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As the Second First Lady of the young United States of America, inner strength was a necessity for Abigail Adams. Married to John Adams, the second president of the United States, Abigail had many responsibilities. Planning state dinners, entertaining, and networking with fellow political wives were duties imperative to her position. However, serving as a devoted wife and mother to her 5 surviving children proved to be the most influential contribution she would make. Far ahead of her time, Abigail not only served as First Lady, but was considered by many to be her husband’s most trusted advisor. From politics to spiritual matters, John sought Abigail’s advice diligently. So much so, that his political opponents even went as far to refer to Abigail as ‘Mrs. President’. In a time when women were expected to sit quietly on the sidelines and had not yet gained the right to vote, Abigail was fortunate to have a husband who took her seriously. It undoubtedly took a great deal of courage to be so outspoken regarding public policy.
Abigail adored her husband and he, her. A snippet from a letter she wrote to him in 1774 reads like a love poem of the likes we have only known through the works of Jane Austin and Charlotte Bronte’.
I dare not express to you, at three hundred miles distance, how ardently I long for your return.
Their marriage did not exist without difficulty. Aside from the turmoil of the time as well as the criticism they faced regarding John’s openness to Abigail’s ideas, the two lost a child when their daughter, Elizabeth, was stillborn. Though not an uncommon occurrence in the late 18th century, the loss must have carried its weight of devastation and grief. Still, they survived and grew closer throughout their years together.
Growing up, Abigail was often ill as a child, a weakness that extended well into adulthood. However, that didn’t stop her from learning to read, write, and cipher at the teaching of her mother. As a young woman, Abigail was a self-starter and spent a great deal of time reading with friends to further her own education. Abigail’s life experiences allowed her to have the insight to advocate for all women. She penned the following reminder to her husband.
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.
Abigail believed women should take an active role in decision-making within the home. An educated woman could then use her knowledge to effectively manage her household.
A devoted mother, Abigail is now also known as the first woman to have served as First Lady who was also the mother of a president. Her son, John Quincy Adams, grew up to be the sixth president of the United States. The moral values she held shone through in her parentling. In 1780, she wrote to her son.
Let this important truth be engraven upon your heart…Justice, humanity, and benevolence are the duties you owe to society in general.
It isn’t surprising that his policies supported education and the establishment of a national university since his mother hadn’t had access to a formal education herself. Though she died before her son assumed the role of president, there is no doubt that Abigail’s sound advice must have influenced his decisions.
More than two hundred years later, Abigail’s insight, devotion, and intelligence have left a lasting effect on women today. We can all learn from her example of determination, diligence, and advocacy for the equality of women in the United States. Throughout physical ailments, a lack of formal education, the loss of a child, and the disadvantage of being a woman in early America, Abigail’s resiliency left a legacy of a strength, love, integrity, and the drive to achieve regardless of circumstance. Abigail was blessed with a fulfilling life and passed away at the age of 73 from Typhoid fever.
Abigail Adams’ sound intellectual reasoning
Abigail showed a remarkable resolve and strength in managing the farm while her husband was away on diplomatic missions abroad. She handled virtually everything at home, be it finance and investment, staff and labor, or the children’s education.
Kind courtesy to the extensive letters she exchanged with her husband, historians have been able to understand the crucial impact she had on John Adams’s political career. The couple had complete trust and respect for each other’s intellectual capacity.
Mrs. President: Abigail Adams - HISTORY
Abigail Smith Adams
Inheriting New England's strongest traditions, Abigail Smith was born in 1744 at Weymouth, Massachusetts. On her mother's side she was descended from the Quincys, a family of great prestige in the colony her father and other forebearers were Congregational ministers, leaders in a society that held its clergy in high esteem.
Like other women of the time, Abigail lacked formal education but her curiosity spurred her keen intelligence, and she read avidly the books at hand. Reading created a bond between her and young John Adams, Harvard graduate launched on a career in law, and they were married in 1764. It was a marriage of the mind and of the heart, enduring for more than half a century, enriched by time.
The young couple lived on John's small farm at Braintree or in Boston as his practice expanded. In ten years she bore three sons and two daughters she looked after family and home when he went traveling as circuit judge. "Alas!" she wrote in December 1773, "How many snow banks divide thee and me. "
Long separations kept Abigail from her husband while he served the country they loved, as delegate to the Continental Congress, envoy abroad, elected officer under the Constitution. Her letters--pungent, witty, and vivid, spelled just as she spoke--detail her life in times of revolution. They tell the story of the woman who stayed at home to struggle with wartime shortages and inflation to run the farm with a minimum of help to teach four children when formal education was interrupted. Most of all, they tell of her loneliness without her "dearest Friend." The "one single expression," she said, "dwelt upon my mind and played about my Heart. "
In 1784, she joined him at his diplomatic post in Paris, and observed with interest the manners of the French. After 1785, she filled the difficult role of wife of the first United States Minister to Great Britain, and did so with dignity and tact. They returned happily in 1788 to Massachusetts and the handsome house they had just acquired in Braintree, later called Quincy, home for the rest of their lives.
As wife of the first Vice President, Abigail became a good friend to Mrs. Washington and a valued help in official entertaining, drawing on her experience of courts and society abroad. After 1791, however, poor health forced her to spend as much time as possible in Quincy. Illness or trouble found her resolute as she once declared, she would "not forget the blessings which sweeten life."
When John Adams was elected President, she continued a formal pattern of entertaining--even in the primitive conditions she found at the new capital in November 1800. The city was wilderness, the President's House far from completion. Her private complaints to her family provide blunt accounts of both, but for her three months in Washington she duly held her dinners and receptions.
The Adamses retired to Quincy in 1801, and for 17 years enjoyed the companionship that public life had long denied them. Abigail died in 1818, and is buried beside her husband in United First Parish Church. She leaves her country a most remarkable record as patriot and First Lady, wife of one President and mother of another.
First Lady Feature: Abigail Adams
While John Adams convened at the First Congress, Abigail Adams wrote her husband a letter reminding him to:
“Remember the ladies…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.”
In his reply, John Adams was light-hearted, telling his wife:
“Depend on it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems…in practice you know we are the subjects. We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight.”
Her early (early) wave feminism continued. Later in life, Abigail sent a note along with a book she’d purchased for her niece, which she’d discovered portrayed women as unequal to men. The note was a warning to read the book with a grain of salt. Abigail wrote: “I will never consent to have our sex considered in an inferior point of light.”
Abigail Adams had no formal education, but benefited from the libraries of her father and grandfather, of which she had free reign as a girl. She took a special interest in philosophy, theology, Shakespeare, the classics, history, government, and French. Her wit and intelligence is preserved in the letters she wrote in her lifetime–to her husband, to friends, and to political frenemies like Thomas Jefferson.
She advocated for equal education for boys and girls, believed in emancipation for American slaves, and, above all, in the cause of independence. Although they spent many years apart (once, while John Adams lived in Europe, they spent a consecutive five years without seeing each other), Abigail and John Adams remained close throughout their marriage. Abigail Adams was a political partner as well. During her husband’s presidency, some even darkly referred to her as Mrs. President.
Abigail Adams was the first First Lady to live in the White House. She and John Adams moved to Washington D.C. from Philadelphia once the mansion was finished. As she wrote a friend, the executive mansion was huge and sparse. “It is habitable by fires in every part, thirteen of which we are obliged to keep daily, or sleep in wet and damp places.” Abigail used today’s East Room to dry the family’s laundry.
When she died, Abigail’s son John Quincy Adams (who would go on to be president himself) wrote in his diary, “My mother was an angel upon earth. She was a minister of blessing to all human beings within her sphere of action. Her heart was the abode of heavenly purity. She [had no] feelings but of kindness and beneficence yet her mind was as firm as her temper was mild and gentle.”
Despite her forward-thinking views, and despite Abigail Adams’ relationship with men in power like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, she would not see equality between men and women in her lifetime. Women would not have the right to vote for another 143 years from the time she asked her husband to “remember the ladies.”
Greetings from this side of the page and mic.
The woman that we discuss in this episode lived a life of devotion and sacrifice during an exciting, yet turbulent, period of American History. By all accounts she was an intelligent wife, mother, patriot, home fire-tender, Second Lady, First Lady and oh, yes, mother of the sixth president of the United States. As if that were not enough, she was a self-educated, letter writing machine!
A young Abigail Smith Adams
Abigail Smith was born in November 1, 1744, the second of four children to William and Elizabeth Quincy Smith in Weymouth, MA. Her father was a Congregationalist minister and her mother’s family was rooted in politics- Abigail’s grandfather held the position of Speaker for Massachusetts for 40 years. Abigail’s life was lived out during the formative, and historically thrilling, early years of the United States.
It’s easy to get lost in all the Quincys, Smiths and Johns in her life, we’ll admit that. But wade through them because this remarkably resilient and faith driven woman lived a rather difficult life of sacrifice as she strove for the greater good. Even if all you know at this point is that she was the wife of one of the early presidents, and something about “remember the ladies!”- you should put on your thinking caps. This woman was an intellectual powerhouse! PLUS, her marriage was one based in a very real romance, intellectual stimulation and mutual respect. We all can learn a lot from her.
It’s almost impossible to understand this woman without understanding her husband and the times that they lived. Their puritan colonial backgrounds, the revolutionary and federal periods- we only have time to touch on them, but even a basic understanding of them will give you a better understanding of the challenges that faced Abigail.
Abigail and John, portrait from early in marriage
And none of her life can fully be understood without the aid of the letters. The Letters. Abigail is famous for them, and many have survived to this day to give us great insight into her life. Yay! Letter writing! What a lost art, don’t you think?
While they knew each other since childhood (they were 3 rd cousins) John and Abigail’s courtship began when he was a fledgling lawyer, and she a teenager. We talked about the courtship and touched on letters between them that show a very sweet, flirty romance.
Their three year courtship culminated in a marriage performed by her father when Abigail was 20, and John, 28. The verse (that we didn’t have in front of us) that Minister Smith chose for the ceremony was: Matthew 11:18 (KJV) “For John came neither eating nor drinking and they say “he hath a devil.”
Well, we aren’t theologians so we won’t even attempt that one. But we are wives and mothers! We took some time to talk about the challenges that Abigail faced raising four children while John was at work. Law work. Looking for law work. Colonial times. Revolutionary war. Birth of a nation. Sacrifice for the greater good and all that.
All totaled, Abigail had 6 pregnancies and their first child Abigail (Nabby) was born within the first year of their marriage. Following her in an evenly spaced, rapid succession – John Quincy, Susanna, Charles, Thomas Boyleston and a stillborn, Elizabeth. Susanna would die early in life, heartache at any time in history.
Meanwhile, outside their front door, the Adams family was watching history unfold. John really got into the mix when the Stamp Act of 1765 was instituted. We spent a little bit of time talking about the implications of this, as well as the Tea Act, and how they impacted not only John’s career, but family as well.
Statue by Lloyd Lille in Quincy, MA
And Abigail? She was left home, to raise the children and crops, handle the finances, handle every task involved in keeping the home and farm while John headed off to do his duty for their country. She viewed her work the same, duty for her country, but that didn’t make it easy.
So when the going got tough, the tough wrote letters. At the point when John was working with the Continental Congress on The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution, Abigail sent off the series of letters she is most famous for:
“I long to hear that you have declared an independency,” She wrote to John in March of 1776,” And, by the way, in 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 to your ancestors. Do not put such limited power into the hands of the husbands.”
And he laughs at her. Well, sort of. But you will have to go read the letters for yourself to decide what the outcome of that conversation was. And we thought that this was such an important part of her legacy, that we have a special mini-cast devoted to it coming soon.
Back to the absence parts- which we talked about in detail- John and John Quincy (just a tween at the time) set off for the longest stretch in the total 17 years that the family has been living this Daddy Is Gone Working lifestyle. They head off to France, The Netherlands, and England for five years.
Five years. With a short trip back, but mostly gone.
Wow. Think back five years, and think about not having your support system with you. We did. Yikes!
Finally, Abigail and Nabby head off to France and England to be together- somewhat- as a family. Abigail was then with her husband, but she is also in a land that acts, looks and speaks nothing like her puritanical colonial life. Of course we talked about the difference in the clothes! Anyway, She rises to the situation, and learns a great deal in Europe as the wife of the first Ambassador to Great Britain following the separation from the United States.
Finally, they head back to The States. They set to building a new home, Peacefield, outside of Boston. But then John gets another gig: the first Vice President of the United States.
A few years later, he is the second POTUS. Sweet.
Abigail is the First Lady (although it’s not called that, yet). She deals with some tabloid issues and is the first the to live in the White House. But, it’s not quite completed. Is this woman ever going to be able to settle down with her man in their completed home?
Yes, she is. John retires when he fails to get reelected, the position going to his frenemy, Thomas Jefferson Abigail and John head back to Peacefield dreaming of a relaxed retirement with their family around them.
Except at this point the kids are grown. We took some time to talk about their lives:
Nabby has not actually chosen a spouse wisely when she married John’s former secretary, Colonial William Stephens Smith. She stays with him, but it’s not a happy marriage. She dies young, at 48, of breast cancer.
John Quincy – who was tossed into politics at a very young age- is building his political resume and gone quite a bit. Abigail will not live to see him assume office as the sixth President.
Charles lives a really sad life, not making much of it, and drinks himself to death at 30, leaving a wife and two children.
Thomas Boyleston, arguably the most neglected as far as having a father figure in his life, has a spotty history in law, drinks a bit too much and eventually moves his seven children and wife to live with his father upon his mother’s death.
For the last 17 years of her life, Abigail and John lived at Peacefield. She died of typhoid fever at age 74 having been married to John for 54 years.
But wait! She lives on! Her letters! Her legacy as a founding mother for women’s rights! She lives on!
Time Travel With The History Chicks
We can not lie: understanding more of Abigail Adams and the life she led will take you a very long time. Her life is so intertwined not only with that of her husband, but also the times. Puritan. Colonial. Revolutionary. Federalist. And her legacy intertwines her with even more: feminist, First Ladies… it’s a long list.
But if you would like to know more, and get started, here are some suggested books:
Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams by Lynne Whitey
The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers, by Thomas Flemming
Abigail and John:Portrait of a Marriage, by Edith B. Gelles
If you like your research more visual, hustle on down to the library (or wherever you get your DVDs) and watch the 2008 HBO John Adams miniseries. Just like we can’t talk about Abigail without talking about John…yeah, visa versa. Just a warning, though, this is NOT for the little kids, there are some very disturbing images- hey, it was a disturbing time and they kept it real.
We never did unearth a specific subculture for Abigail. Sorry to disappoint. However, depending on what appeals to you the most, you should have no trouble finding a women’s rights organization, Revolutionary War re-enactors or enthusiasts group. Here is a blog that you might enjoy: http://www.pinstripepress.net/PPBlog/
Also head on over to History.com…really they have it all (well, they don’t have historically based chick chat- so head back when you are done). And check this one out: PBS did an American Experience – John and Abigail Adams. They have a seriously great area about the couple—timelines, maps, more links…really, it’s PBS and the History Channel. We bow in the reflection of their awesomeness.
And we know how to bow properly having watched the HBO miniseries. And how to tar and feather *shudder*.
If you are in a vacation planning mode, head to Boston. ( Seriously, if you have never been, and love American history, you HAVE to go to Boston and the surrounding area!) Take some time to visit the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy (and we tell you how to pronounce it like a local). http://www.nps.gov/adam/index.htm If you can’t make it there, just tour around that site! You will learn so much about Abigail and her family!
Abigail Adams: Patriot, Mom, Wife, visionary, and seriously amazing letter writer. We could all learn a lot from this woman. We did.
Throughout her life, Abigail Adams (1744-1818) held steadfast to core principles: she was a humanitarian, activist, and leader with an acute sense of both America's successes and failures. Adams advocated for gender equality in public education and the need to pay attention to the social, political, and educational needs of women. She also firmly believed in the necessity for the emancipation of African Americans from slavery and, like her husband, firmly believed in dissolving the political union with Great Britain. In one final act of rebellion, Adams, a married woman whose property was controlled by her living husband, wrote a will and left the majority of her possessions to her female kin.
Frequently forsaking private joy for the greater public good, Adams voiced her views not only in quasi-political situations&mdashsuch as during her appointment to the Massachusetts Colony General Court in 1775&mdashbut also to her husband during his numerous domestic and overseas diplomatic missions. It was in her role as unofficial advisor that she made her greatest contributions to the early American nation. It is believed that Abigail and John Adams exchanged more than 1,100 letters on topics ranging from government and politics to women's rights. Her firm views on American independence were succinctly expressed in a 1775 letter, explaining: "Let us separate, they are unworthy to be our Brethren. Let us renounce them. . .." 1
Abigail Adams first met George Washington shortly after he took command of the Continental Army. Adams had initial hesitations regarding Washington as a slaveholder and member of the Virginia planter elite. However, after meeting, Adams wrote her husband that she was "struck with General Washington," and that his appointment was received with "universal satisfaction." Adams further explained that Washington was marked by "Dignity with ease. . .the Gentleman and Soldier look agreeably blended in him." 2
An ardent advocate for the cause of American liberty, Adams was uniquely able to express herself with eloquence at a time when women received little formal instruction. In a series of letters written beginning in 1776, Adams boldly argued for women&rsquos rights. After learning that her husband would serve on the committee that would draft the Declaration of Independence, Adams admonished him to: "Remember the Ladies. ." Although John Adams did not follow his wife's advice, ultimately his political agenda was shaped as much by his own opinions as by his valuable discourse with Abigail.
Abigail was John's all-encompassing aide-de-camp, chief of staff, and brain trust. However, her influence was not appreciated by all, particularly those who scathingly called her "Mrs. President." Abigail accompanied John to his diplomatic post in Paris in 1784. In 1785, she carefully handled the complex role of wife of the first United States Minister to Great Britain. And later she was wife of the first U.S. Vice President, and wife of the second U.S. President, serving as First Lady from March 4, 1797 to March 4, 1801.
A granddaughter of pre-revolutionary era politician John Quincy, and the daughter of a Congregationalist minister, Abigail married John Adams in October 1764 at the age of nineteen. Abigail's lifelong enjoyment of philosophy, theology, ancient history, government, and law, which was championed by her grandmother and other relatives, helped both Abigail and the young American nation chart a new course. Abigail played a vital role in America until her passing in 1818.
Today people continue to recognize Abigail Adams for her unique and important role in American history, particularly in the founding era of the early American republic. She is remembered on a ten dollar gold coin in the First Spouse coin series by the United States Mint. She receives special mention in the Boston Women's Heritage Trail. She is commemorated in the "John and Abigail Adams Scholarship" with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. She continues to be the subject of numerous articles and books.
Elizabeth Bissell Miller
University of Missouri
1. Abigail Adams to John Adams, 12 November 1775, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-01-02-0214.
2. Abigail Adams to John Adams, 16 July 1775, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-01-02-0162.
Bober, Natalie S. Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1995.
Gelles, Edith B. Abigail Adams: A Writing Life. New York: Routledge, 2002.
------. "Abigail Adams: Domesticity and the American Revolution." The New England Quarterly 1979, 500-521.
Holton, Woody. Abigail Adams. New York: Free Press, 2009.
Levin, Phyllis Lee. Abigail Adams: A Biography. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2001.
Shuffelton, Frank, ed. The Letters of John and Abigail Adams. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
Descriptions of Abigail Adams
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 7 July 1775
It gives me more Pleasure than I can express to learn that you sustain with so much Fortitude, the Shocks and Terrors of the Times. You are really brave, my dear, you are an Heroine. And you have Reason to be. For the worst that can happen, can do you no Harm. A soul, as pure, as benevolent, as virtuous and pious as yours has nothing to fear, but every Thing to hope and expect from the last of human Evils.
John Adams to Mary Palmer, 5 July 1776
In Times as turbulent as these, commend me to the Ladies for Historiographers. The Gentlemen are too much engaged in Action. The Ladies are cooler Spectators. . . . There is a Lady at the Foot of Penn’s Hill, who obliges me, from Time to Time with clearer and fuller Intelligence, than I can get from a whole Committee of Gentlemen.
Abigail Adams to John Adams, 24 August 1783
I know not how to realize that I shall see you soon. Hope and Fear have been the two ruling passions of a large portion of my Life, and I have been banded from one to the other like a tennis Ball.
Abigail Adams to John Adams, 3 January 1784
Why with a Heart Susceptible of every tender impression, and feelingly alive, have I So often been called to Stand alone and support myself through Scenes which have almost torn it assunder, not I fear, because I have more resolution or fortitude than others, for my resolution often fails me and my fortitude wavers.
Abigail Adams to Mary Cranch, 24 April 1786
[She wishes she could shed some pounds.] . . . and having bestowed some pounds I should move nimbler and feel lighter. Tis true I enjoy good Health, but am larger than both my sisters compounded. Mr. Adams too keeps pace with me, and if one Horse had to carry us, I should pity the poor Beast, but your Niece is moulded into a shape as Slender as a Grey hound, and is not be sure more than half as large as she was when she first left America. The Spring is advancing and I begin to walk so that I hope exercise will be of service to me.
Abigail Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 23 July 1786
I suppose you must have heard the report respecting Col. Smith—that he has taken my daughter from me, a contrivance between him and the Bishop of St. Asaph. It is true he tendered me a Son as an equivalent and it was no bad offer, but I had three Sons before, and but one Daughter. Now I have been thinking of an exchange with you sir, suppose you give me Miss Jefferson, and in some future day take a Son in lieu of her. I am for Strengthening the federal Union.
Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 25 May 1788
When he [John Adams] established himself [as a diplomat in Europe], his pecuniary affairs were under the direction of Mrs. Adams, one of the most estimable characters on earth, and the most attentive and honorable economists.
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 4 February 1794
You apologize for the length of your Letters and I ought to excuse the shortness and Emptiness of mine. Yours give me more entertainment than all the speeches I hear. There is more good Thoughts, fine strokes and Mother Wit in them than I hear in the Whole Week. An Ounce of Mother Wit is worth a Pound of Clergy and I rejoice that one of my children [i.e., John Quincy Adams] at least has an Abundance of not only Mother Wit, but his Mother’s Wit. It is one of the most amiable and striking Traits in his Compositions. It appeared in all its Glory and severity in Barneveld.
Abigail Adams to John Adams, 28 March 1796
I detest still life, and had rather be jostled than inanimate.
Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Travels through America, 8 November 1797
I passed then into a room opposite and I found there the true counterpart of Mr. Adams. It was his wife. Small, short and squat, she is accused of a horrible crime. It is said she puts on rouge. What is certain is that if her manner is not the most affable, her mind is well balanced and cultivated.
Benjamin Rush, Sketches, post 1801
The pleasures of these evenings [in conversation with John Adams] was much enhanced by the society of Mrs. Adams, who in point of talent, knowledge, virtue, and female accomplishments was in every respect fitted to be the friend and companion of her husband in all his different and successive stations, of private citizen, member of Congress, foreign minister, Vice President and President of the United States.
Fisher Ames to Rufus King, 24 September 1800
[Referring to John Adams’s praise for Jefferson.] The good Lady his wife has been often talkative in a similar strain, and she is as complete a politician as any Lady in the old French Court.
Later Life and Death
Around the time her husband was defeated by Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election, the Adams learned of the death of their second son Charles, which was related to his alcoholism. With great sadness, the Adams soon moved to the country’s new capital, Washington, D.C., where they became the first residents of the White House. Abigail wrote many letters to family around this time, shedding light on the early days of the new capital and complaining about the unfinished state of their new home. A few months later, after John left office in 1801, they returned to their family farm.
With John now retired, the couple was able to spend more time together. Abigail continued to run the farm and to care for the family members, including their eldest child, Nabby (young Abigail’s nickname), who eventually died of cancer at their home in 1814. Struggling with her own health for decades, Abigail had a stroke in October 1818 and died at home with her family on October 28, 1818.
Profiles in Greatness: Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams was a voice for women’s rights,
abolition and independence at a time when
most women’s voices were silent. As wife
to the second U.S. president and mother to
the sixth, she had a profound effect on the
“Here I can serve my partner, my family and
myself, and enjoy the satisfaction of your
serving your country.”
Born Abigail Quincy Smith in Weymouth, Mass., on Nov. 11,
1744, Abigail was one of four children. Her father was a
Congregational minister. Despite the fact that women were not
given formal education, Abigail spent a great deal of time in her
father’s library and studying at the knee of her esteemed maternal
grandfather, Col. John Quincy. She was in poor health for much
of her childhood, so most of her time was spent reading and
writing letters. She taught herself French and studied theology,
history, government, law, philosophy and the classics. However,
she felt deprived of a formal education, and later in her life, she
became a vocal advocate for the equal education of girls.
Abigail began a friendship with future president John Adams
when she was still a teen. At 26, he was in Boston pursuing a
law career and became a frequent visitor to the Smith home,
where he found young Abigail to be his intellectual equal, a
woman who loved to discuss politics and literature. Their longdistance
courtship inspired the first of what became a collection
of more than 1,100 letters over the next five decades. They were
married in 1764 Abigail called her new husband her “dearest
and best friend.”
“Alas! How many snow banks divide thee and
me, and my warmest wishes to see thee will
not melt one of them.”
The newlyweds lived in Braintree on John’s small farm, and
over the next few years rented homes in Boston as well. Abigail
gave birth to five children, including John Quincy Adams in
1767, who would become the sixth president of the United States.
In 1774, her husband, whose reputation in the legal community
had grown, left for Philadelphia to serve as a delegate to the fi rst
Continental Congress. Over the next 10 years, John’s political
career kept him away from home, and most of Abigail’s communication
with her husband was through letters.
She took on the duties of running their farm in Braintree
and raising their five children. As a manager of the farming
business—a unique position for a woman at that time—Abigail
excelled. “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 in 1776. Years after she had left to join John in Europe,
she continued to manage the farm and dairy operations long
distance. Her business acumen resulted in annual profits for
most of the couple’s life together.
Abigail also tutored her children at home when they were
younger, and as they started school, she often noted in her
letters her dissatisfaction with the educational discrimination
against girls. To make up for the inequality, she spent a great
deal of time ensuring that her daughters received the education
she was denied.
“Remember the ladies, and be more generous
and favorable to them than your ancestors.”
As John played an active role in the formation of the United
States, Abigail engaged in lively debate with her husband over
the issues she saw as imperative to the success of the new
nation. One of these was the equality of women in American
society. She wrote to John: “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 ferment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves
bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.”
Although neither John nor the other men writing the Declaration
of Independence were swayed by her arguments, Abigail created
some of the earliest-known writings calling for women’s equality,
and she continued to speak out against restrictions on women. She
did not allow her domestic position to limit her rather, she took the
opportunity to continue her education, to develop business skills
running the household and farm, and to become an example of
female abilities and potential in a society that limited women to the
“A people may let a king fall, yet still remain a
people: But if a king lets his people slip from him,
he is no longer a king. And this is most certainly
our case. Why not proclaim to the world, in
decisive terms, your
As the colonies fought for
their independence, Abigail,
along with a few other prominent
women, was appointed the Massachusetts Colony Court in 1775 to investigate loyalty of colonial women were charged with fighting
She also continued her farm and as an unofficial advisor whose political career expanded internationally.
In 1784, she joined and a year later, he became ambassador
to Great Britain. Abigail was required
to fill the social role of the ambassador’s wife, a difficult task in the
face of lingering hostilities.
The couple returned to Massachusetts in 1788, and the following
year, John became the first vice president of the new nation. Abigail
and Mrs. Washington were good friends, and her experience in
social circles abroad made her an invaluable diplomatic asset.
“I have sometimes been ready to think that the
passion for liberty cannot be equally strong in the
breasts of those who have been accustomed to
deprive their fellow creatures of theirs.”
In 1797, John was elected president of the United States. He relied
more than ever on Abigail’s counsel, writing, “I never wanted your
advice and assistance more in my life.”
Abigail continued to make her arguments for women’s equality
and was also vocal in her opposition to slavery and racial discrimination.
When a free African-American boy asked her to help him
learn to read, she began to tutor him. When she sent him to evening
school to continue his education, a neighbor complained of his presence.
Abigail told the neighbor it was an issue of “equality of rights.
The boy 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?” Her support allowed the boy to
continue in school.
As first lady, Abigail hosted official dinners and receptions, as well
as one of the first Fourth of July celebrations in Washington, D.C.
Her opinions were mentioned alongside her husband’s in the press,
and she wrote numerous letters expressing her political leanings.
Her high visibility and participation in diplomatic and political
events led one newspaper to dub her “Mrs. President.”
After John lost his bid for a second term, the couple returned
to Quincy, Mass., in 1801. She spent her last years tutoring
her grandchildren and watching son John Quincy build a
promising political career. However, she passed away in
1818, six years before he was elected president. Her legacy
in letters reveals a unique woman, one who was strong,
intelligent and fiercely American.