Families at War

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If asked about the impact of the American Revolution on family life, those who experienced the conflict would most likely have pointed to practical difficulties: the absence of men in military service, the economic disruptions of war, and, for some, the loss of homes and livelihood. Over the long term, however, pressures that the Revolution placed on the form and function of the traditional household have proven far more significant than its immediate effects on community life. One of the great paradoxes of the Revolution was that it created a new political order without replacing old patterns of household government.

The wartime correspondence between Abigail and John Adams illustrates the various tensions the Revolution placed on family and household. The letters frequently refer to the difficulties of maintaining a household in wartime and to the emotional strains of separation, concerns that were important but not unique to the Revolution. It is the letters' political content that sets them apart. In particular, they have become famous for a brief exchange acknowledging—and dismissing—the potential of Revolutionary ideology to reshape the government of households. In the spring of 1776, Abigail asked John to "remember the Ladies" in the "new Code of Laws" to be enacted by the Continental Congress. "All Men would be tyrants if they could," she noted, and existing laws invited abuse by putting virtually "unlimited power in the hands of the Husbands." Half jokingly, she threatened that neglect of this issue would lead women to "foment a Rebelion" of their own. We "will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation," she declared.

Abigail Adams's observation about the formidable powers colonial laws gave to husbands also applied to other relations of legal dependence: master and servant (or slave), parent and child, guardian and ward. (All of these ties were also deemed "family" relationships; in eighteenth-century usage, the term was not yet reserved primarily for connections of blood and affection.) Within this early modern legal framework, male heads of households represented the political interests of most of the population. Wives, servants and slaves, children, and others categorized as dependent had no direct claim on the state. Abigail Adams implied that the Revolution would be incomplete if its legal reforms failed to come to terms with the immense authority this arrangement gave individual men over their dependents.

For John Adams and most of his contemporaries, in contrast, the thought of applying revolutionary ideology to household government was a recipe for anarchy. John informed Abigail that he could only laugh at her "extra-ordinary" proposal. "We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient… that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters." The social order, as John Adams depicted it, rested on the foundation of female dependence. Challenges to any one set of household relationships were bound to disrupt others.

John Adams used this reasoning to support his belief that political power should be restricted to the propertied elite. But male dominance over the household could also provide justification for extending political rights to white men of all classes. In the Pennsylvania Gazette of January 26, 1785, a writer who called himself Cato explained that "every man… has what is supposed by the constitution to be property: his life, personal liberty, perhaps wife and children, in whom they have a right, the earnings of his own or their industry." By emphasizing the rights of possession accorded to male household heads, the writer recast poor men as independent property holders and defended their claim to the vote. Their political gains helped cement the political exclusion of women and other dependents.


This March 31, 1779 letter from Abigail Adams to her husband John Adams is known as the "Remember the Ladies" letter. In it Abigail expresses her feelings about the rights of women to John, who was in Philadelphia as a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress. Knowing that he is on the committee to draft The Declaration of Independence, she asks her husband to promote laws that would improve the legal status of women, who in that era had few rights.

I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs. Of this I am certain that it is not founded upon that generous and christian principal of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us….

Tho we felicitate ourselves, we sympathize with those who are trembling least the Lot of Boston should be theirs [Many homes were ruined by looters.] But they cannot be in similar circumstances unless pusilanimity and cowardise should take possession of them. They have time and warning given them to see the Evil and shun it.—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 perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend. Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in immitation of the Supreem Being make use of that power only for our happiness.

[source: The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762–1784, edited and with an introduction by L. H. Butterfield, Marc Friedlaender, and Mary-Jo Kline, Harvard University Press, 1975.]

Abigail Adams was not the only American sensitive to this contradiction. Thousands of slaves and servants attempted to claim their own personal liberty during the Revolution by running away from their masters' "families." John Adams might have been thinking of these runaways when he referred to unruly Indians and Negroes. He might also have had in mind the formal legislative petitions by which African New Englanders sought to end slavery and claim the right to form autonomous families of their own. Although the Revolution did contribute to the gradual end of legal slavery in several Northern states, it did not end the legal patterns of discrimination that forced most free people of color to labor as dependents in white households.

The distinction we now make between family and household—between ties of "natural" affection and bonds of formal obligation—is in part a product of Revolutionary-era efforts to justify the persistence of traditional household government. The celebration of the affectionate, nurturing family as the source of civic virtue gave women new claims to social authority. John Adams employed this rhetoric in his light-hearted dismissal of Abigail's concerns. He assured her that husbands had "only the Name of Masters"; emotional ties gave women the real power in families. Surrendering formal legal power, he suggested, would place men wholly under the emotional sway of their wives and "completely subject Us to the Despotism of the Petticoat."

For most Americans after the Revolution, the "new Code of Laws" contained very little that was new with regard to family life. Household government remained the form of government most immediate to the inhabitants of the new country. Divisions over slavery helped keep all domestic relations under the final jurisdiction of state and local authorities, and actually served to reinforce patriarchal authority, especially in the South. But the Revolution's celebration of egalitarian ideals and the right of individuals to a voice in government provided a potent justification for protests against this order, giving impetus to the powerful movements for dependents' rights that flowered in the nineteenth century and continue today.


Aptheker, Herbert. A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, vol. 1. New York: Citadel Press, 1967.

Crane, Elaine Forman. "Political Dialogue and the Spring of Abigail's Discontent." William and Mary Quarterly 56, no. 4 (1999): 745–774.

Frey, Sylvia R. Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Nash, Gary B., and Soderlund, Jean R. Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its Aftermath. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Shammas, Carole. A History of Household Government in America. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002.

Smith, Billy G. "Runaway Slaves in the Mid-Atlantic Region during the Revolutionary Era." In The Transforming Hand of Revolution: Reconsidering the American Revolution as a Social Movement, edited by Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

Tadmor, Naomi. "The Concept of Household Family in Eighteenth-Century England." Past and Present 151 (1996): 110–140.

Internet Resource

Correspondence of Abigail and John Adams. Available from <http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams>.

Kirsten D. Sword

See also:Adams, Abigail; Drinker, Elizabeth; Generals' Wives: Martha Washington, Catharine Greene, Lucy Knox; Republican Womanhood.