Abigail Adams (1744-1818)
Abigail Adams led a life of public service and devotion to family. She was an invaluable partner to America’s second president (so much so that she was called “Mrs. President”), and the educator of America’s fourth president. She maintained a voluminous correspondence during her lifetime that provides a unique window into political goings-on, war, leading citizens, daily life, and her personal relationships—and her strong opinions about all. As the writer Laurie Carter Noble describes, “Her letters show her to have been a woman of keen intelligence, resourceful, competent, self-sufficient, willful, vivacious, and opinionated—a formidable force. Her writing reveals a dedication to principle, a commitment to rights for women and for African Americans, fierce partisanship in matters of her husband’s and her family’s interest, and an irreverent sense of humor.”
Abigail Smith was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, to the Reverend William Smith, the pastor of the North Parish Congregational Church, and Elizabeth Quincy Smith. Both of her parents enjoyed high status in Weymouth; they instilled in Abigail a sense of duty to those who were less fortunate, and a religious life that emphasized morality and reason. Abigail often accompanied her mother on visits to the poor and the sick.
Abigail did not receive a formal education, which she always regretted with embarrassment, but she did read the books contained in her father’s library and throughout her life was a voracious reader. Her intellect and spirit caught the attention of an aspiring young lawyer named John Adams in 1759. His respect for her as an equal caught her attention. By 1762, Abigail and John were exchanging flirtatious letters. In 1764, they were married by Abigail’s father and moved to Braintree. John began to ride the court circuit, traveling from one district of Massachusetts to another to practice the law, and thus began the many years’ worth of separation the couple would endure during their marriage. In 1765, Abigail gave birth to their first child, a daughter, named for her mother but called “Nabby.”
In 1767, Abigail gave birth to John Quincy Adams, and the following year the Adams family moved to Boston where John hoped to expand his law practice. The couple also became close to some of the men who were challenging Britain’s taxation policies and heavy-handedness. In 1770, when outnumbered British troops fired upon an unruly mob near the State House, the soldiers were arrested and John Adams made the unpopular decision to defend them. Abigail, his most trusted confidante, supported him. The troops were found innocent, and John’s career would now flourish. The family returned to Braintree briefly, but returned to Boston in 1772 where they were on hand to witness the aftermath of the “Boston Tea Party” in 1773.
John Adams was appointed as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774, which met in Philadelphia to determine the colonies’ future with Great Britain. Abigail had returned to Braintree to manage the considerable workload of the farm and to educate their children who now included Nabby, John Quincy, Charles, and Thomas Boylston (a daughter, Susanna, died in 1770). Laurie Noble writes that at one point John “told her she was so successful in budgeting, planting, managing staff, regulating live-stock, buying provisions, nursing and educating her children, that their neighbors would surely remark on how much better things seemed to go in his absence.” When she wasn’t working, Abigail was writing letters to John including her now famous pleas in 1776 to end slavery and “remember the Ladies.”
Separation between Abigail and John continued in 1778 when John was sent to France to negotiate for their support. Sadly, in 1777, Abigail had given birth to a daughter named Elizabeth who was stillborn. When the war was finally over, Abigail sailed to Europe in 1784 to join her husband and young John Quincy Adams who had sailed earlier with his father. Abigail spent four years in England and France as the wife of the United States Minister to Great Britain, meeting and entertaining royalty and leading citizens. In 1788, they returned to their modest farm in Braintree where John drafted the Massachusetts Constitution on which the United States Constitution would be based. The following year John was elected Vice President and the couple moved to New York, the first seat of the new American government. When John was elected President in 1796, the Adamses moved to Philadelphia and, eventually, to the unfinished, drafty Executive Mansion (the White House) in the newly constructed capital city, Washington, D.C.
Abigail’s long-standing role as John’s trusted advisor continued in Washington where his opponents, including Thomas Jefferson, criticized his policies and her influence. But their Federalist friends, throughout the country, admired both John and Abigail. One of their acquaintances, the essayist Judith Sargent Murray of Gloucester and Boston, wrote to a cousin in 1798, “it is confidently asserted that every transaction of his administration is now laid before her — she is not only his bosom friend, but his aid and his Councellor in every emergency — and such are the energies of her mind, as to place her title to the unbounded confidence of her illustrious husband, beyond all controversy — several Gentlemen in Boston, whose character, and influence, are high in the political world — declare that was the President called out of time, they should rather see Mrs Adams in the Presidential chair than any other character now existing in America.”
But John’s detractors were growing in number. His refusal to go to war with France angered the Jeffersonians, as did the Alien and Sedition Acts passed by Congress in 1798 to limit foreign influence and public criticism of Adams’ policies. In 1800, John Adams lost the presidential election to Thomas Jefferson. In the same year, the Adamses lost their son Charles, celebrated John Quincy Adams’s election to the U. S. Senate, and retired to their farm in Quincy (formerly, Braintree) where they were surrounded by their extended family and beloved farm. Abigail became involved in the Unitarian church, the running of the farm, and she encouraged her oldest son’s political career as he ascended to the position of minister to Russia and then Secretary of State under President Monroe in 1817.
In 1818, Abigail contracted typhoid fever and died soon after on October 28. Her distraught husband of fifty-four years was heard to say, “I wish I could lay down beside her and die too.”
The National Park Service, which owns the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, explains the legacy of Abigail Adams this way: “Today, nearly two centuries after Abigail’s death, her legacy survives in the letters she wrote which chronicled this important period of history. The memory of Abigail Adams is still present at the Adams National Historical Park, which serves as an invaluable resource for witnessing this woman’s contributions to the improvement of her family and nation through public service.”
- Bonnie Hurd Smith