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Letters of Abigail and John Adams (1776)

LETTERS OF ABIGAIL AND JOHN ADAMS (1776)


Abigail Adams was thirty-one years old and her husband John was forty-one when they exchanged these letters. Abigail was the daughter of the Reverend William and Elizabeth Quincy Smith of Weymouth, Massachusetts. She had been a well-read young woman, which attracted the attention of John Adams of Braintree, a graduate of Harvard College, schoolteacher, and lawyer-in-training. They married in 1764. They kept their farm in Braintree even as John's law practice grew and they relocated to Boston. Abigail kept house, bore five children, and supported John in his efforts to make the rule of law the foundation for government and society in America. John became a very vocal advocate for American rights, yet his defense of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre showed that his concern for justice was equally great. He represented Massachusetts in the First Continental Congress in 1774, followed by the Second Continental Congress a year later. This latter Congress was still meeting in Philadelphia when Abigail wrote John in March 1776.

Abigail's love for John and the wit of her personality surface in letters echoing the formal standards of the epistle. The elegance of the correspondent's handwriting matched the artistry of words and sentences. Abigail's letter shows that she completely understood the political situation of the spring of 1776. The thirteen colonies were loosely united by a common enemy, otherwise the middle-class farmers and merchants of New England would want little to do with the arrogant aristocrats of the South who enslaved other human beings even as they proclaimed the God-given rights of equality and freedom. Abigail was tongue in cheek in chastising John not to forget the "ladies" and their rights, which she clearly considered to be equal to their husbands.

The standards of eighteenth-century letter writing were to respond to each topic in the order presented in a letter. John knew Abigail was his intellectual equal, and he treated her accordingly, responding to each of her queries as he would any male correspondent. He responded in kind to her playful yet wholly serious comments about women's rights, arguing that his wife and other "saucy" colonial dames have the power in fact if not in name.

RussellLawson,
Bacone College

See also Gender and Gender Roles ; Revolution, American: Political History .

The first letter is from Abigail Adams to her husband John Adams. The second is his reply.

Braintree, 31 March 1776

I wish you would ever write me a letter half as long as I write you, and tell me, if you may, where your fleet are gone; what sort of defence Virginia can make against our common enemy; whether it is so situated as to make an able defense. Are not the gentry lords, and the common people vassals? Are they not like the uncivilized vassals Britain represents us to be? I hope their riflemen, who have shown themselves very savage and even blood-thirsty, are not a specimen of the generality of the people. I am willing to allow the colony great merit for having produced a Washington; but they have been shamefully duped by a Dunmore.

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. Of this I am certain, that it is not founded upon that generous and Christian principle of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us.…

I feel very differently at the approach of spring from what I did a month ago. We knew not then whether we could plant or sow with safety, whether when we had tilled we could reap the fruits of our own industry, whether we could rest in our own cottages or whether we should be driven from the seacoast to seek shelter in the wilderness; but now we feel a temporary peace, and the poor fugitives are returning to their deserted habitations. …

Though we felicitate ourselves, we sympathize with those who are trembling lest the lot of Boston should be theirs. But they cannot be in similar circumstances unless pusillanimity and cowardice 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 favorable 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 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.

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 imitation of the Supreme Being make use of that power only for our happiness.

14 April

You justly complain of my short letters, but the critical state of things and the multiplicity of avocations must plead my excuse. You ask where the fleet is? The inclosed papers will inform you. You ask what sort of defense Virginia can make? I believe they will make an able defense. Their militia and minute-men have been some time employed in training themselves, and they have nine battalions of regulars, as they call them, maintained among them, under good officers, at the Continental expense. They have set up a number of manufactories of firearms, which are busily employed. They are tolerably supplied with powder, and are successful and assiduous in making saltpetre. Their neighboring sister, or rather daughter colony of North Carolina, which is a warlike colony, and has several battalions at the Continental expense, as well as a pretty good militia, are ready to assist them, and they are in very good spirits and seem determined to make a brave resistance. The gentry are very rich, and the common people very poor. This inequality of property gives an aristocratical turn to all their proceedings, and occasions a strong aversion in their patricians to "Common Sense." But the spirit of these Barons is coming down, and it must submit. It is very true, as you observe, they have been duped by Dunmore. But this is a common case. All the colonies are duped, more or less, at one time and another. A more egregious bubble was never blown up than the story of Commissioners coming to treat with the Congress, yet it has gained credit like a charm, not only with, but against the clearest evidence. I never shall forget the delusion which seized our best and most sagacious friends, the dear inhabitants of Boston, the winter before last. Credulity and the want of foresight are imperfections in the human character, that no politician can sufficiently guard against.…

Your description of your own gaiete de coeur charms me. Thanks be to God, you have just cause to rejoice, and may the bright prospect be obscured by no cloud. As to declarations of independency, be patient. Read our privateering laws and our commercial laws. What signifies a word?

As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bonds of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges 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 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.

Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and, 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.

SOURCE: Adams, Charles Francis, ed. Familiar Letters of John Adams and His Wife Abigail Adams During the Revolution. New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1876.

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