Adams, Abigail (1744–1818)
Adams, Abigail (1744–1818)
American first lady and early advocate of gender equality in the American revolutionary and early national eras. Born Abigail Smith on November 11, 1744, in the Congregational church parsonage in Weymouth, Massachusetts; died on October 28, 1818, at home in Quincy, Massachusetts; daughter of the Reverend William Smith (1706–1783, pastor) and Elizabeth (Quincy) Smith (1721–1775); no formal schooling, largely self-taught; married John Adams (1735–1826), on October 25, 1764; children: Abigail (Nabby, 1765–1813); John Quincy (b. July 11, 1767–1848); Susanna (Suky, b. December 28, 1768–1770); Charles (b. May 29, 1770–1800); Thomas Boylston (b. September 15, 1772–1832).
Admitted to church membership (1759); married John Adams and took up residence in Braintree (October 25, 1764); suffered through a severe case of whooping cough (1766); managed family and farm during husband's absences to the Continental congresses (1774–77) and during his stay in Europe (1778–84); witnessed Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775); inoculated against smallpox (July 1776); gave birth to a still-born daughter (July 11, 1777); resided in Europe (1784–88); served as wife of the first vice president (1789–97); served as first lady (1797–1801); reigned as matriarch of the Adams family (1801–18).
In a letter dated March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams admonished her husband, away attending to affairs of the Continental Congress, to "Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors." Born into a male-dominated society, this stout-hearted woman spent a lifetime working to overcome the disadvantages suffered by women of her day. Primarily by example, but also through hundreds of letters, she advocated a philosophy that refused to accept female inferiority. Instead, she viewed women and men as partners, each having separate but equal spheres. A woman's sphere was in the home. Adams firmly believed that the wife or mother had a sacred duty to raise the children to a godly and useful life and to be a true and ever-present partner and helpmate to the husband or father whose sphere was outside the home. As she put it, "Nature has assigned to each sex their particular duties and sphere of action." But, given opportunities denied most of her female contemporaries, Abigail Adams also demonstrated convincingly that an intelligent, widely read, widely traveled, high-spirited woman could live a productive, influential, and rewarding life.
Second child of William Smith and Elizabeth Quincy Smith , Abigail's ancestral roots went deep into the rocky soil of colonial Massachusetts. As pastor of the Congregational church in Weymouth, her father occupied a position of influence and respectability among his Puritan neighbors. Upon graduation in 1725 from Harvard, where he developed a love of books, William sought and obtained a pastorate and a wife. On the slender salary afforded ministers and on the proceeds of two small farms, Pastor Smith was able to provide a comfortable but not luxurious living for his growing family. There were always servants to do the menial labor and money enough to purchase books, furniture, and fine china. The Weymouth parsonage provided a comfortable and secure home for Abigail and her siblings.
It was, however, from her mother, Elizabeth Quincy, that Abigail inherited what would pass
as near-aristocratic status in 18th-century New England. For five generations, the Quincys had occupied positions of influence, wealth, and respectability. In 1633, the first Quincy had emigrated from Northamptonshire, England, and would serve as an elected representative of the town of Boston in the first General Court held in Massachusetts. Carrying on this tradition of public service, his grandson, Abigail's maternal grandfather Colonel John Quincy, served for many years as speaker of the House of Representatives.
The Colonel and his wife, Elizabeth Norton Quincy , lived in a spacious mansion some four miles from the Smith parsonage. Frequent and often lengthy stays in Mount Wollaston brought the impressionable young Abigail into contact with the Bay Colony elite. The Puritan values of learning, hard work, and public service exhibited at the Quincy family mansion greatly influenced Abigail during her adolescent years. As she would write repeatedly in later years to children and grandchildren, you should "daily grow in virtue and useful Learning, and be a bright Orniment in Church or State."
Pastor Smith and wife Elizabeth were to have four children: Mary Smith Cranch (1741–1811), Abigail, William "Billy" (1746–1787), and Elizabeth "Betsy" Smith (1750–1815). The three Smith sisters not only grew up together, but remained lifelong friends. Except for the many letters Adams wrote to her husband during periods of separation, the epistles to Mary and Betsy were the most revealing and informative. As for the only son, Billy was a constant disappointment to his family. Unable to gain church membership, denied entrance to Harvard, and unable to stay out of the clutches of the law, Billy would lead a life of dissipation that would be a source of continual comment by his straightlaced sisters. It was rumored that Pastor William Smith's dying breath in 1783 was a plea for Billy's reformation and salvation. William, Jr.'s premature death in the winter of 1787, during Abigail's four-year stay in Europe, was viewed by many, including his sisters, as perhaps the inevitable consequence of a life ill-spent.
Growing up in a family that provided both comfort and security, Adams learned early about the proper role of a woman in 18th-century Massachusetts. The Smith sisters were taught "patient submission" to their duty as wives and mothers. Denied opportunities for formal schooling and relegated to second-class status legally and politically, proper New England women were to provide a secure, loving environment for their husbands and children. Mothers were to set the example of lives spent to further the careers of husbands. They were to be the family educators. Sons were to be taught the rudiments of an education so as to prepare them for formal schooling. Daughters, on the other hand, were to be taught only enough, and usually not formally, to enable them to assume their proper roles as future wives and mothers. Although Abigail Adams generally accepted the subordinate role assigned to females outside the home, she would become an articulate advocate for equality of the sexes within the home. Thus, she expanded significantly on the female role preached by her grandmother and mother.
Smith, Elizabeth Quincy (1721–1775)
Mother of Abigail Adams. Name variations: Elizabeth Quincy. Born in 1721; died in 1775; daughter of Colonel John Quincy (speaker of the House of Representatives) and Elizabeth Norton ; married Reverend William Smith (1706–1783, a pastor); children: Mary Smith Cranch (1741–1811); Abigail Adams (1744–1818); William "Billy" (1746–1787); Elizabeth "Betsy" Smith (1750–1815).
Cranch, Mary Smith (1741–1811)
Sister of Abigail Adams. Name variations: Mary Smith. Born Mary Smith in 1741; died in 1811; daughter of the Reverend William Smith (pastor, 1706–1783) and Elizabeth (Quincy) Smith (1721–1775); sister of Abigail Smith Adams (1744–1818); married Richard Cranch, in 1762; children: three.
Smith, Elizabeth "Betsy" (1750–1815)
Sister of Abigail Adams. Name variations: Betsy Shaw, Betsy Peabody, Betsy Smith. Born in 1750; died in 1815; daughter of the Reverend William Smith (pastor, 1706–1783) and Elizabeth (Quincy) Smith (1721–1775); sister of Abigail Adams (1744–1818); married Reverend John Shaw (died 1794); married Reverend Stephen Peabody.
Adams had no formal education. Instead, she and her sisters were allowed, and even encouraged, to peruse the several scores of books in Pastor Smith's library. Up to the age of 11, Abigail was largely self-taught, though numerous conversations with her learned father undoubtedly aided in her education. In 1755, Richard Cranch came to live with the Smith family. This 30-year-old Harvard graduate became a home tutor to the Smith sisters. He instilled a love of learning that remained with them throughout their eventful and, in the case of Betsy, somewhat tragic lives. Especially after he married Abigail's sister Mary in 1762, Richard Cranch was to open up for the sisters the world of literature and broad-minded religion. As Abigail was to write in old age: "To our dear and venerable Brother Cranch do I attribute my early taste for letters; and for the nurture and cultivation of those qualities which have since afforded me much pleasure, and satisfaction. He it was who put proper Bookes into my hands, who taught me to love the Poets and to distinguish their Merrits." Her writings (there are over 2,000 extant letters) demonstrate the lack of formal training, for her grammar and spelling leave much to be desired. These same writings, however, show that their author possessed a keen mind capable of insightful comment on political, social, economic, and religious topics.
Adams would adopt the mildly liberal but still orthodox religious views of her parson father. Pastor Smith was one of a growing number of New England Congregational clergy who espoused a mild form of Puritanism. Although distrusting the fervent religious enthusiasm of the Great Awakening, these liberal divines rejected the rigid Doctrines of Election and Original Sin. Instead, they preached a rejection of Calvinism by promoting a limited doctrine of free will. It would be this revised and up-dated Puritanism that 14-year-old Abigail Smith embraced as she was admitted to church membership in 1759. Over the years, her religious views would change very little from those learned at her father's knee and at the Weymouth meeting house. These rational utilitarian views were those adopted and practiced by a large number of America's founding fathers, including John Adams. To her dying day, Abigail Smith Adams believed in and practiced a mild form of Puritanism with its emphasis on virtuous living and total submission to an omnipotent deity.
Since marriage and child-bearing were considered the proper roles for young women, Abigail no doubt thought long and hard about the selection of a lifemate. Her husband must be a partner who did not exploit his legal rights to dominance. Abigail apparently met John Adams when she was 15. Though nine years his junior, she undoubtedly saw much of him through his close friendship with Richard Cranch. By 1761, John Adams was making frequent visits to the Weymouth Parsonage. Though friends with all three sisters, the young attorney was paying particular attention to the middle daughter. By 1762, their friendship had blossomed into a romance, which resulted in Abigail's marriage to the ambitious barrister on October 25, 1764—less than a month before her 20th birthday. John brought middle-class respectability to this union, whereas Abigail brought a socially superior family name, a handsome dowry, and prospects for a considerable inheritance.
Ever after 1764, Abigail's name would be inextricably linked with that of John Adams. Their marriage would be one of "hills" and "valleys." The "hills" were those times of togetherness, raising the children and enjoying each other's company intellectually and physically and later in old age the almost 18 years of a comfortable, secure, leisurely retirement at what John was wont to call his "Peacefield," the Adams mansion in what is today Quincy, Massachusetts. The "valleys" were the frequent separations, the first when John attended both the first and second Continental Congresses in far-away Philadelphia. By 1774, when John first traveled with his cousin Samuel Adams to America's largest city, Abigail had become the household manager of the modest but growing Adams estate. Left with the care of four small children and the Adams farm, Abigail handled domestic duties with such efficiency as to allow her ambitious, and often absent, husband to pursue unimpeded both his legal and political careers. The second major "valley" was the agonizing four-year period (1784–88) when her husband and their oldest son were in Europe. In a fit of despair in 1775 during the first long separation, Adams described herself as a "nun in a cloister." For the most part, however, she endured these periods with stoicism.
It was barely nine months after her wedding that Adams gave birth to a daughter. Named Abigail but always called Nabby, she was not only the oldest of the children, but became one of Abigail's closest and dearest friends. Following Nabby were the births of John Quincy in July 1767, Susanna (Suky) in 1768 (she died in early 1770), Charles in 1770, Thomas Boylston in 1772, and a still-born daughter in July 1777.
During the first decade of marriage, Adams was kept busy caring for her young children and supervising the farm work. Despite a hectic schedule, she kept up a lively correspondence, especially with her husband, but also with her sisters and a growing list of letter writers. Her letters to and from Mercy Otis Warren are particularly revealing as to the views they shared on the need for formal female education and on the proper role of women in the newly created American republic. It was in these missives, written in what she called her "untutored Stile," that Abigail revealed her innermost aspirations. Unlike most of her contemporaries, both male and female, she was well-informed, well-read, and quite willing to express her thoughts forcefully and persuasively.
The epistles to and from John Adams are of special interest. They reveal a marriage that was a true partnership. Abigail had indeed found, within her own home, an equality of the sexes. John readily admitted that his talented wife was superior to him in the many facets of "domestic duties." Out of necessity rather than inclination, Abigail balanced the family budget, oversaw the running of the farm, paid the taxes, invested the surplus funds, and purchased land. Often all of this and more was done without benefit of the counsel of her preoccupied or absent husband. In praising his "Farmeress" wife, John wrote that "our Neighbours will think Affairs more discreetly conducted in my Absence than at any other Time."
Determined, however, to be more than a "domestick," she snatched spare moments to read voraciously. Among her favorites were the poems of Alexander Pope, James Thomson, and John Milton. Also read and relished were the works of William Shakespeare and the novels of Samuel Richardson. Richardson seemed to have had a noticeable and profound influence on Adams' thinking about the role of women. With sensitivity and refinement, this English author wrote numerous novels that depicted the struggles and sufferings of women in the 18th-century. In his seven-volumed, Sir Charles Grandison, he created a model husband who allowed his wife equality. Abigail's ideas on marriage seemed to have been gleaned in part from a girlhood reading of this series.
As a young wife and mother, Adams moved frequently during the first years of marriage. Immediately after the wedding, the young couple had moved into the small salt-box home in Braintree that John had inherited from his father. Living as she did just a few feet from John's mother Susan Boylston Adams and a few miles from her parents in Weymouth, Abigail was surrounded and supported by her family. Even after the family moved to Boston in April of 1768, she was still surrounded by family and familiar sights. In her rented home on Brattle Square, she lived near her Uncle Isaac Smith's mansion. In 1771, the growing family moved back to the Adams homestead in Braintree. Soon, however, they returned to Boston, this time acquiring a large brick house in November of 1772. Finally in the summer of 1773, having purchased his father's homestead from his mother (Susan Adams had remarried in 1766 five years after his father's death), John moved back to Braintree. This rustic village (to be renamed Quincy after Abigail's grandfather) was to be Abigail's permanent home for the rest of her life.
I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors…. 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.
—Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31, 1776
Adams, Abigail (1765–1813)
Daughter of Abigail Adams. Name variations: (nickname) Nabby; Abigail Adams Smith. Born July 14, 1765; died of cancer in 1813; daughter of Abigail Adams (1744–1818) and John Adams (U.S. president); sister of John Quincy Adams (U.S. president); married Colonel William Stephens Smith; children: four.
Adams, Susan Boylston (d. 1797)
Mother of John Adams. Born Suzanne or Susan Boylston; died on April 21, 1797; came from a family of some small distinction; married Deacon John Adams (a farmer and cordwainer, who died in 1761); remarried, 1766; children: John Adams (1735–1826, second president of the United States); Peter (b. 1737); Elihu (b. 1741).
By 1776, John had become "Mr. Congress," serving on some 90 congressional committees and chairing some 25. "Mrs. Delegate," as Adams was sometimes called, was proud of her husband. She found quiet satisfaction in knowing that most of his views on public policy and political theory were her views as well. Intellectually, Abigail and John were true partners. Even when she twitted her husband to "Remember the Ladies" just prior to the writing of the Declaration of Independence, John did not totally disagree. Instead, he wrote her of the impracticality of her "radical" idea. He also agreed with his wife when she mildly admonished him to "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."
In 1784, Abigail finally gave in to John's pleas to join him in Europe. She bade farewell to friends and family—two of her sons were to continue their education at Haverhill—and departed in June from Boston in the company of Nabby and two servants. Up to this time, Adams had never traveled more than 50 miles from Braintree. She was now fulfilling a girlhood dream to see the mother country. As she wrote to John a few weeks before departure, her sex and station had not afforded "the least prospect of gratifying that inclination" to see England. In typical fashion, Abigail, after suffering from a ten-day siege of seasickness, took charge of the cleaning of the vessel and of instructing the ship's cook on how to prepare more appetizing meals. These domestic tasks and reading enabled the frequently seasick Abigail to survive what was described as a hard crossing.
After a brief reunion with her oldest son John Quincy in London (Abigail had not seen him since 1779), Abigail, Nabby, and John Quincy set out for Paris. Following a tearful reunion with her husband, Abigail and family moved into a villa in Auteuil, a village near Versailles. Although she described Paris as the "very dirtiest place" she had ever seen and was seemingly shocked by the moral "looseness" everywhere apparent, she came to enjoy her brief stay in the French capital. However, in 1785, John Adams was appointed the first United States minister to the Court of St. James and the family moved to London, which was to be home for almost four years.
Abigail's managerial skills were sorely tested as "Mrs. Ambassador." She found a suitable house on Grosvenor Square and soon was overseeing a household that included eight servants. The Adamses did not entertain lavishly. Instead, Abigail preferred to give small informal dinner parties. As one visitor related after dining with the American minister and his accomplished wife, the "dinner was plain, neat, and good." On the meager allowance and salary afforded American diplomats, Adams was surprisingly able to balance her household budget.
While in England, she took full advantage of the many cultural and historical attractions in and around London. Despite her Puritan upbringing, she found that she enjoyed going to the theater. Her favorite actress was the celebrated Mrs. Sarah Siddons . She particularly admired Siddons because she was a woman who happily combined a professional career with that of a home. There were also trips to the famous Roman resort town of Bath and to nearby castles and formal English gardens. With the frequent entertaining, periodic visits to Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz 's "circle," and serving as John's soundingboard, the London years went by quickly for the increasingly homesick wife. In 1787, as the family prepared to return to America, Abigail and John learned that her uncle, Cotton Tufts, had been successful in purchasing for them the Vassall-Borland House in Braintree. As one of the finest houses in the village, this would become the "Peacefield" of their retirement years.
Arriving home, the Adamses were greeted with adoration and acclaim. There was speculation that John Adams would take a leading role in the establishment of the new government created by the recently ratified Constitution of 1787. As it turned out, he received the second highest number of electoral votes (George Washington was the unanimous choice of every elector and thus was elected president) and thereby became the first vice president. As the first second lady, Adams performed her official duties with the same efficiency shown earlier in managing the Massachusetts farm. She shared her husband's admiration for the president and for Martha Washington , the first lady. John, in a public way, and Abigail, privately, supported the Washington policy of neutrality in foreign affairs and the Washington-Hamilton financial program. With the impending retirement of George Washington in 1796, John Adams became the heir-apparent. Running against his former good friend and colleague Thomas Jefferson, John was narrowly elected the second president of the United States.
As first lady, Abigail patterned her public demeanor after that of the mild-mannered, amiable, non-controversial Martha. In private, however, she was more outspoken and caustic. In sharing her husband's political conservatism, Abigail became particularly critical of Jefferson, the man she had once characterized as "one of the most estimable characters on earth." Along with his Virginia neighbor and good friend James Madison, Jefferson, although vice president under Adams, had founded the opposition Republican Party. In an earlier time, Abigail had carried on an extensive correspondence with the multitalented Virginian. She appeared to be one of the few women Jefferson related to on an intellectual level. Their correspondence, carried on primarily in the 1780s when Jefferson was in France and the Adamses were in England, showed Abigail to be a keen observer. As vice president, Jefferson became the leader of the party that opposed John's reelection in 1800. To Abigail, as to her husband, Thomas Jefferson had indeed fallen from grace. The controversial election of 1800 resulted in Jefferson becoming president and John Adams being returned to private life. The two founding fathers, formerly close friends and colleagues, remained estranged until 1812, when a mutual friend convinced them to resume a correspondence that would last almost to the day of their death. They both died on July 4, 1826.
Returning at last to her Quincy homestead, Abigail once again took up management of the farm, this time with the active help of her husband. She described John as the "farmer" and herself as the "dairy-woman." Through diligence and frugality, Abigail was able to make ends meet. Indeed, the Adamses were one of the few founding fathers' families to remain debt-free during the years of public service and retirement.
The "Peacefield" years after 1801 were generally happy ones. Always of delicate health, Abigail had survived whooping cough in the spring of 1766, at least one epidemic of dysentery in 1775, a smallpox inoculation in 1776, numerous bouts of "melancholy," and frequent malarial fever attacks. Now in retirement, she was increasingly "sickly," rarely missing a year in which she did not have to spend weeks and even months in bed. Most of these "medical adventures" were probably malaria attacks or arthritis and rheumatism. She endured these disabilities with accustomed fortitude.
In retirement, Adams kept in close touch with her growing family. Nabby had married the personable Colonel William Stephens Smith. There were four children born to this union. However, the Colonel had a hard time providing for his family. Nabby spent years alone with the children as her husband tried to live up to the high expectations of his in-laws. Tragically, Nabby died of cancer in 1813, leaving her three surviving children to the care of Abigail and John.
Adams was extremely proud of her oldest son. Under his mother's care and instruction, John Quincy had displayed a precociousness that augured well for future preferment. Both Abigail and John observed with obvious pride as their oldest son served as minister to Prussia, as U.S. senator from Massachusetts, as chief negotiator drawing up the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812, as U.S. minister to England, and finally as secretary of state under President James Monroe. Thus, Abigail lived long enough to see her son assume the position that had become the traditional stepping-stone to the presidency.
Her second son was to cause great grief. Charles drank himself into an early grave in 1800. His untimely death left his daughter Susanna Boylston Adams to be raised by Abigail and John. The third son Thomas Boylston, against the advice of both parents, became a lawyer. With seven children to raise, his life was one of constant struggle and deprivation.
Throughout her adult life, Adams had maintained a close relationship with both of her sisters. Mary's three children were frequent visitors to the Adams home. The almost simultaneous deaths of Mary and Richard Cranch in 1811 would devastate Abigail. Although not destitute, the Cranch family had lived a life of "genteel sufficiency." However, the young sister Betsy lived a life of "genteel poverty." Her first marriage to the amiable but nearly impoverished Reverend John Shaw was followed, after his death in 1794, with her marriage to the equally amiable and equally nearly impoverished Reverend Stephen Peabody.
Adams, Susanna Boylston
Eldest daughter of Charles Adams and Sarah Smith Adams (1769–1828).
By October 1818, after years of frequent illnesses and confinements, the increasingly feeble Abigail contracted typhus fever. After a two-week siege, she died on October 28th, just a few weeks before her 74th birthday. Her legacies were determination, achievement, and example. As John Quincy wrote soon after his mother's death, "Her life gave the lie to every libel on her sex that was ever written."
Akers, Charles W. Abigail Adams: An American Woman. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980.
Levin, Phyllis Lee. Abigail Adams: A Biography. New York; St. Martin's Press, 1987.
Whitney, Janet. Abigail Adams. Boston: Little, Brown, 1947.
Withey, Lynne. Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams. NY: The Free Press, 1981.
Adam, James Truslow. The Adams Family. Boston: Little, Brown, 1930.
Nagel, Paul C. The Adams Women: Abigail and Louisa Adams, Their Sisters and Daughters. NY: University Press, 1987.
——. Descent from Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Adam Papers, Microfilms, 1639–1889, the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, 1954–1959, 609 reels.
Joseph C. Morton , Professor of History, Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago, Illinois