Adams, Abigail

views updated May 17 2018

Abigail Adams

Born November 11, 1744 (Weymouth, Massachusetts) Died October 28, 1818 (Quincy, Massachusetts)

Founding mother, letter writer, political adviser, wife and mother of U.S. presidents

Abigail Adams was the wife of John Adams (1735–1826; served 1797–1801; see entry in volume 1), the second president of the United States; she was also the mother of John Quincy Adams (1767–1848; served 1825–29), the sixth U.S. president. She is best known for her letter writing, which spanned approximately five decades. Never intended for publication, her letters were always newsy and often funny. They related the happiness and heartache of early American families and almost always included a discussion of politics of the day. When John was away on diplomatic missions, he came to depend on his wife's letters for information on politics and the activities of Congress. Abigail often instructed John to burn her letters, but he never complied with that request. Instead he held on to them, and from 1764 onward most of her letters to him survive.

"If we mean to have heroes, statesmen and philosophers, we should have learned women."

Abigail Adams, in a letter to husband John Adams

Abigail Adams also wrote to her sisters, Elizabeth Smith Shaw and Mary Smith Cranch; to American revolutionary, historian, and friend Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814; see entry in volume 2); to such prominent American government leaders as Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; see entry in volume 1); and to well-known British author Catharine Macaulay (1731–1791). Macaulay wrote about women's rights, promoted education for women, and supported American independence. Her writing greatly influenced Adams, who spoke out on a number of social issues of her era.

Adams was a strong advocate of educational opportunities for women. She lived at a time when, for the most part, only boys were sent to school. When she first wrote in the 1760s and 1770s that women could benefit from formal education, many considered it a radical idea. Adams's letters also reflected dismay over the legal rights of women concerning property. When a woman married, her property became the property of her husband. Another issue Abigail wrote on was slavery. She strongly disliked slavery and all forms of discrimination. She believed anyone who owned slaves had no understanding of the American independence movement, which called for fairness and liberty for all individuals.

Adams's intellect, independence, energy, and wit show clearly in her letters. Her strength of character was shaped by the events of her time—the American Revolution (1775–83) and the formation of a new nation—and she helped shape the nation in her role as the wife of John Adams, who became the first U.S. vice president and the second U.S. president. Her letters give a firsthand account of life in a critical time in America's development.

Early life

Abigail Smith Adams was born on November 11, 1744, in Weymouth, Massachusetts, to the Reverend William Smith (1707–1783) and Elizabeth Quincy Smith. A Harvard graduate, Reverend Smith pastored the North Parish Congregational Church. The Congregational Church was the established church of the Puritan religious group that began settling in New England in the early 1600s. Elizabeth's family included many Puritan leaders of Massachusetts. Abigail was raised in a traditional Puritan lifestyle that stressed simplicity, honor, and love of family over wealth.

Although she never attended a formal school, Abigail received a thorough education at home. She became an avid reader, spending long hours in her father's extensive library. Abigail also began writing letters at an early age to various family members.

Wife and mother

At fifteen years of age, Abigail met John Adams, an aspiring, Harvard-educated lawyer who was nine years older than her. At first, John did not care for Abigail's outspokenness, unusual for a woman of that era, but soon the two highly intelligent young people fell in love. John lived 5 miles from Weymouth in Braintree, Massachusetts (later called Quincy), so they began writing letters to one another (most of their early letters were lost to history). John Adams and Abigail Smith married on October 25, 1764.

John and Abigail's first child was a daughter named Abigail and nicknamed Nabby; she was born on July 14, 1765. Their second child, John Quincy, was born on July 11, 1767. He would become the nation's sixth president in the year before his father's death. The Adamses had three more children: Susanna, born in 1768, died while still a toddler; Charles, born in 1770, died at the age of thirty during his father's presidency; Thomas Boylston, born in 1772, eventually followed in his father's footsteps, becoming an excellent lawyer. In 1777, a sixth child, a baby girl, was stillborn.

Partners in revolution

Although Abigail's correspondence between 1765 and 1770 was primarily about family, her letters also showed her interest in politics. She wrote to a cousin in London asking to know more of Catharine Macaulay, and in 1773 she began her correspondence with Mercy Otis Warren. Through these letters they discussed such political topics as increased legal rights for women including the right to own property by married women and the right to an education like males. They also discussed the horrors of slavery and the need for a republican form of government, one run by officials elected by the people for the benefit of the people. During that same period, John launched his political career by defeating a staunch British Loyalist (supporter of British rule) in a campaign to become selectman; in this position, he was responsible for leading town meetings, where community decisions were made. Then in 1770, he was elected to the Massachusetts legislature, a body not approved by the British. By the early 1770s, John was known as the best lawyer in Massachusetts.

By the mid-1770s, both John and Abigail were serious revolutionaries, committed to winning American independence from Britain. Both cheered in December 1773 when Bostonians dumped tons of British tea into the Boston harbor to protest a tax on tea. John was selected as a Massachusetts representative to the First Continental Congress in 1774 to discuss Britain's ill treatment of the colonies. He was then selected as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress when the American Revolution began in 1775. Leaving Abigail and the children at home, John traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to attend the meetings.

Abigail wrote to her husband of all the military happenings in Boston. The British had marched into the city and occupied it. From her home in Quincy, Abigail could see British warships in the Boston harbor. The Adamses' home was located right on a road out of Boston, so Massachusetts militiamen (local army volunteers) and citizens fleeing Boston stopped there for food and shelter. By summer 1775, Abigail wrote to John that she could not turn her back on any Patriot (anyone who supported American independence).

In June 1775, Abigail and seven-year-old John Quincy scrambled to the top of Penn's Hill, overlooking the Boston area, and watched the Battle of Bunker Hill. Although the British won the battle against American militiamen, they suffered heavy losses. On March 17, 1776, Abigail watched in amazement as the British withdrew from Boston. She quickly reported this to John in Philadelphia. A few days later, Abigail wrote her most famous letter to John, the "remember the ladies" letter (see box).

"Remember the Ladies"

Abigail Adams wrote the following letter to her husband, John, on March 31, 1776, as the American Revolution raged all around their home near Boston, Massachusetts. John was in Philadelphia, attending the Second Continental Congress, and Abigail took an active interest in his work. Knowing that he and the other delegates would soon declare America's independence from Britain, she implored him to consider "the ladies" when creating a government and a set of laws for the new nation. She wanted American women to be granted more rights and to be treated as friends, not possessions. Abigail's letters span about five decades, and this letter has become her most famous.

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 [were] 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 [start] 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. . . .? Men of sense in all ages abhor [hate] those customs which treat us only as the vassals [servants] of your sex. Regard us then as beings, placed by providence [God] under your protection, and in imitation of the Supreme Being make use of that power only for our happiness.

Long geographic separation

On November 27, 1777, Congress named John Adams as commissioner to France; he would join two other American commissioners in France, Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790; see entry in volume 1) and Arthur Lee (1740–1792). He set sail on February 17, 1778, accompanied by his ten-year-old son, John Quincy. Neither John nor Abigail realized that except for brief periods John would not return home for nine years. After returning to America briefly in 1779, John took both John Quincy and Charles with him to Paris in February 1780.

Abigail took care of Nabby and Thomas and entered into new pursuits to keep the family from going into debt while John's legal career was on hold and producing no income. From Europe, John sent Abigail items such as handkerchiefs, Irish linen, ribbons, and fans. She resold them for a profit in America. Soon, Abigail dealt directly with European suppliers. She saved enough money to buy property in Vermont.

John relied heavily on Abigail's correspondence, which was his chief source of American news and politics. To gather up-to-date news, Abigail kept a running correspondence with her cousin John Thaxter, Massachusetts Patriot James Lovell (1737–1814), and Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814), a political leader in Massachusetts.

Thaxter served as a secretary to Congress and for a time had tutored the Adams children. Thaxter sent regular reports on political and military situations that Abigail could report to John. Lovell was Adams's former colleague in the Continental Congress. Abigail wrote to him to try to find out what plans Congress had for John and what general issues Congress was discussing. With both men, she also freely wrote her own thoughts. To Thaxter, she expressed her dismay at the difference in educational opportunities available to men and women. To Lovell, she expressed her frustration that women could not participate in public office and decision-making. Interestingly, Abigail did not take on the issue of women's suffrage (the right to vote).

Crossing the Atlantic

By late 1783, after nineteen years of marriage, Abigail and John had been apart as much as they had been together. The Treaty of Paris had formally ended the American Revolution, but it appeared John would have to stay in France to negotiate trade agreements with European countries. John and Abigail decided they needed to be together.

Thirty-nine-year-old Abigail, who had bravely faced the Revolution at close range, was terrified of traveling across the Atlantic Ocean. She had never ventured out of Massachusetts. Nevertheless, by the end of 1783, Abigail and Nabby were planning for their journey. Abigail's youngest two sons, Charles and Thomas, were staying with her sister Elizabeth Shaw in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Elizabeth's husband, the Reverend John Shaw, was schooling them in preparation for college. Abigail felt confident in leaving the two boys with the Shaws.

On June 20, 1784, Abigail and Nabby set sail on the merchant ship Active bound for England. Apparently the Active was quite dirty, and Abigail organized all the ship hands she could to clean the vessel. Once the ship was scrubbed down, she turned her attention to the food preparation, which she found inadequate. Abigail instructed the cook on how to make the food more appealing and made some recipes herself. The voyage took one month; Abigail and Nabby arrived in England on July 20. They joined John and John Quincy in Paris by mid-August.


Abigail and Nabby moved into the rented country villa, Auteuil, outside of Paris, where John and John Quincy had been living. It had forty to fifty rooms, and Abigail kept discovering new rooms for weeks. She loved the extensive gardens. Although most areas were overgrown, she thought they were romantic and beautiful. The four Adamses were overjoyed to be together.

Abigail's first impression of Paris was not favorable. She wrote to her sisters that even the grandest buildings were covered in black soot. She was dismayed at how many poor and dirty people were on the streets, including ragged children. At the other extreme, the luxurious life wealthy Parisians led conflicted with her Puritan ideal of simplicity. However, within a few months, Abigail began to warm to the Paris scene. She enjoyed the theater and opera and marveled at the fashions worn by the upper-class women.

Thomas Jefferson and his daughter Patsy had arrived in Paris a week before the Adamses arrived. Congress sent Jefferson as a commissioner to France to join and eventually replace Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson and Adams had worked on the Declaration of Independence together in Philadelphia in 1776, and in Paris, Jefferson and the Adamses became close friends, visiting each other frequently. Jefferson came to look upon young John Quincy as a son, and he greatly enjoyed Abigail's company.

Abigail's blissful existence was soon interrupted. On April 26, 1785, Jefferson rode out to Auteuil carrying a letter from Congress. The letter appointed Adams the first U.S. minister to Great Britain. Believing it would cap off his decade-long diplomatic career, Adams was thrilled to receive the appointment. Nevertheless, he and Abigail regretted leaving Paris. On May 20, 1785, John, Abigail, and Nabby said a sad good-bye to Auteuil and left for London. John Quincy set sail for America to begin his studies at Harvard.


The Adams family settled in a house on the northeast corner of Grosvenor Square, a beautiful 5-acre park in London. Abigail enjoyed a room of her own overlooking the square; there she continued to write letters. Describing London of the 1780s, she began a constant correspondence with Jefferson, who visited on several occasions. The Adamses enjoyed being back in an English-speaking country, attending the theater, and strolling in the English gardens. Abigail wrote that while the wealth of some was obviously great, just as in Paris, it was impossible to go anywhere in London without passing tattered poor people living on the streets.

The Adamses did not receive a warm welcome in London, and they were generally ignored. Abigail resented the prevailing attitude that Britain was far superior to the United States. The British believed that it was only a matter of time before America returned to British rule. The snubbing of the American family continued, and British newspapers mentioned Adams only to blast him with harsh criticism.

In 1785, Congress appointed Colonel William Stephens Smith (1755–1816), a young Princeton graduate, to serve as John Adams's secretary. Smith's arrival was a bright spot in the Adamses' stay in London. Nabby and Smith soon fell in love, married, and presented John and Abigail with their first grandchild, a boy, in April 1787.

Return to America

By 1788, it was clear Adams would not be successful in negotiating trade agreements with the British. Knowing the United States was not in good economic condition following the Revolutionary War, Britain was not eager to help the United States economically survive its first years of independence by engaging in trade profitable to the young nation. British leaders assumed that the new nation would soon economically collapse and return to British control. Abigail, John, and Nabby and her family left London in the spring of 1789. Nabby's family settled in New York City. Abigail had instructed a cousin to arrange the purchase of a larger house in Quincy for her and John and to oversee repairs. The new home would better accommodate the Adamses and all their newly acquired European furniture. The property was called Peacefield and would remain Abigail and John's main home for the rest of their lives.

Meanwhile, in America, the U.S. Constitution had been completed and sent to each state for approval. Assuming approval would come, rumors persisted that George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97; see entry in volume 2) would be the first president and John Adams the first vice president. The rumors proved correct, and on April 30, 1789, both Washington and Adams were inaugurated. The nation's temporary capital was in New York City.

Vice president, moving to New York City

Congress provided a home in New York City for the president only. Vice President Adams found a house to rent about a mile from town in the present-day area of Greenwich Village. Abigail did not have the money for the move, so John told her to sell their livestock and borrow whatever remaining amount she needed to get there. John was unsure exactly what was expected of him as vice president and wanted his wife's constant presence and advice. In June 1789, Abigail left for New York. Following her arrival, she began regularly attending congressional debates with Sarah "Sally" Jay, wife of Supreme Court chief justice John Jay (1745–1829; see entry in volume 1). They attended so often that where they sat was soon called the Ladies Gallery.

First lady Martha Washington (1732–1802; see entry in volume 2), and Abigail had to invent rules for their own proper conduct as the wives of the nation's top two leaders. They were responsible for most presidential and vice presidential entertaining. At that time, women were expected to pay visits and receive guests in their own homes. Martha began hosting regular Friday night receptions, which were open to all well-dressed ladies. President Washington greeted each guest, and ice cream and lemonade were served. Soon, Abigail began her own reception schedule. The receptions resembled the receptions of British royalty with one very important distinction: Anyone well dressed could attend. This practice symbolized the difference between America's republican society, where leaders governed by consent of the people, and British society, which was ruled by the king or queen. Only invited aristocracy, the wealthy upper class of British society, attended royal receptions.

To Philadelphia

In 1790, Congress moved to Philadelphia, which remained the nation's capital for the next ten years. Abigail was not happy about the move. Philadelphia was the most elegant, fashionable, and sophisticated city in America. It was an expensive place to live, and the Adamses were short on money. However, she dutifully left for Philadelphia, where she stayed for much of the next two years.

Due to health problems and financial concerns, Abigail left Philadelphia for Quincy in 1792. From 1792 until the spring of 1797, the end of President Washington's second term, Abigail stayed in Quincy. The family finances needed tending. Renting houses in New York and Philadelphia and constant entertaining had thrown the family into debt, debt Abigail was determined to get under control. Charles Francis Adams (1807–1886), Abigail's grandson who in 1840 published her letters, credited his grandmother with keeping the family from financial ruin. At this period and during all the long periods of separation from John, Abigail supervised the planting and harvesting of their land, hired workers, oversaw tenants who rented property from her, and purchased additional lands. While she had been in Europe and when John's political offices took her away from Massachusetts, she continued her property management through correspondence with the caretakers who tended the land during her absences.

Presidential years

By the fall of 1796, Washington had decided not to run for a third term as president. Adams was elected as his successor and inaugurated as second president on March 4, 1797. Abigail did not attend the inauguration, remaining in Quincy to manage the house, farm, and finances. During this time, she also helped one of her hired hands, a free black youth named James Prince, who had enrolled in evening classes to learn a trade. As the only black in attendance, community members complained that unless he withdrew, others would not attend and the school would close. Abigail interceded on Prince's behalf, talked to the students, and resolved the issue. The students—and most importantly, Prince—remained in school.

By April 1797, President Adams was begging Abigail to come to Philadelphia. Relations between the United States and France were severely strained, and many Americans called for war. Although in control publicly, John privately wrote to Abigail that he could not bear the trials of office without her. Abigail's chief worry about being the president's wife was that she would not be able to refrain from saying exactly what she thought.

Abigail set out for Philadelphia at the end of April. On the way, she stopped in New York to visit Nabby, and the visit was extremely upsetting. Unfortunately, William Smith had proved to be a poor husband and was frequently away from his family. Tired and worried about Nabby, Abigail did not arrive in Philadelphia until May 10. Soon, the first lady took on the turbulent Philadelphia political scene.

Abigail managed the President's House, the name given to the rented house provided for the president and his family. She and John rose at 5 AM, had breakfast at 8 AM, and ate dinner about 8 PM. The president worked long hours in his office every day. Abigail spent at least two hours each day, often four hours, receiving guests. In those days, guests included not only officials but anyone asking permission to see the first lady. She also managed to read all the newspapers available and learned the names and viewpoints of everyone in Congress.

During Adams's eight vice presidential years and four presidential years, Abigail was surrounded by America's most prominent and influential leaders. The political viewpoints of both Adamses lined up with the views of the Federalists. Like the Washingtons, the Adamses opposed political parties because they believed that parties promoted individual interests above the country's interests. Nevertheless, American leaders split into two camps, Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. Federalists supported a strong federal government and in general were pro-British and anti-French. Democratic-Republicans favored strong state governments and a weaker federal government. Thomas Jefferson, who was President Adams's vice president, aligned with the Democratic-Republicans. They were pro-French and anti-British.

Unlike Martha Washington, who did not comment on political issues, Abigail involved herself wholeheartedly. Her marriage had always been a partnership, and she and John treated the presidency the same way. John discussed important matters with her, appreciated her understanding of the issues, and generally followed her advice. Those who wanted to influence John often first sought Abigail's support. Some people criticized her, saying that the wife of the president should not interject herself into political discussions.

In 1798, the Adamses anticipated their usual trip home to Quincy in August and September. Congress took a summer recess about this time every year, and the presidential family was free to travel to their home. To surprise John, Abigail had arranged to create a "Book Room" for him by converting a farm building on the property. It was large enough to hold all of John's books, with enough room left over for John to work and receive guests. Unfortunately, illness overshadowed this delightful surprise. Abigail began to feel extremely ill on the journey home; judging from her symptoms, she most likely suffered from malaria. They arrived at Peacefield on August 8. For a while, it appeared Abigail might be dying, but after eleven weeks in bed she had recovered. John left for Philadelphia, but Abigail stayed behind. Again, John and Abigail would endure separation.

Missing Abigail, John returned to Quincy in late March 1799. He believed he could run the government well enough from there and stayed home until September. On his return trip to Philadelphia, he stopped in New York to visit daughter Nabby, with whom son Charles's wife, Sarah, and their two daughters were also staying. Charles was bankrupt, unfaithful, and suffering from alcoholism.

Move to Washington, D.C.

By the spring of 1800, it was time for the Adamses to move to the new capital city, Washington, D.C. Only one wing of the Capitol, the building in which Congress would meet, was completed. Likewise, the President's House (not yet called the White House) was a work in progress. But in November 1800, the Adamses moved in. Abigail wrote to her sisters that the fireplaces had to be kept burning to make the dampness of wet plaster and paint bearable. She hung her laundry in the enormous first floor "east room." The move to Washington was Abigail's first trip to the South. Located on the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia, the city was at the northern fringe of the South. However, it was quite different from home, and it upset Abigail to see slaves working on the grounds of the President's House.

The Adamses' stay at the presidential home was brief. The first week of December, Adams failed to be reelected for a second term. Instead, Jefferson and former U.S. senator Aaron Burr (1756–1836; see entry in volume 1) of New York tied with seventy-three votes each. Adams received sixty-five votes. The House of Representatives was forced to break the tie, which resulted in the election of Jefferson. The same week, the Adamses received a letter from Nabby saying Charles had died November 30.

With heavy hearts, John and Abigail held the first New Year's Day reception at the President's House on January 1, 1801. Despite their strong political differences, Jefferson and the Adamses dined together that night. Jefferson called on Abigail again a month later as she prepared to leave for Quincy and told her that it would give him great pleasure to be of service to her or her family in any way. However, at the time their political differences were too great, and they would not correspond again until 1809. Departure from the presidency and public life was especially painful for Abigail because, as she wrote, the Adamses' ability to "do good" would be "so greatly curtailed."


Although both Abigail and John had hoped he would serve a second term, they began to readjust to the pace of farm life at Peacefield. As always, Abigail managed the farm and finances. She stated that she greatly preferred her farming life in New England to all other lifestyles she had experienced. She even enjoyed milking the cows herself, and her dog, Juno, was her constant companion. John and Abigail continued corresponding with many friends and spent much time writing about and defending John's presidency.

In 1809, after Jefferson had served eight years in the presidency, he and Abigail gradually renewed their old friendship and wrote regularly; a few years later, the two ex-presidents did as well. In 1814, John and Abigail lost their only daughter, Nabby, to cancer. Abigail suffered a stroke in October 1818 and died surrounded by her family. John lived eight more years. He and Jefferson died on the same day, July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

For More Information


Akers, Charles W. Abigail Adams: An American Woman. 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 2000.

Bober, Natalie S. Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1995.

Butterfield, L. H., Marc Friedlaender, and Mary-Jo Kline. The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762–1784. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975. Reprint, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2002.

Gelles, Edith B. Portia: The World of Abigail Adams. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Levin, Phyllis Lee. Abigail Adams: A Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.

McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Roberts, Cokie. Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation. New York: William Morrow, 2004.

Web Sites

"First Lady Biography: Abigail Adams." National First Ladies' Library. (accessed on August 10, 2005).

Abigail Adams

views updated May 21 2018

Abigail Adams

American First Lady Abigail Adams (1744-1818), an early proponent of humane treatment and equal education for women, is considered a remarkable woman for her times. Perhaps best known for her prolific letter writing, she is credited with having a notable influence on her husband, John Adams, second President of the United States.

Abigail Smith Adams was born in a parsonage at Weymouth, Massachusetts, on November 11, 1744. Her mother, Elizabeth Quincy Smith, was related to the Bay Colony's Puritan leadership. Her well-educated father, Reverend William Smith, was minister of the North Parish Congregational Church of Weymouth. Despite the fact that many of Adams' relatives were well-to-do merchants and ship captains, Adams was raised in a simple, rural setting. In accordance with the times, she was educated at home. She learned domestic skills, such as sewing, fine needlework, and cooking, along with reading and writing. She took advantage of her father's extensive library to broaden her knowledge. Her lack of a formal education became a life-long regret and, as an adult, she favored equal education for women. She once argued that educated mothers raised intelligent children.

On October 25, 1764, Adams married John Adams, a struggling, Harvard-educated, country lawyer nine years her senior. Although John Adams was not from a prominent social family and his chosen profession lacked high regard, the couple was well matched intellectually and the marriage was a happy one. During their years together, Abigail Adams successfully managed the family farm, raised her children, travelled with her husband on diplomatic missions to Europe, and carried on a voluminous correspondence with many of the well-known political figures of that time. Her character was forged by the events of her life, including the United Colonies' separation from England, the formation of the United States, her husband's political career and subsequent years of separation from him, the deaths of three of her children, and personal illness.

Early Political Years

During the first few years of their marriage, John Adams lived mostly in Boston, Massachusetts, building his law career and becoming more and more involved with the fomenting political unrest. Abigail Adams, however, remained at the family farm in Braintree (later renamed Quincy), Massachusetts. Her successful management of the farm was a feat uncommon for a woman of that era. The profits from this venture, combined with John Adams' legal practice, helped support the family. When John Adams declined to stand for re-election as selectman in Braintree, he rented a house in Boston and the family was reunited in their new urban home.

This was a time of great political upheaval. The Colonists wished to affirm their loyalty to their Sovereign while at the same time refusing to submit to taxation without representation. Rumors circulated that British troops were en route to Boston. The situation was explosive. Leaders like John Adams believed that armed opposition would isolate Boston from the rest of the Colonies. When John Adams was offered the post of advocate general of the Court of Admiralty, a high tribute to his ability as a lawyer and politician, he refused, claiming the position would be incompatible with his principles.

During the next few unsettling months, Abigail Adams suffered from migraines and chronic insomnia, as well as a difficult pregnancy. The Adams' third child, Susanna, was born towards the end of 1768, but the baby girl only lived for a year. Four months after Susanna's death, Abigail Adams gave birth to their son Charles. Despite her own bouts with illness, Abigail Adams gave birth to four children in just over five years.

The Start of the Revolution

During the next two years, hostilities between the Tories (those settlers who supported the English king) and the Patriots increased. John Adams, who had successfully defended British soldiers in two major trials, keenly felt the negative reaction of the Patriots. Then, in 1771, concerned with Abigail Adams' continuing poor health, John Adams returned his family to their home in Braintree. Sixteen months later, after Abigail Adams gave birth to their third son, Thomas, John Adams returned to Boston, leaving the family behind.

After being chosen as a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, John Adams relentlessly travelled the law circuit, earning as much as he could so that he could leave Abigail Adams with a bit of cash reserve until he would be able to return. Riding the circuit, though, gave him time to mull over the problems faced by the Colonies and by himself. His consolation was to write long letters to Abigail Adams, sometimes several a day, expressing his hopes and fears. Abigail Adams, in turn, wrote to her husband of her own loneliness, doubts, and fears.

During this time, John Adams relied strongly on his wife. She was his political sounding board as well as the caretaker and manager of their home and farm. In one letter, he instructed her to encourage the Braintree militia to exercise as much as possible, but to avoid a war if they could. As the Continental Congress drew to a close, Abigail Adams' letters to her husband encouraged his return home.

The War Begins

When word of the Battle of Lexington reached the Adams family in Braintree, there was a sense of relief because the wait and preparation for war were over. John Adams travelled to Lexington to see and hear for himself the accounts of the battle. Upon returning to Braintree, he gave Abigail Adams an accounting of what he'd learned, then took ill. The Continental Congress was reassembling in Philadelphia, and John Adams was determined to attend. Nursed back to health by his wife, John set-out for Philadelphia two days after the other delegates had left. Correspondence to her friends reveals that Abigail Adams sent her husband off with a cake from her mother, a mare from her father, and a young man, John Bass, to take care of him. She wrote that she tried to be "very sensible and heroic" as he left, but her heart "felt like a heart of lead."

Braintree, while in no danger from the British, nonetheless felt the impact of war. Militiamen stopped at the Adams' home at almost any hour of the day or night, seeking a meal, a drink of water, a cup of cider or rum, a place to spend the night. Refugees from the city found temporary shelter there. Although meat was plentiful, many other goods were in short supply; in one letter, Abigail Adams wrote that she especially needed pins-she would gladly give ten dollars for a thousand!

In the fall of 1775, an epidemic of dysentery hit Braintree and neighboring towns. The illness hit the youngest and oldest most hard; it was not unusual for three and four people in a family to die within days of each other. Abigail Adams and her son, Thomas, took ill, but slowly recovered. Even though she was ill herself, Abigail Adams travelled from Braintree to Weymouth to nurse her mother. Despite Abigail Adams' attentive nursing care, her mother died. During the next six weeks, five more members of her family succumbed to the illness. She wrote to her husband, "I cannot overcome my too selfish sorrow…."

The Battle Reaches Boston

Meanwhile, in cities like Boston and Philadelphia, the move for a declaration of independence grew stronger, stirred by Thomas Paine's pamphlet, Common Sense. As the fighting drew closer to Boston in 1776, the militia of Braintree mustered on the North Commons, and marched off to the city, taking rations for three days. Abigail Adams, seated at the top of Penn's Hill, watched the cannon fire between the British and Americans. She later wrote to John Adams, "The sound is one of the grandest in nature, and is of the true species with the sublime! 'Tis now an incessant roar; but oh! the fatal ideas which are connected with the sound! How many of our dear countrymen must fall?!"

Within a week, the militia was once more ordered to be prepared to march at a moment's notice. British ships were in the harbor and it was reported that troops were plundering the city. But it was a British withdrawal-Boston's siege was over. On July 8th, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was published. Unfortunately, the war still raged and the Congress had to write a constitution for the new government. Though John Adams wished to return home, his work was far from over. His wife's letters held him steady; it was the intellectual as well as emotional bond that supported him.

In her letter of March 13, 1776, Abigail Adams suggested to her husband that women be taken into consideration: "[I]n 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."'

During their many years of separation, Abigail Adams continued her successful management of the household and family finances. Although women of that time period did not normally conduct affairs of business, and married women were prevented by law from owning land in their own name, it was Abigail Adams who traded stock, hired help, coped with tenants, bought land, oversaw construction, and supervised the planting and harvesting. "I hope in time to have the reputation of being as good a Farmess as my partner has of being a good Statesman," she once wrote. In his autobiography, their grandson, Charles Francis Adams, credited Abigail Adams' sound management skills with saving the family from the financial ruin that affected so many of those who held public office during those first years of the new government.

John Adams Is Sent to France

With the war still being fought, John Adams was asked to replace the Paris commissioner. On a leave of absence from the Continental Congress to visit the family shortly after the request was made, John Adams was asked to handle a difficult legal case in Portsmouth. In his absence, dispatches arrived at the Braintree farm from Congress. Upon reading the dispatches, Abigail Adams was dismayed to learn of her husband's appointment as French minister. She wrote to General Roberdeau, thanking him for his hospitality to her husband, and added, "I have made use of his absence to prepare my mind for what I apprehend must take place lest I should unnecessarily embarrass him." Although John Adams left the decision up to Abigail Adams as to whether he would accept or decline the appointment, she knew what the choice must be. In her letter to her good friend, Mercy Warren, Abigail Adams wrote that she "found his honor and reputation much dearer to me than my own present pleasure and happiness…." It was decided that their 10-year-old son, John Quincy, would accompany his father to France. John Adams and his son left Braintree in early February, 1778.

This separation from her husband was seemingly harder for Abigail Adams to endure than all the years John Adams had spent in Congress. Letters took weeks to travel across the ocean. John Adams, fearing that his letters would be intercepted by the British and published, wrote very little. Nonetheless, Abigail Adams implored him to write more frequently. "Let me entreat you to write me more letters…. They are my food by day and my rest by night…. Cheerfulness and tranquility took the place of grief and anxiety [upon receipt of a packet of three letters]." Abigail Adams also wrote of daily life at the farm. With the war continuing, luxury items became scarce in the colonies. Abigail Adams wrote to her husband to send her goods from France, so that she could sell them at a profit in Massachusetts. During this time, she also speculated in currency.

After eighteen long months, John Adams' homecoming was a time of celebration. But soon after his arrival, Congress voted to send him to France again, as minister plenipotentiary, to negotiate a peace treaty between the United States and several European countries, particularly Great Britain. This time, John Adams took along two of his sons, John Quincy, and his younger brother, Charles. In September, 1783, a treaty between England, France, Spain, Holland, and the United States was signed.

Shortly after, John Adams received notice of another appointment. He, along with Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, were to negotiate a treaty of commerce with Great Britain. Abigail Adams joined her husband and sons in Europe at this point, bringing her daughter, Nabby, with her. After a long ocean voyage, Abigail Adams arrived in London, only to learn her husband had to make a political trip to Holland. She and her daughter waited almost a month for John Adams to return. When the couple finally reunited, it had been five years since they had last seen each other. Although pleased to be together, neither John nor Abigail Adams enjoyed their time in England. In April, 1788, five years after Abigail Adams' arrival, the family set sail for home. During those years in Europe, Abigail Adams had served as hostess for both political and social gatherings and as political advisor to her husband.

John Adams Becomes Vice-President

When the Electoral College tallied votes in March of 1789, George Washington was the clear Presidential winner. John Adams, with 34 votes, placed second and became Vice-President. Although Abigail Adams had been upset by her husband's earlier political assignments, when he had to be away from home for years at a time, she fully supported his decision to accept the vice-presidency.

Once more, the Adams family relocated. This time, their destination was a newly-built home in Philadelphia. Once in the city, Abigail Adams was faced with mass confusion. Boxes and furniture were scattered everywhere, the house was damp and cold, and beds had to be set-up before nightfall. Within days of their arrival, though, her son, Thomas, and the two maids had taken ill. Even while she nursed the invalids, Abigail Adams had to assume the role of hostess and welcome visitors to the Adams' home. With spring's arrival, and her oldest children off in their own directions, Abigail Adams decided to return to Braintree with Thomas, in hopes that fresh country air would hasten his recovery.

With John Adams in Philadelphia, and Abigail Adams in Quincy, the couple once more began their correspondence. Their letters now openly discussed political situations; both were concerned with the antagonistic political atmosphere in Philadelphia. When a Federalist friend of John Adams proposed making Abigail Adams the Autocratix of the United States, Abigail Adams wasted no time in sending her reply. "Tell [him] I do not know what he means by abusing me so. I was always for equality as my husband can witness."

John Adams Becomes President

When John Adams learned that Washington planned to retire in 1797, he promptly sought Abigail Adams' advice. If he ran for the office and didn't win enough electoral votes to become President, he would be obliged to accept the Vice-Presidency under the winner, whom they expected to be Thomas Jefferson. John Adams, although hoping to win the Presidency, most definitely did not want to serve as second-in-command underneath Jefferson; their political positions were too far apart. Abigail Adams' response was filled with reservations, but once again, she knew that turning away from the Presidency would not be in her husband's nature. After winning the election, John Adams asked his wife to join him in the capital city.

Abigail Adams arrived in Philadelphia in early May. The house was shortly put in order, and Abigail Adams quickly held a reception as First Lady. John Adams discussed nearly every important problem with her, and most often followed her advice. Abigail Adams also continued to write many letters to friends, and those who knew the strength of her influence with her husband took pains to enlist her support. She even continued managing the Quincy (formerly Braintree) farm through correspondence with her sister, Mary Cranch, and with Dr. Cotton Tufts.

As was to be expected, John Adams' years as President were filled with political challenges. Abigail Adams fretted about her husband's health, but admitted he had never been in finer spirits. Abigail Adams, on the other hand, was not well. When Congress convened for the summer, the couple set forth for their Quincy farm. By the time the entourage reached Quincy, Abigail Adams was exhausted and ill with fever, diarrhea, and diabetes. When John Adams returned to Philadelphia in November, he had to leave his wife behind.

It wasn't until after the next summer recess that Abigail Adams was able to return with her husband to Philadelphia, where she remained for the term. This time, on her route back to Quincy, Abigail Adams stopped in New York to call on her daughter, Nabby, and her son Charles. Nabby's husband, Colonel Smith, was a wastrel and had spent his family's money. Charles, though glad to see his mother, was in even worse straits than his sister. Charles was an alcoholic, and his health was rapidly deteriorating.

Although John Adams moved into the new Presidential mansion on the Potomac River, his stay was not to be for long. He lost the next election. Before leaving to join her husband in Washington, D.C., Abigail Adams wrote to her son, Thomas, "My journey is a mountain before me, but I must climb it." Once again she stopped in New York to visit her son and daughter. Charles did not have long to live, and it was with great sadness that Abigail Adams bade him farewell. John Adams received news of his election defeat at the same time he learned of the death of his son, Charles.

Retirement to Quincy

After his political retirement, John Adams slowly adjusted to life on the farm, and once again began corresponding with friends. Abigail Adams, concerned about finances, continued to keep herself busy with the day-to-day details of running her home. Throughout the next year, the family remained plagued with illness. Both Mary Cranch, Abigail Adams' sister, and Mary's husband, died within days of each other. Nabby, John and Abigail's daughter, had been diagnosed with cancer. She brought her two daughters to the farm and underwent surgery. John Adams stumbled over a stake in the ground, tore the skin off his leg, and was forced to sit in his chair for several weeks. Once again, Abigail Adams and her two maids nursed the sick. Despite the surgery, Nabby's cancer returned by the summer of 1814. Knowing she would die soon, Nabby made the agonizing journey back to the Quincy farm and died three weeks after arriving. Abigail Adams nursed her daughter until the end.

In October of 1818, Abigail Adams suffered a stroke. She died quietly on October 28th, 1818, surrounded by her family. Her husband, John Adams lived several more years, passing away quietly on July 4th, 1826. Abigail Adams has the distinction of being the only woman in the United States who was the wife of one president (John Adams) and the mother of another (John Quincy Adams).

Although Abigail Adams may be viewed as an early advocate for women's rights, she never saw herself as such. While her management abilities and financial aptitude kept the family solvent, she saw her main role in life as wife and mother and used her talents to maintain the family. Her marriage was a successful and loving partnership, and she considered herself equal to her husband. She freely advised John Adams on a number of topics, and her advice was respected and often followed. She also suggested that the law be amended to protect women from male tyranny; however, she never took an active role in securing change. As a woman of the eighteenth century, she witnessed a great deal of political turmoil, war, and the birth of a new nation. Abigail Adams' voluminous correspondence with her husband, family, and friends provides a historical record of the times as well as showing her as an intelligent and capable woman.

Further Reading

Adams, Abigail, and John Adams, The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784, edited by L.H. Butterfield, Harvard University Press, 1975.

Adams, Abigail, and John Adams, Familiar Letters of John Adams and His Wife Abigail Adams, During the Revolution, Hurd and Houghton, 1876.

Adams, Charles Francis, and John Quincy Adams, The Life of John Adams, [1871], reprinted, Haskell House, 1968.

Akers, Charles W., Abigail Adams: An American Woman, Little, Brown, 1980.

Butterfield, L.H., editor, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, Belknap Press, 1962.

Ferling, John, John Adams, A Life, University of Tennessee Press, 1992.

Gelles, Edith B., Portia: The World of Abigail Adams, Indiana University Press, 1992.

Levin, Phyllis Lee, Abigail Adams: A Biography, St. Martin's Press, 1987.

Smith, Page, John Adams, Volume I: 1735-1784, Doubleday, 1962.

Adams, Abigail

views updated May 29 2018

Abigail Adams

Born November 22, 1744
Weymouth, Massachusetts
Died October 28, 1818
Quincy, Massachusetts

Second First Lady of the United States, women's rights advocate

Abigail Adams, one of the most well-known women of the eighteenth century, was the wife of one United States president and the mother of another. During her husband's long absences from home, she successfully managed her family's affairs and ran their farm. In a new country based on the principles of equality and independence, this American patriot loved and loyally supported her own country and sowed the seeds for the movement to make women full citizens of the United States.

Abigail Adams was born Abigail Smith on November 22, 1744, to William Smith, a Protestant minister, and Elizabeth Quincy Adams. Both were from wealthy, educated New England families. Adams was a shy but stubborn child who suffered several illnesses during her early years. Her strict mother taught Adams to be charitable, and they often went together to bring food and clothing to the area's needy families.

Adams's father loved learning and gave all of his children full run of his large library. There the young girl learned about poetry, history, drama, religion, and political matters. She educated herself and became one of the best-read women of the time. Her poor spelling and handwriting, however, showed that she was self-taught.

Abigail Adams grew into a tall, slender young woman with a long nose, sharp chin, and piercing eyes. She first met twenty-three-year-old John Adams see entry , a lawyer, when she was fifteen. They began sharing their love for knowledge, and before long he was sending her letters addressed to "Miss Adorable." The couple married on October 25, 1764. For more than fifty years, they remained best friends, and John always relied on his wife's advice.

Family endures constant separations

The couple's first home was a small farm in Quincy (then called Braintree), Massachusetts. Adams stayed at home, overseeing servants and running the household, while John Adams traveled to Boston and other parts of New England building his career as a lawyer and judge. The Adamses had five children, "Nabby" (Abigail), John Quincy, Susanna (who died at the age of thirteen months), Charles, and Thomas.

In 1763 the British began to demand that the American colonists start paying high taxes to help pay off British war debts. The colonists resisted. They believed that to be taxed by the British Parliament—a government body in which they had no representation—was unfair and made them little more than slaves. John Adams was a primary force in the movement toward the Revolutionary War, which finally erupted over this and other issues in 1775.

In 1768 Adams moved his family to Boston, the most active center of revolutionary activity. There Abigail Adams socialized with the city's most important families. Six years later John was elected a delegate to the First Continental Congress, a six-week meeting at which representatives from the colonies discussed what to do about their problems with the British. John's role as a delegate meant even longer separations.

Takes charge at home, writes letters

Although she missed John terribly when he was away on business and political trips, Abigail Adams stood behind his efforts and ambitions. She took on the responsibility of making most of the family decisions herself, including those that pertained to money.

The family's life gradually changed, as the American movement to gain freedom from Great Britain grew stronger. Adams wrote frequent letters to her friends and family in which she frankly expressed her opinions. The letters have been preserved and are honored as some of the best of her time. Their subjects range from politics, manners, and education for women to marriage, health care, and the relationship between religion and morality (what is right versus what is wrong).

Abigail and John Adams often wrote to one another about their feelings and ideas. Quoting William Shakespeare in a letter to her husband, Abigail Adams wrote: "My pen is always freer than my tongue." In later years, Abigail Adams expressed her political opinions in letters to such fellow patriots as Thomas Jefferson see entry, a highly respected lawyer from Virginia who became the third president of the United States. She and Jefferson carried on a long correspondence in which they treated each other as equals. Her letters have been described as newsy, flirtatious, and full of ideas.

Adams's letters gave accounts of the history of the young country and the problems that its people faced on the road to independence. She wrote to John Adams of the conflict between their neighbors who supported Britain and those who supported the revolution. She also wrote about housing colonial soldiers on their way to attack the British, and of her own constant fear of attack by British soldiers.

Hard times for Abigail Adams and America

Women had to undergo many hardships as the Revolutionary War stretched on from 1775 to 1783. Adams's letters told of how she dealt with such difficulties as wartime shortages and the high cost of food and other goods, lack of help to run the family farm, and, especially, loneliness. At one point, her husband served as a diplomat in Europe, representing the United States in its dealings with countries there. In order to make ends meet, Adams was forced to sell or trade the tea, handkerchiefs, and other items her husband sent her from Europe.

She once told John that, because of the loss of his companionship for half of their marriage and his reduced time for moneymaking, she believed she had struggled and sacrificed more on behalf of the American cause than most women in the country.

Impressions of France

Throughout her life Abigail Adams furthered her education and developed her mind. For example, in 1784 she went with her husband to Paris, France, where for eight months he represented the U.S. government in its dealings with France. While there, Abigail Adams paid close attention to French manners and morals and observed French culture.

From an early age, Adams's family had taught her to be careful with money. She was amazed by the number of servants that upper-class Europeans needed to maintain a large house and the time and money they spent on looking fashionable. She disapproved of the behavior of the wealthy French people, telling her friends that they mainly pursued luxury and pleasure, and she disliked Paris, calling it "the dirtiest place I ever saw."

Life in London society

In 1785 Abigail Adams accompanied John Adams to England, where he served as the first U.S. minister to the court of George III see entry, king of Great Britain. As an official representative of her country, Adams carried out her duties— mostly entertaining—with intelligence and dignity. Among the people the Adamses encountered in England were former colonists who had fled America to escape revolutionary activities. These Loyalists (people who were loyal to England) felt deeply resentful toward representatives of the new American government. They wrote critical newspaper articles about John and Abigail Adams and made them feel unwelcome, although officials of the British government and members of royalty generally treated them with courtesy. In London, her son, the brilliant John Quincy Adams, later an American president, served as his father's secretary.

Champions women's need for education

Abigail Adams believed strongly that education was as important for women as for men. She thought it was necessary if they were to do a proper job in raising children, running their homes, and being good mates. Indeed, during her stay in London she took the opportunity to study science, an area about which most women were taught little. Adams frequently wrote in her letters about the need for women to be educated.

At the same time, Adams understood the limited role that women of her time were allowed to play in American society. For example, a woman was expected to marry, and after marriage all her belongings became the possessions of her husband. She had no rights even to her children. Only after the death of her husband could she make decisions for herself.

Abigail Adams apparently accepted her role as a woman but not without voicing certain criticisms. She believed that women, like men, had the right to independence. She objected to the legal codes that prevented married women from owning property.

As early as 1776, Adams had made a very strong appeal for women's rights in a letter she wrote to her husband, who was then involved with drafting the Declaration of Independence. She begged him in doing so to "remember the ladies … and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors."

Life in Washington, D.C.

In 1788 Abigail and John Adams returned to a fine new house in Quincy, Massachusetts, that served as their main residence for the rest of their lives, except when John held national political office. Abigail Adams continued to support her husband who, in 1789, became vice president of the United States under George Washington see entry. She developed a friendship with First Lady Martha Washington, using the experience she had gained visiting the European royal courts to help with official entertaining.

In 1791 health problems forced Abigail Adams to return home to Quincy. But she temporarily returned to the nation's capital, Washington, D.C., in 1797 when her husband defeated Thomas Jefferson and became the second president of the United States. As First Lady, Abigail Adams resumed formal entertaining. Conditions in Washington were then quite primitive: the city was located in a wilderness, and the White House was still under construction. She shared her complaints with her immediate family but conducted her duties at dinners and receptions with dignity.

Adamses return home after loss of election

President John Adams frequently consulted with his wife about important matters, both personal and governmental. Many of the political ideas held by Abigail Adams were rather conservative. She wanted to preserve existing traditions and tended to resist changes. John and Abigail Adams's conservative attitudes were unpopular among many American citizens, who believed that America should welcome foreigners and encourage freedom of the press. Their attitudes may have contributed to John Adams's defeat by Thomas Jefferson in the presidential election of 1800.

Following John Adams's defeat in the election, he and Abigail Adams returned to their home in Quincy, where they lived together for eighteen years, without the strain of politics. Still, there were hardships. The Adamses suffered the loss of their daughter, Nabby, to cancer, and Abigail Adams had to bear her own long-term illnesses.

On October 28, 1818, seventy-three-year-old Abigail Adams died at home of typhoid fever, a highly infectious disease usually transmitted by impure food or water. Her husband remained heartbroken for the next eight years, but had the satisfaction of seeing their son, John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), become the sixth U.S. president in 1824. After John Adams died in 1826, he was buried next to Abigail Adams in Quincy's United First Parish Church.

Renewed interest in Abigail Adams was sparked in 1875 when her grandson, Charles Francis Adams, published The Familiar Letters of John Adams and His Wife Abigail During the Revolution. Today readers still enjoy learning about the customs, habits, and manners of their daily life as well as the details about the American Revolution the letters reveal.

For More Information

Adams, Charles Francis. The Familiar Letters of John Adams and His Wife Abigail During the Revolution. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1875.

Akers, Charles W. Abigail Adams: An American Woman. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980.

Beller, Susan Provost. Woman of Independence: The Life of Abigail Adams. White Hall, VA: Shoe Tree Press, 1992.

Bober, Natalie S. Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution. New York: Atheneum Books, 1995.

Butterfield, L. H., March Friedlaender, and Mary-Jo Klein, eds. The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762–1784. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975.

Gelles, Edith B. Portia: The World of Abigail Adams. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Levin, Phyllis Lee. Abigail Adams: A Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.

Meeker, Clare Hodgson. Partner in Revolution: Abigail Adams. New York: Benchmark Books, 1998.

Withey, Lynne. Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams. New York: The Free Press, 1981.

Adamses Inoculated for Smallpox

In 1721 an American doctor named Zabdiel Boylston (1679–1766) introduced the process of inoculation for smallpox to Boston. A smallpox epidemic was raging throughout the city and beyond its borders, and inoculations were the best-known way to ward off this serious disease. Smallpox causes fever, vomiting, skin eruptions, and sometimes death and is easily passed to others. Inoculation for smallpox involved injecting a serum with the disease into a person's body in order to cause a minor form of the disease so that the person then could build up protection against getting it.

In 1776, just as America was declaring her independence from Great Britain, another smallpox epidemic broke out in Boston. Many patients were inoculated and then quarantined in hospitals and other sites to keep them away from others who did not have the disease. Most patients recovered after the three-or four-week isolation period and were protected from getting the disease again.

During the outbreak, people who wanted to leave Boston were required to undergo a "smoking." It was thought that exposing them to a room filled with dense smoke for a period of time would clear them of the smallpox germs. People with the disease who remained in the city were permitted to wander freely, attending church and visiting friends and family. In fact, patients were instructed to get as much fresh air as possible, as this was wrongly thought to be a way to help cure the disease.

In July 1776 Abigail Adams and her children went to the home of a relative and were inoculated. She brought with her straw beds, sheets, bedspreads, money for medical fees, and a cow to supply fresh milk. After the inoculations, Adams and her family suffered from sore eyes, weakness, fever, nausea, and headaches. It took some of them up to six weeks to recover from being inoculated. Two of the children tolerated the ordeal quite well, but two had to be inoculated a second time when the first shot failed to produce results. Adams's daughter Nabby got much sicker than anyone else, and her son Charley had to be inoculated a third time. When he finally did get the disease, he was extremely ill. Fortunately, the boy recovered. The whole process lasted two months and proved very difficult for everyone. Finally protected against the disease, Abigail Adams was able to travel about Boston freely, gathering the latest information and gossip, which she sent to her husband, John, who was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on the new nation's business.

Adams, Abigail

views updated Jun 08 2018

Abigail Adams

Born: November 22, 1744
Weymouth, Massachusetts
Died: October 28, 1818
Quincy, Massachusetts

American political advisor and first lady

Though she believed her main role in life to be wife and mother, Abigail Adams also was a behind-the-scenes stateswoman. She used her talents to maintain her family during the many absences of her husband, John Adams, the second president of the United States, and to advise her husband about women's rights and slavery. Her detailed letters with her husband, family, and friends provide a historical record of the times and show her to have been a woman ahead of her time.

Early life

Abigail Smith was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, on November 11, 1744, to William and Elizabeth Quincy Smith. Her well-educated father was the minister of the North Parish Congregational Church of Weymouth. Although many of Abigail's relatives were well-to-do merchants and ship captains, she was raised in a simple, rural setting. She was educated at home, learning domestic skills, such as sewing, fine needle-work, and cooking, along with reading and writing. She took advantage of her father's extensive library to broaden her knowledge. Her lack of formal education became a life-long regret. As an adult, she favored equal education for women. She once argued that educated mothers raise educated children.

On October 25, 1764, Abigail married John Adams, a struggling, Harvard-educated country lawyer nine years her senior. Although John Adams was not from a prominent family, the couple was well matched intellectually and the marriage was a happy one. He admired and encouraged Abigail's outspokenness and intelligence. She supported him by running the family farm, raising their children, listening to him, and trying to help him with his problems.

Early political years

During the first few years of their marriage, John Adams lived mostly in Boston, Massachusetts, building his law career and becoming involved with the growing political unrest. This political unrest was brought about by the English government's attempts to tighten control over its colonies through the passage of laws and new taxes that many colonists did not support. Abigail, however, remained at Braintree (later Quincy), Massachusetts, to run the family farm. Although women at that time did not normally handle business affairs, Abigail traded livestock, hired help, bought land, oversaw construction, and supervised the planting and harvesting. "I hope in time to have the reputation of being as good a Farmess as my partner has of being a good Statesman," she once wrote.

During the next few years, hostilities between the American colonies and Great Britain increased, forcing John Adams away from home more often. He was chosen as a delegate to the First Continental Congress. (The congress was a group of colonial representatives who met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 5, 1774, and took a stand against the British government's policy of passing laws over the colonists without colonial representation.) He traveled constantly in addition to those duties, trying to earn as much money as he could practicing law. He tried to make these difficult times easier by writing long letters to Abigail, sometimes several a day. She, in turn, wrote to her husband of her own loneliness, doubts, and fears. She suffered from migraines and chronic insomnia. Despite her own bouts with illness, she gave birth to five children. One daughter, Susanna, born in 1768, lived for only a year.

War affects the family

When the Revolutionary War (177583) began with the battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts on April 17, 1775, John Adams was called back to the Continental Congress. On June 15, 1775, the Second Continental Congress made George Washington commander in chief of the American army. The Congress also set up a government for the colonies. A year later, on July 4, 1776, the Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, in which the American colonies declared their independence from the government of Great Britain. During the war Abigail provided meals and lodging to soldiers who stopped at the Adams' home at all hours of the day and night. In the fall of 1775, the inhabitants of Braintree suffered an epidemic of dysentery, an often-fatal bowel infection. Abigail had to nurse her sick relatives in addition to caring for her children. Her mother and five other members of her family eventually died from the illness.

As the fighting drew closer to Boston, Abigail Adams wrote many letters describing the events of the time. In a letter written in March 1776, she urged her husband to take women's rights into consideration if and when the colonies gained independence: "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 If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment [promote] a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation."

John Adams is sent to Europe

As the war continued, John Adams was sent to Europe to work on treaties with other countries and to seek loans for the colonies. He took one or two of his sons on these assignments, which continued after the war ended, giving America its independence from Great Britain in 1883. These constant separations were difficult for Abigail Adams, but she supported her husband. She wrote that she "found his honor and reputation much dearer to [her] than [her] own present pleasure and happiness."

After five years, Abigail and her daughter, Nabby, joined her husband and sons in England. During the years in Europe, Abigail acted as hostess for both political and social gatherings and as an advisor to her husband. In April 1788, five years after Abigail's arrival, the family returned home.

John Adams is elected

After the American Revolution ended, the newly independent country of the United States needed a president. When the votes were counted in March 1789, George Washington (17321799) was the clear presidential winner. At the time, the person with the most votes became president, while the person with the next largest number became vice president. John Adams placed second and became vice president. Although Abigail Adams had been upset by her husband's earlier political assignments, which forced him to be away from home for years at a time, she fully supported his decision to accept the vice presidency. The family moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the federal government was located at the time. Abigail assumed the role of hostess, welcoming visitors to the Adams's home. However, she returned to Braintree the next spring with her son, Thomas, who had fallen ill.

When Washington retired in 1797, John Adams ran for president and won the election. His wife joined him in Philadelphia in May. Abigail Adams quickly settled in as first lady; her husband discussed many important problems with her and often followed her advice. Abigail kept writing letters to friends and even continued managing the Quincy (formerly Braintree) farm through correspondence with her sister, Mary Cranch.

Whereas John Adams had never been in finer spirits, Abigail Adams became exhausted and ill with fever on a trip home to Quincy in the summer of 1797. This led to yet another separation when the president returned to Philadelphia in November. Abigail eventually recovered and returned to Philadelphia the next year, staying for the rest of her husband's term.

Retirement to Quincy

After losing his bid for reelection in 1800, John Adams retired to life on the farm. Abigail Adams continued to keep herself busy maintaining her home. The family remained plagued with illness. Both Mary Cranch and her husband died within days of each other. Nabby Adams had been diagnosed with cancer and underwent an operation. John Adams injured his leg in an accident and was unable to walk for several weeks. As always, Abigail Adams cared for them all.

In October of 1818, Abigail Adams suffered a stroke. She died quietly on October 28, 1818, surrounded by her family. John Adams lived several more years, passing away on July 4, 1826. Abigail Adams has the distinction of being the first woman in U.S. history to be the wife of one president (John Adams) and the mother of another (John Quincy Adams [17671848]).

For More Information

Akers, Charles W. Abigail Adams. New York: Longman, 2000.

Bober, Natalie S. Abigail Adams. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1995.

Butterfield, L. H., et al., eds. The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 17621784. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975.

Nagel, Paul C. The Adams Women. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Adams, Abigail

views updated May 18 2018


(b. November 11, 1744; d. October 24, 1818) Wife of President John Adams and mother of President John Quincy Adams, noted for her correspondence.

Abigail Smith Adams is best known for the letters she wrote for over a half century, but also she is historically visible because she was the wife of one president of the United States (John Adams, 1797–1801) and mother of another (John Quincy Adams, 1825–1829). The stream of her letters that began in the early 1760s and ended with her death in 1818 represents the most complete record that survives of a woman's experiences during the Revolutionary War era and subsequent decades in American history.

Abigail was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts. Her father was a Congregational minister and her mother descended from distinguished New England clergymen. Abigail's youth—indeed, most of her adult life—was spent in the countryside around Boston. As was typical for girls, she was educated at home. The great milestone in her young life was marriage to John Adams in 1764.

The Adams marriage coincided with the escalation of events that led to the Revolution, and during the next decade, while Abigail gave birth to four children (as well as others who did not survive to adulthood), John was lured into the politics that took him to distant places for the quarter of a century after 1774. This is significant, because Abigail remained at home in Braintree during the Revolutionary War, supporting her family and maintaining their farm. She also began to write the torrent of letters that have become the best surviving record of a New England woman's experience of the Revolutionary era.

For almost a decade Abigail took over John's role as breadwinner, supporting herself, her children, and her household. She managed their farm; she began a small business enterprise by selling locally items that John sent from Europe; she negotiated for and purchased property (in his name, since married women could not hold land in their own names); she speculated in currency and paid their taxes. She did all of this with the understanding that it was her patriotic duty in wartime. "The unfealing [sic] world may consider it in what light they please," she wrote to John in mid-1777. "I consider it as a sacrifice to my Country" (Butterfield, II, p. 301).

Abigail's experiences during the Revolution were typical of many women whose husbands served their country. She suffered many hardships. Soon after John

departed for Philadelphia, a dysentery epidemic struck, and everyone in Abigail's household, herself included, was afflicted. Both her mother and her servant Patty, whom she nursed for many weeks, died, but her critically ill son Tommy survived. Then, after British troops occupied Boston, she feared she would have to abandon her own home just outside the city limits. Fortunately, the battle resumed farther to the south, and she did not have to move her family.

In her famous letter of March 31, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was being drafted, Abigail reminded John to "Remember the Ladies" in the new "Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make." She specifically asked the Founding Fathers to remember women's rights when they wrote their laws. This was a bold statement for a woman to make, and her words have resonated for American women for more than two centuries. That same letter carried an indictment against the continuation of slavery in the new nation, as she reminded the Founders of the "principal [sic] of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us" (Butterfield, I, p. 329).

Abigail believed that another outcome of the Revolutionary War should be improved education for women. In the summer of 1776, she waged another brief campaign in a letter to John: "I most sincerely wish 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" (Butter-field, II, p. 94).

The war ended in 1783, and in 1784 Abigail traveled to Europe to join her husband, who became the first American minister to the Court of St. James. Following the Adamses' return in 1788, John was elected vice president (1789–1797) and then president, so Abigail played a public role at the nation's early capitals. All the while, she wrote letters to family and friends that captured the events, the spirit, and the consciousness of her times.

The final decades of her life were spent in her beloved Quincy, where she took care of her household and her family, gardened, attended worship, observed political developments, engaged in social activities, and recorded all in letters. She died after a long illness on October 24, 1818.


Butterfield, L. H.; Garrett, Wendell D.; Sprague, Marjorie E., eds. The Adams Family Correspondence. 6 vols. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963–1993.

Gelles, Edith B. Portia: The World of Abigail Adams. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Gelles, Edith B. Abigail Adams: A Writing Life. New York: Routledge, 2002.

McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.

Withey, Lynne. Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams. New York: Macmillan, 1981.

Edith B. Gelles

See also:Drinker, Elizabeth; Madison, Dolley; Republican Womanhood; Sampson, Deborah.