PASSION AND PRINCIPLE
Abigail Smith Adams, wife of President John Adams and mother of President John Quincy Adams, was one of the strongest and earliest voices for women’s rights in America. She passed away on October 28, 1818, 194 years ago.
She was born into a prominent family in Weymouth, Massachusetts, in 1744. Her mother was a Quincy; her cousin was married to John Hancock. She had no formal education but was taught at home by her mother who felt that Abigail was not healthy enough to attend regular school. She was curious and worked hard to master reading and writing. Both her father and grandfather had large libraries that Abigail explored with energy and purpose.
Shy Abigail Smith had a third cousin, John Adams, who was a young lawyer. After being “re-introduced” to him by John’s best friend (the boyfriend of Abigail’s sister), a romance flowered and John and Abigail regularly exchanged affectionate notes. This practice became useful years later when consequences kept the couple apart for long periods. They married in 1764, her clergyman father conducting the ceremony. Abigail was 19 and John was 28. Their marriage partnership would last for the next 54 years.
John was trying to launch his career as a lawyer which often took him away from Abigail for extended periods. Later he was appointed as a circuit judge and travelled extensively around the colony. When the children arrived, she took the responsibility for educating them as well as taking care of the house and farm.
Prior to independence, while his family was in Massachusetts, John spent long weeks in Philadelphia at the Continental Congress and in co-writing the Declaration of Independence. Aware that her husband was deeply involved in the politics of revolution, Abigail admonished him, writing, “Do not put unlimited power into the hands of husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If 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.”
Although he didn’t take her advice directly, there is evidence that he considered the issue of women’s rights, especially in the area of the right to vote. Unfortunately, it took another 150 years for that to come to pass.
John Adams enjoyed debating the political place of women in society through his written correspondence with Abigail. In 1776, she wanted to be clear about her position and wrote, “That your sex is naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute; but such of you as wish (will) happily give up the harsh title master for the more tender and endearing one of a friend.” John responded; writing, “We know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than a theory. We are obligated to go fair and safely and, in practice, you know we are the subjects. We have only the name of masters.”
During most of the War for Independence, Abigail remained in Quincy managing the farm and finances of the family. Several battles were fought near the property while John was relatively safe on political missions.
Between 1778 and 1779, John Adams was assigned as the American representative to France, spending time in Paris and working on peace negotiations with the French and British. In 1784, Abigail arrived in France with her daughter, also named Abigail. The family then moved to London in 1785, as John became the first United States ambassador to Great Britain.
By 1788, the family had returned to Massachusetts and Abigail was hoping for a normal life again. It wasn’t to happen. A few months later, John was selected to be George Washington’s Vice President; the office John held for eight years. The family was moved to New York then Philadelphia. In the years during the Washington administration, Abigail formed a close friendship with Martha Washington; and the two worked together greeting visitors.
Abigail’s primary interests were more political and intellectual than simply entertaining however. She continued to press Washington’s administration for equal property rights for women. She also campaigned for the end of slavery and for equal education for blacks. In 1791, she wrote of a young black boy she was tutoring, “(he is) 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 take him in and teach him both to read and write.”
When John became President himself in 1797, he was anxious to have his wife by his side. He wrote, “I never wanted your advice and assistance more in my life. . . The times are critical and dangerous, and I must have you here to assist me.” In 1800, John and Abigail were the first to move into the President’s House, now known as the White House, in the new town of Washington. The house was unfinished and drafty; and Abigail’s health suffered.
After John lost his reelection bid in 1801, the family returned to Quincy. Abigail was happy to relinquish the strains of public life. She continued to exchange letters with significant political figures including President Thomas Jefferson, with whom she corresponded until her death. She was also a friend of Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison, all through her husband’s administration.
Abigail Adams is probably best known for the letters she exchanged with her husband over the years. Abigail and John exchanged over 1,200 letters (her grandson published most of the letters in 1848). Throughout Abigail’s life, John Adams continued to request his wife’s advice and opinions on political matters. Her letters comprise an important record of the events in the early history of the U.S. and in the beginning of the women’s rights movement. Abigail, as a high profile person, also made early pronouncements for the cause of equal justice for slaves.