Adams, Abigail Smith

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ADAMS, Abigail Smith

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Born 11 November 1744, Weymouth, Massachusetts; died 28 October 1818, Quincy, Massachusetts

Daughter of William and Elizabeth Quincy Smith; married JohnAdams, 1764; children: five

Abigail Adams grew up as part of three tightly knit families: that of her parents, where she acquired her Puritan faith, humor, and skills in home and business management; that of her maternal grandparents, where she learned social poise and a love of politics; and that of her paternal uncle, whose wife may have been Adams' model as a letter writer.

Adams' formal education was virtually nonexistent, due to her poor health. Fortunately, however, she was surrounded by literate adults who guided her studies that ranged from Plato, Locke, and Burke, to the Bible. She and John Adams were married by her father in Weymouth. In the first eight years of marriage, Adams bore five children: Abigail, John Quincy, Susanna (died at fourteen months), Charles, and Thomas Boylston. In 1784, Adams and her daughter joined her husband and grandfather in Europe. Horrified at first by the pleasure-seeking life of Paris, she later grew more understanding and even learned to love the theater, though she wrote: "I do not feel myself captivated either with the Manners or politicks [ sic] of Europe."

John became vice-president in 1789 and president in 1797, but Adams' health began to fail in 1790, and she returned to Quincy where she spent most of her time during John's years as president. She did go to Washington to open the White House, but her increasingly poor health forced her back to Quincy shortly before John completed his presidency. She died in Quincy on 28 October 1818.

Adams' claim to literary fame rests upon the hundreds of letters picturing her times in warmly human terms. John was her favorite correspondent, but she wrote extensively to her large family and to a wide circle beyond, including such intellectuals as Mercy Otis Warren and Thomas Jefferson. In New Letters of Abigail Adams (1947), editor Stewart Mitchell printed her correspondence to her older sister, Mary Cranch. To Mary more than anyone else, Adams wrote of "women's concerns"—smallpox and fevers, incompetent servants, inflation, poor food, bad weather, and the deplorable state the White House was in when she arrived to become its first mistress.

Mitchell's publication corrects the bowdlerized portrait of Adams rendered by her Victorian grandson, Charles Francis Adams. His Letters of Mrs. Adams, the Wife of John Adams (2 vols., 1840-41) and Familiar Letters of John Adams and His Wife Abigail Adams During the Revolution (1876) not only censor her passionate declarations of love to John, but also delete much from her personal accounts of pregnancies and childbirth, the dysentery epidemic of 1775, and smallpox inoculations. Adams' personality and vivid sense of life suffer from her grandson's well-meant editing.

The Book of Abigail and John (1975, eds. L. H. Butterfield et al.) is limited to what its editors consider the best letters of John and Abigail, spanning the years of their courtship in 1762 and her arrival in London in 1784. In them, Adams' affectionate nature is expressed freely. Her loneliness and pride in herself and in her husband is described, too: "I miss my partner, and find myself uneaquuil [ sic] to the cares which fall upon me; … I hope in time to have the Reputation of being as good a Farmeress as my partner has of being a good Statesman."

Adams never hesitated to address herself to political matters. Two issues which drew strong reaction from her were slavery and women's rights. Writing to John in 1774, she wished "most sincerely there was not a slave in the province." Concerning women's rights, Adams wrote early in 1776 the letter for which she is most famous: "[A]nd 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 to them than your ancestors." Undaunted by John's reply denying her petition and charging her with being "saucy," she retorted, "I can not say that I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining absolute power over Wives."

Never dull, always animated, Adams' letters are more like conversations than compositions. Her style is easy, natural, and very oral in manner. Her spelling is phonetic, underscoring the verbal nature of her writing, and her punctuation follows natural pauses rather than written conventions. Her letters tell us how it felt to live through the American Revolution and what it was like to be a New England Puritan in Europe in the late-18th century. More than that, however, they help us understand the creative force we call the "Puritan ethic."

Adams has long been credited with a unique place in history as wife of the second president and mother of the sixth, but she also deserves attention as a literary and historic figure in her own right.

Other Works:

Adams Family Correspondence (eds., L. H. Butterfield et al., 4 vols. 1963-1973).

Bibliography:

American First Ladies: Their Lives and Legacy (1996). Bobbe, D., Abigail Adams, the Second First Lady (1929). Bradford, G., Portraits of American Women (1919). Gordon, L., From Lady Washington to Mrs. Cleveland (1889). Ketcham, R. L., "The Puritan Ethic in the Revolutionary Era: Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson," in " Remember the Ladies:" New Perspectives on Women in American History, George, C. V. R., ed. (1975). Hole, J. and E. Levine, "The Adams Letters of Abigail & John Adams—Historical Precedent: Nineteenth Century Feminists," in Issues in Feminism: An Introduction to Women'sStudies (1995). Minningerode, M., Some American Ladies: Seven Informal Biographies (1926). Richards, L. E. Abigail Adams and Her Times (1936). Shepherd, J., The Adams Chronicles: Four Generations of Greatness (1975). Stone, I., Those Who Love (1965). Whitney, J., Abigail Adams (1949).

Other reference:

ScribM (Jan. 1930). Biography of the First Ladies of the United States (Phoenix Multimedia, 1998).

—BILLIE W. ETHERIDGE

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