband to,
“be more generous and favourable to [the Ladies] 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 Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation . . .”
Although John disagreed with Abigail on such matters, he nevertheless saw her as lifetime partner and confidant. Abigail’s enduring support, advice, and insightful political observations prompted John to call her his “dearest Partner” and “best, dearest, worthiest, wisest friend in this World.” On top of that, he noted, Abigail shone “as a Stateswoman.”
Shining as a “Stateswoman” was one thing; becoming “Lady Adams” was quite another. Although she had had experience with protocol as an ambassador’s wife and had assisted “Lady Washington” with official social functions as the vice president’s wife, Abigail Smith Adams fretted about becoming “Lady Adams.” She steeled herself for a role she believed “require[d] courage and firmness, wisdom and temperance, patience and forebearance.” She prepared herself for the visibility associated with such “an elevated position,” the expected “vilification” and “abuse” of her family, and the need for some degree of self-censorship. Mrs. Adams of Quincy, Massachusetts might speak as she chose, but she believed that “Lady Adams” needed to be more careful.
Despite her self-imposed limits, Abigail continued to lobby for improvements in female education and battled the assumed inferiority of women. Writing that she would never consent to having those of “her sex” considered inferior, she advocated letting “each planet shine in their own orbit.” But her earlier strident calls for husband John to “Remember the Ladies” abated somewhat over time. Abigail noted that the “Government of States and Kingdoms, tho God knows badly enough managed...should be solely administered by the Lords.”
She was vigorously supportive of one “Lord” in particular. Abigail combated criticism of her husband’s administration by urging newspapers to print her letters and articles, taking care to hide her identity when she felt necessary. Criticism of John’s policies and administration continued to disturb Abigail, and she encouraged the president to sign a law making sedition illegal. Many within the administration, as well as without, acknowledged Abigail’s influence over the president; critics even referred to her as “Mrs. President.” Although “Mr. President” valued his wife’s political judgment and views, her suggestions did not translate into immediate action. Following the notorious XYZ Affair, for example, Abigail favored war with France; her husband demurred.
Although politically attuned to the issues of the day, Abigail Adams did not neglect her social responsibilities. Like her predecessor, she assisted the needy, handled requests for patronage, and held receptions which, by 1800, took place in the new presidential mansion in Washington, D.C. According to Abigail, the new house left a great deal to be desired. She made the most if by hanging her laundry in the cavernous East Room. Another source of discontent was the presence in the mansion of slaves as servants. Unlike Martha Washington, Abigail Adams opposed slavery and had favored its abolition in the early 1770s. While sympathetic to the slaves and the hardships slaves they endured, “Lady Adams” was less compassionate toward the young nation’s immigrant population. She feared the effects of a pervasive French influence on fashion as well as on politics. Her suspicion of foreigners extended even to her British-born daughter-in-law, Louisa Catherine Adams.
Although Abigail Adams had been a reluctant presidential spouse, she enjoyed acting as John’s occasional “proxy” and embraced the power inherent in her role. When her husband lost his bid for re-election in 1800 to Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, Abigail’s fears were both personal and political. Not only did she fear for the country’s future, she also lamented her own loss of power: “I can truly and from my heart say, “she recorded, “that the most mortifying circumstance attendant upon my retirement from public Life is, that my power of doing good to my fellow creatures is curtailed and diminished, but tho’ the means is wanting, the will and the wish remain.”
Abigail Adams would become a role model for all subsequent First Ladies. When future presidential spouses described themselves as their husbands’ political partners, freely advising them on matters of state, they were taking cues from the second woman to occupy that position. Although politically active, Abigail Adams fulfilled her duties as hostess, reinforcing the notion that such responsibilities were intrinsic to the role of presidential spouse. And like her, there would be other First Ladies who mourned their husbands’ election losses, knowing, as Abigail Adams did, that it was their loss as well.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza, First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their
Power, 1789-1961 (New York: Quill), 1990.
Gould, Lewis, L., ed., American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy (New York:
Levin, Phyllis Lee, Abigail Adams: A Biography (New York: Ballantine Books), 1987.
Parsons, Lynn Hudson, “Abigail Smith Adams,” in Lewis L. Gould, ed., American First
Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy (New York: Routledge), 2001, pp. 11-19.
Watson, Robert P., First Ladies of the United States: A Biographical Dictionary