American first lady
Abigail Adams helped plant the seeds that would start women and men thinking about women's rights and roles in a country that had been founded on the ideals of equality and independence.
Abigail Adams was born Abigail Smith on November 11, 1744, in Weymouth, Massachusetts, a farm community about fifteen miles southeast of Boston. Her family on both sides had lived in the colonies for several generations and was well established in the more influential circles of society. Her father, William Smith, the son of a well-to-do Boston merchant, was a Harvard graduate who served as a minister in Weymouth. Her mother, Elizabeth Quincy Smith, descended from a long line of prosperous, educated, and well-reputed New Englanders.
Abigail, with her two sisters, Mary and Betsy, and one brother, Billy, enjoyed a happy childhood growing up in the Weymouth parsonage. The family was financially comfortable and had servants, a house full of fine furniture, and a lush, productive farm. Their large, sprawling house sat on a hill overlooking farmland that spread across the surrounding area. The Smith home was busy and active visitors came often and relatives lived nearby.
As a child Abigail was shy and quiet, but also determined and stubborn. Throughout her youth she suffered from one minor sickness after another. She later recalled being "always sick" (Akers, p. 5). Her parents, especially her mother, worried about their daughter's weak constitution, fearing that some disease or infection would cut her life short, as so often happened to children of this time.
Abigail often complained to her sisters about their mother's constant worrying and overprotectiveness. She sometimes felt smothered by Elizabeth's hovering presence. With her somewhat austere nature and strict approach to child rearing, Elizabeth insisted on obedient and excellent conduct from her children. However, life at the Smith home was not overly harsh or severe, for the father balanced out the parenting with his more easygoing and relaxed approach.
Overall, Abigail's early years were happy ones. At the Weymouth parsonage, amidst the security and guidance of a loving family, she developed the strict sense of values and strong moral fiber that would serve as a foundation for her later life.
Like most girls of her time, Abigail received no formal education. Girls were taught reading and writing primarily so that they could read their Bible and write letters. They also learned basic arithmetic to help prepare them for their role as housewives, when they would be required to balance budgets and settle accounts. Although some Massachusetts towns did have primary schools for girls, called "dame schools," most families took responsibility for the education of their daughters at home.
The Smith girls were fortunate to have a father who loved learning and reading and who encouraged his children to share in this passion. To help with their education, William Smith gave his daughters and son full access to his extensive library of excellent books. Abigail shared her father's love of books and read widely in poetry, drama, history, theology, and political theory. As she grew older, Abigail became increasingly determined to educate herself, and by the time she was an adult, she had become one of the best-read women of her time.
In spite of this, the gaps in Abigail's education bothered her and were apparent in her letters. Her spelling was inconsistent and poor, and her inability to use punctuation properly and her poor penmanship embarrassed her. However, this did not prevent her from continuing in her quest to educate herself and further develop her mind.
For Abigail to have taken such a strong interest in her education was a brave stance for a woman of her time. The primary aim of eighteenth-century women was marriage and family. Education was often viewed as an obstacle that stood in the way of this goal. Women feared becoming too educated, believing that suitors would pass by girls who were "too" clever in favor of those who were more lighthearted and flirtatious.
The first time John Adams met Abigail Smith, he might have been influenced by this cultural bias against intelligent women. The couple met at her sister Mary's wedding. Abigail was fifteen, and John a twenty-seven-year old lawyer. In his diary, John wrote that the Smith girls were "wits" but that they were "not fond, not frank, or candid" (Levin, p. 7). The young man, who at the time had his eye on a franker, more straightforward girl, was put off by the Smith sisters' reserved, somewhat aloof manner, which made it difficult for them to show or express emotions or passion.
Two years later, John and Abigail met again, and this time he began to appreciate the special qualities in Abigail that before had escaped his notice. Now he described her as "Prudent, modest, delicate, soft, sensible, obliging, active" and addressed his letters to "Miss Adorable" (Akers, p. 14).
From this second meeting and throughout their fifty-four-year marriage, a strong love, mixed with flirtatious sensuality and intellectual companionship, grew and provided a sturdy bond for their relationship. Abigail thought of John as her best friend, and as an old woman, she still remembered the thrill she felt the first time he held her hand. To John, the relationship was equally satisfying and important; as he carved out his successful career, he relied heavily on Abigail's advice, support, and companionship.
In spite of their exceptional personal compatibility, in terms of looks, the couple were opposites. Whereas John was short and pudgy with a round, almost bland face, Abigail was tall and slender with sharp and striking features. Bernard Bailyn, an artist who painted the couple early in their marriage, left a vivid description of the twenty-two-year-old woman who sat for her portrait: "Abigail's face is extraordinary, not so much for its beauty, which, in a masculine way, is clearly enough there, as for the maturity and the power of personality it expresses. The face is oval in shape, ending in a sharp, almost fleshless, chin; a rather long arched nose; brilliant, piercing, wide-spaced eyes. It is about as confident, controlled, and commanding a face as a woman can have and still remain feminine" (Butterfield, p. 4).
After their marriage on October 25, 1764, the newlyweds set up a home in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts. Abigail soon became pregnant and found herself stuck in what would become a familiar pattern in their marriage. While she stayed at home, managing the vast responsibilities of an eighteenth-century household overseeing servants, handling accounts, and stocking and preparing food John traveled to Boston and other nearby communities pursuing his career as a lawyer. With cases in Maine, Boston, and other parts of New England, he spent weeks and months away from home; as his career prospered, his absences grew longer and more frequent.
Abigail hated these absences and sorely missed the companionship of her best friend. However, her growing brood helped lessen the loneliness. Within eight years Abigail had five children: Abigail, nicknamed Nabby, born 1765; John Quincy, born 1767; Susanna, born 1768 (died at age thirteen months); Charles, born 1770; and Thomas, born 1772. A sixth child, in 1778, was stillborn.
In 1768, early in their marriage, Abigail and John moved from the rural life in Braintree to the city life in Boston. Abigail delighted in the "Noisy, Busy town" (Akers, p. 25), where she could read four different newspapers a week and socialize with Boston's most influential families, including the Hancocks and the Bowdoins. Although stimulating, life in Boston was difficult. In just a few years, the family moved their large household several times. Also, the first movements of the revolution were stirring in Boston and war was daily becoming more and more likely.
The Adamses, of course, supported the colonists' cause. John, whose solid reputation and tireless ambition had thrown him increasingly into the public eye, was elected to serve as a delegate to America's first Continental Congress. Unfortunately, this commission would take John farther away from his family and for a longer time than ever before. Abigail, though she hated the prospect of facing her daily life without her partner, made no complaint about his acceptance. She felt it was a wife's duty to support her husband in all he aspired to and not prevent him from reaching his highest potential. But with John so far away, she had to take on even more responsibility for the household.
John realized the weight of the burden he was leaving her with. Before he left, he wrote Abigail: "I must entreat you, my dear Partner in all the Joys and Sorrows, Prosperity and Adversity of my Life, to take a Part with me in the Struggle. I ... intreat you to rouse your whole attention to the Family, the stock, the Farm, the Dairy" (Levin, p. 36).
With John in Philadelphia, Abigail entered a new period in her married and personal life. The increased responsibility of managing a large household gave her a growing sense of confidence and assurance in her abilities. With an adept and economical hand, she made sure the operations of the house and farm ran smoothly and efficiently. She even took it upon herself to make some investment decisions. After several years of this, she began to refer to the house and property as "my own affairs", rather than "ours." Long gone were the days when Abigail referred to these affairs in her letters to John as "your affairs" (Akers, p. 69).
During their long periods of separation, Abigail and John kept in close contact with a steady flow of intimate, frank letters. Beginning in her teens and throughout most of her life, Abigail devoted a significant amount of time and energy to correspondence with friends and family. Letter writing gave her a forum for expressing her ideas, sharpening her opinions, and sharing intellectual, domestic, and political concerns with others of like mind. She would, over time, share her opinion with shapers of the country, such as Thomas Jefferson and John Lovell, a delegate to the Continental Congress. Rarely dull, Abigail's letters cover a range of styles; in varying degrees, they are newsy, perceptive, flirtatious, warm, and intellectually challenging. In her writing, Abigail emerges as a self-confident, insightful, and sharp woman deeply involved in the activities of her day. At times, however, her letters reveal a judgmental and critical nature: she seemed unwilling to tolerate people who did not live up to her high standards of character or, in some cases, who did not share her views.
Though sometimes months passed between letters, Abigail and John's correspondence built and strengthened their relationship. Perhaps they grew even closer through their letters because writing allowed them to express thoughts and feelings that they might not normally have shared in person. Abigail told John that she felt freer to express her emotions in letters to him: "My pen is always freer than my tongue. I have wrote many things to you that I suppose I never could have talk'd" (Akers, p. 24).
Abigail addressed her letters to John "My Dearest Friend" and signed them "Portia." The letter below, dated May 18, 1778, written after months of not hearing from John or knowing of his safety and well-being, illustrates her close relationship with her husband, the pain she suffered from being apart from him, and her sense of patriotism: "I have waited with great patience, restraining as much as posible every anxious Idea for 3 Months. But now every Vessel which arrives sits my expectation upon the wing, and I pray my Gaurdian Genious to waft me the happy tidings of your Safety and Welfare.... Difficult as the Day is, cruel as this War has been, seperated as I am on acount of it from the dearest connextion in life, I would not exchange my country for the Wealth of the Indies, or be any other than an American" (Butterfield, p. 211).
A woman born in Adams's time had few choices in deciding the direction her life would take. At birth, a female child's life path was very nearly mapped out from childhood to old age. She received little formal education just enough to manage her duties as a housewife but was encouraged to pursue what were considered more feminine pastimes, such as sewing, music, letter writing, and hostessing. If she found a husband, she was expected to serve as his helpmate, creating a harmonious and peaceful home that he could happily return to.
Adams recognized the limited role women were allowed to play in the world, and for the most part accepted it. However, she insisted that a woman's role carried an equal amount of importance and responsibility to a man's. She believed that women deserved the opportunities and rights including education and legal and political rights that would enable them to live to their fullest capacity within the domestic sphere. She wrote, "Let each planet shine in their own orbit, God and nature designed it so. If man is Lord, woman is Lordess that is what I contend for, and if a woman does not hold the Reigns of Government, I see no reason for her not judging how they are conducted" (Akers, p. 143).
One of Adams's greatest frustrations was that she had not been allowed to receive the classic education accorded to the males of her time. She adamantly believed that education was as important for women as for men. Adams felt that an educated woman could more capably perform the duties required in her domestic sphere, including child rearing, household management, and "retaining the affections of a man of understanding" (Akers, p. 189). She agreed with her friend Mercy Otis Warren who said that, since women were responsible for the early education of their children, they must themselves be educated so that they could adequately meet this responsibility.
In much of Adams's correspondence, to women and to men, she wrote passionately of her conviction about women's need for education. In a letter to her husband, she wrote: "You need not be told how much female education is neglected, nor how fashionable it has been to ridicule Female learning" (Akers, p. 66). Her commitment to promoting education for women was so strong that she pressed her husband to incorporate the issue into the body of laws that he and other founding fathers were drafting in 1776. She expressed the hope "that our new constitution may be distinguished for learning and Virtue.... If we mean to have Heroes, Statesmen, and philosophers, we should have learned women" (Gelles, p. 48). Surprisingly, John wrote back that he was in exact agreement with Abigail's views on this subject.
Adams's insistence on education for women stemmed from her own experience. Primarily self-taught, she had always placed enormous value on developing her mind, challenging her thinking, and continuing to learn. When living in England during the late 1780s, Adams had the opportunity to educate herself in science, an area which few woman dared, or were permitted, to tread. She signed up for a series of twelve lectures and attended five, whose subjects were electricity, magnetism, hydrostatics, optics, and pneumatics. The experience inspired her and gave her a heightened appreciation for the vast world of ideas that women had no access to. "It was like going into a Beautiful country, which I never saw before," she wrote. "A Country which our American Females are not permitted to visit or inspect" (Levin, p. 237).
Adams made her strongest appeal for women's rights in 1776, when John was in Philadelphia serving in Congress. As members of Congress drafted laws to guarantee the independence for which the colonies were fighting, Abigail wrote to John begging him to remember that women also needed to be given the right to independence.
Her letter reveals a prophetic sense of the struggles to come, as well as an insightful understanding of the danger of making one group subject to the will of another: "I long to hear that you have declared an independency 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 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. If perticular 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" (Levin, p. 83).
Apparently, John did not take Abigail's heartfelt and forceful appeal seriously at first, for he wrote back in a laughing tone: "As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe [women] more numerous and powerful than all the rest were grown discontented. This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I won't blot it out" (Levin, p. 83).
Undaunted, Adams shared her radical views with Mercy Otis Warren, and even spoke of petitioning Congress to consider her views. Although she did not do this, her proposal did have some effect. John seemed to have taken her ideas to heart and to have given the matter considerable thought as he struggled with the issue of voters' rights. He understood that a government built on the principles of freedom and equality and carried out with the consent of the people must by reason include women in that equation. With foresight, he wrote to Brigadier General Joseph Palmer on the issue of qualifying voters, "Depend on it, Sir, it is dangerous to open so fruitfull a source of Controversy and altercation, as would be opened by attempting to alter the Qualifications of Voters. There will be no end to it New claims will arise Women will demand a vote" (Levin, p. 87).
Ultimately, Adams probably brought about no immediate changes in the way women were treated or perceived. However, she was among the first women in the new country to begin to question a woman's rights and role in a free society. It would not be long before other women of like mind followed her lead and began working to bring about real and lasting change.
Adams supported her husband through every phase of his rise to power and fame. She never tried to hold him back when duty demanded his service, though often this meant being separated from him for long periods. The years of loneliness and struggle to raise a family and manage a home finally paid off when John became vice president to George Washington and later the second president of the United States. Adams saw herself as fully contributing to that success, and wrote him more than once that she had struggled and sacrificed more than most other women in the country.
Soon after she joined the new president in Philadelphia, Adams was caught in a whirlwind of responsibility and social activity. Rising at 5:00 A.M., she spent the morning tending to household and family matters. At 11:00 A.M. she dressed for the day and then spent the next two or three hours receiving visitors, often sixty a day. In the afternoon she traveled through the city visiting her own friends. She frequently planned and hosted large dinners, including one of the first Fourth of July celebrations.
At the same time, Abigail worked closely with John as he struggled with the many issues and problems that confronted him during his presidency. His dependency and reliance on her as his partner was apparent; he thought of her as his "fellow labourer." During his first months as president, as he waited for her to join him in Philadelphia, he pleaded with her to hurry to him: "I never wanted your Advice and assistance more in my life"; and later, "The Times are critical and dangerous, and I must have you here to assist me" (Akers, pp. 143-44).
As first lady, Adams maintained a mostly conservative stance. For example, she vigorously supported the Alien and Sedition Acts. These four acts, passed by Congress and signed by President Adams, placed restrictions on aliens who wanted to become citizens, treated aliens as enemies in times of war, and censured the press. These acts proved to be extremely unpopular with the public and were used against John in his bid for reelection.
After John's term ended, the couple returned to Quincy where they spent their remaining years. For the first time in thirty-six years of marriage, they lived peacefully together without the pressures and demands of political life or the necessity of any more long separations. Adams's last years, however, were not without hardship. Although she was near her family, her own chronic illness and the deaths of close relatives and friends, including her daughter, Nabby, to cancer, made life difficult. She died on October 28, 1818, after a brief illness.
When she died, her son John Quincy Adams, who would go on to become the sixth president of the United States, wrote in his journal a private tribute to his mother: "There is not a virtue that can abide in the female heart but it was the ornament of hers. She had been fifty-four years the delight of my father's heart, the sweetener of all his toils, the comforter of all his sorrows, the sharer and heightener of all his joys. It was but the last time when I saw my father that he told me ... [that] through all the good report and evil report of the world, in all his struggles and in all his sorrows, the affectionate participation and cheering encouragement of his wife had been his never-failing support, without which he was sure he should never have lived through them" (Mitchell, p. xxxiii).