Abigail Adams's Letters to John Adams
Abigail Adams's Letters to John Adams
By: Abigail Adams
Date: March 31, 1776 and April 5, 1776.
Source: Adams, Abigail, and John Adams. Adams Family Correspondence. Vol. 1, edited by L. H. Butterfield. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press.
About the Author: Abigail Adams was the first woman in American history to be both the wife and mother of a President. Born Abigail Smith in 1744 in Weymouth, Massachusetts, she married John Adams when she was twenty. She and Adams had five children, and she managed the couple's farm and affairs during the Revolutionary War, while John Adams worked toward independence for the thirteen British colonies. The couple exchanged over 1,100 letters during her lifetime.
Abigail Smith Adams came from a well-established New England family. Her father was a Congregational minister, while her mother was a member of the prominent Massachusetts family, the Quincys. A sickly child, Abigail read voraciously and used this self-education as a substitute for formal instruction; born a female in the late 1700s, she was denied access to high school or college education. Her lack of formal schooling was always a source of frustration and embarrassment to her, and she was troubled by her lack of proper spelling and inability to speak or read French. Abigail Smith met John Adams, a Harvard graduate interested in pursuing a career in law, in 1759; the two were married when she was twenty years old, in 1764. John and Abigail Adams settled in Braintree, Massachusetts, and within ten years, Abigail gave birth to five children—three sons and two daughters.
As tensions between the American colonies and the mother country, Britain, erupted in the mid-1770s, John Adams felt called to the revolutionary cause. During his absences, Abigail Adams managed her children, the household, and the family farm at a time when financial matters were considered a male responsibility. John Adams placed his confidence in his wife; the two viewed their marriage as a partnership—unlike many couples of the era—in which the prevailing belief for the upper and middle classes held that the wife should be submissive, meek, and delicate.
John and Abigail Adams exchanged over 1,100 letters throughout her lifetime, touching on topics such as their children, farm finances, personal intimacy, slavery, the constitution and rights, her lack of a formal education, women's rights, the monarchy in Britain, and more. John Adams worked as a lawyer and a circuit judge. His work took him away from home for long stretches of time, leaving Abigail in charge of the farm long before the revolution ever began. In many ways, her letters read like those of any wife; she implores him to write more often, peppers him with questions on details of his daily life, and informs him of activities on the homestead. At the same time, her letters ask incisive questions and give strong opinions about the development of government just as the colonies were about to enter war with Great Britain.
In these two letters, dated March 31, 1776 and April 5, 1776, Abigail Adams implores John Adams to "remember the ladies" when writing law. She beseeches him to avoid placing too much power in the hands of husbands who might use it for tyrannical or cruel purposes against women.
Braintree, March 31, 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 Defence? Are not the Gentery Lords and the common people vassals, are they not like the uncivilized Natives Brittain represents us to be? I hope their Riffel Men who have shewen 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 merrit 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 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.
Do not you want to see Boston; I am fearfull of the small pox, or I should have been in before this time. I got Mr. Crane to go to our House and see what state it was in. I find it has been occupied by one of the Doctors of a Regiment, very dirty, but no other damage has been done to it. The few things which were left in it are all gone. Cranch [Crane?] has the key which he never deliverd up. I have wrote to him for it and am determined to get it cleand as soon as possible and shut it up. I look upon it a new acquisition of property, a property which one month ago I did not value at a single Shilling, and could with pleasure have seen it in flames.
The Town in General is left in a better state than we expected, more oweing to a percipitate flight than any Regard to the inhabitants, tho some individuals discoverd a sense of honour and justice and have left the rent of the Houses in which they were, for the owners and the furniture unhurt, or if damaged sufficent to make it good.
Others have committed abominable Ravages. The Mansion House of your President [John Hancock] is safe and the furniture unhurt whilst both the House and Furniture of the Solisiter General [Samuel Quincy] have fallen a prey to their own merciless party. Surely the very Fiends feel a Reverential awe for Virtue and patriotism, whilst they Detest the paricide and traitor.
I feel very differently at the approach of spring to what I did a month ago. We knew not then whether we could plant or sow with safety, whether when we had toild we could reap the fruits of our own industery, whether we could rest in our own Cottages, or whether we should not be driven from the sea coasts to seek shelter in the wilderness, but now we feel as if we might sit under our own vine and eat the good of the land.
I feel a gaieti de Coar to which before I was a stranger. I think the Sun looks brighter, the Birds sing more melodiously, and Nature puts on a more chearfull countanance. We feel a temporary peace, and the poor fugitives are returning to their deserted habitations.
Tho we felicitate ourselves, we sympathize with those who are trembling least the Lot of Boston should be theirs. 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.
April 5, 1776
Not having an opportunity of sending this I shall add a few lines more; tho not with a heart so gay. I have been attending the sick chamber of our Neighbour Trot whose affliction I most sensibly feel but cannot discribe, striped of two lovely children in one week. Gorge the Eldest died on wednesday and Billy the youngest on fryday, with the Canker fever, a terible disorder so much like the thr[o]at distemper, that it differs but little from it. Betsy Cranch has been very bad, but upon the recovery. Becky Peck they do not expect will live out the day. Many grown person[s] are now sick with it, in this [street?] 5. It rages much in other Towns. The Mumps too are very frequent. Isaac is now confined with it. Our own little flock are yet well. My Heart trembles with anxiety for them. God preserve them.
I want to hear much oftener from you than I do. March 8 was the last date of any that I have yet had.—You inquire of whether I am making Salt peter. I have not yet attempted it, but after Soap making believe I shall make the experiment. I find as much as I can do to manufacture cloathing for my family which would else be Naked. I know of but one person in this part of the Town who has made any, that is Mr. Tertias Bass as he is calld who has got very near an hundred weight which has been found to be very good. I have heard of some others in the other parishes. Mr. Reed of Weymouth has been applied to, to go to Andover to the mills which are now at work, and has gone. I have lately seen a small Manuscrip de[s]cribing the proportions for the various sorts of powder, fit for cannon, small arms and pistols. If it would be of any Service your way I will get it transcribed and send it to you.—Every one of your Friend[s] send their Regards, and all the little ones. Your Brothers youngest child lies bad with convulsion fitts. Adieu. I need not say how much I am Your ever faithfull Friend.
On April 18, 1776, British General Thomas Gage sent 700 British troops to Concord, Massachusetts, to destroy munitions stored by rebel colonists; the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired at Lexington, Massachusetts. Abigail Adams's words, penned just weeks before these first shots were fired, noted issues of substance that formed the core of questions about self-government and rights for the emerging United States.
The April 5, 1776 letter refers to "the various sorts of powder, fit for cannon, small arms and pistols. If it would be of any Service your way I will get it transcribed and send it to you." This short note shows her understanding of the cause, how deeply the tensions between Britain and the colonies were, and the measures needed to fight should war erupt. Her comments about the question of whether to plant crops, for fear of being forced away from the sea coast and missing the harvest, further demonstrate her understanding of the pending danger. In her letter she reassures John Adams that she has decided to stay, and that fellow villagers believe that remaining on their farms is a safe course. Her discussions of Boston and the danger that city dwellers experienced refers to the Boston Massacre of the previous year, the Boston tea party, and British soldiers demanding to be quartered in various homes in the city.
Her desire to hear that "independency" be declared is followed by a discussion of the relationship between male rights and the oppression of women. In this passage, Abigail Adams makes her famous "remember the ladies" statement. Using revolutionary political rhetoric, such as "remember that all men would be tyrants if they could," Abigail Adams takes a statement applied to King George III and turns it toward men in general. In addition, by threatening a ladies' rebellion, which would result from being ruled "without Representation," she co-opts the "No Taxation Without Representation" cry that formed a crucial part of the colonies' rebellion against Britain.
Her words made an impression on John Adams, though female enfranchisement was not made law in the United States until 1920, some 144 years later. In 1784, after the colonies won independence, John Adams was assigned to diplomatic work in France; Abigail joined him until the two returned to the United States in 1788.
Abigail Adams continued to argue for greater freedoms for women and for literacy rights for slaves and free blacks. When John Adams was elected Vice President in 1789 and then President in 1797, Abigail's poor health forced her to spend much of her time in Quincy, Massachusetts, away from her husband. In spite of this distance, she was very much a part of his inner circle of advisors; critics of Abigail Adams dubbed her "Her Majesty" for her influence on her husband. After John Adams left the presidency in 1801, the two retired to Braintree. Abigail Adams died in 1818; her husband outlived her by eight years.
Adams, Abigail and John Adams. The Letters of John and Abigail Adams. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.
Levin, Phyllis Lee. Abigail Adams: A Biography. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2001.
PBS, The American Experience. "John & Abigail Adams." 〈http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/adams/filmmore/index.html〉 (accessed March 29, 2006).