Adams advocated and modeled an expanded role for women in public
affairs during the formative days of the United States. Married
to John Adams, she was an invaluable partner to him as he developed
his political career, culminating in the presidency of the United
States. She left a voluminous correspondence, providing information
on everyday life and insight into the activities in the corridors
of power during her time. Her letters show her to have been a
woman of keen intelligence, resourceful, competent, self-sufficient,
willful, vivacious, and opinionated—a formidable force.
Her writing reveals a dedication to principle, a commitment to
rights for women and for African-Americans, fierce partisanship
in matters of her husband's and her family's interest, and an
irreverent sense of humor.
in the parsonage of the North Parish Congregational Church of
Weymouth to the Rev. William Smith and Elizabeth Quincy, Abigail
was raised simply and without pretension, though her relatives,
especially on her mother's side, were among the leading families
of their time. To her great regret, she received no formal schooling.
She certainly benefited from the many books and the lively conversation
in the parsonage. Her lack of education later embarrassed her.
She was self-conscious about her inability to spell and punctuate
properly or to speak or read French. Even so, Abigail was a devoted
reader of history and an astute judge of its impact upon her own
father, William Smith (1707-1783), was a liberal Congregationalist,
who often exchanged pulpits with his friend, Ebenezer Gay. Smith
was an Arminian. He did not preach the doctrines of predestination,
original sin, or the full divinity of Christ. Rather, he emphasized
the importance of reason and morality in religious life. This
simple faith his daughter Abigail confessed when she was received
into membership in the Weymouth church on June 24, 1759.
same year, Abigail Smith met John Adams. By 1762 they were exchanging
frankly affectionate love letters full of mischievous humor. Their
wedding, on October 25, 1764, began one of history's great partnerships.
They were lovers, friends, counselors, and mentors to one another
into old age. John did not resent his wife's abilities to manage
a farm and raise a family without him during his long absences
on the nation's business. Rather, he took considerable pride in
her accomplishments. He told her she was so successful in budgeting,
planting, managing staff, regulating live-stock, buying provisions,
nursing and educating her children, that their neighbors would
surely remark on how much better things seemed to go in his absence.
From 1783-88, Abigail accompanied her husband on diplomatic missions
to France and England. Afterwards, she was glad to return to their
farm in Braintree (Quincy). She told Thomas
Jefferson she preferred
her farm to "the court of St. James, where I seldom meet
with characters so inoffensive as my hens and chickens, or minds
so well improved as my garden."
A visit below the Mason-Dixon line strengthened Abigail's conviction,
passionately shared by her husband, that slavery was not only
evil, but a threat to the American democratic experiment. Neither
John nor Abigail had any use for Southern slavery accommodationists.
On March 31, 1776, Abigail wrote that she doubted the distinguished
Virginians in the corridors of power had quite the "passion
for Liberty" they claimed, since they had been used to "depriving
their fellow Creatures" of freedom.
February 13, 1791, she wrote to her husband regarding a black
servant boy who had come to her asking to go to school to learn
to write. Abigail enrolled the boy in a local evening school.
A neighbor reported serious objections of several people to the
black boy's presence. Swiftly Abigail responded that the boy was
"a Freeman as much as any of the young Men and merely because
his Face is Black, is he to be denied instruction? How is he to
be qualified to procure a livelihood? . . . I have not thought
it any disgrace to my self to take him into my parlor and teach
him both to read and write." No further complaints were made.
Abigail spoke up for married women's property rights and more
opportunities for women, particularly in education. She believed
that women should not submit to laws clearly not made in their
interest. Women should not content themselves with the role of
being decorous companions to their husbands. They should educate
themselves and be recognized for their intellectual capabilities,
for their ability to shoulder responsibilities of managing household,
family, and financial affairs, and for their capacity morally
to guide and influence the lives of their children and husbands.
Although she did not insist on full female enfranchisement, in
her celebrated letter of March, 1776, she exhorted her husband
to "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."
1798, during Adams's term in the presidency, Abigail was concerned
about the influence of the French revolution and troubled by rumors
of a forthcoming French invasion of America. She urged her husband
to declare war on France. Upset by criticism of her husband and
herself in the Republican press for having appointed relatives
to important posts, she wrote that "the Liberty of the press
is become licentious beyond any former period." Although
the president and the Congress hesitated to go to war, Congress
passed the repressive Alien and Sedition Acts. The Sedition Act
allowed those who criticized the policies of John Adams to be
tried for sedition and possibly treason. Disturbingly, Abigail
approved. Adams's opponents thought that Abigail's partisanship
was too overt and her influence on the president too great. Hence
their references to "Her Majesty."
her last few months as First Lady, the Adams' moved into the unfinished
White House, a cavernous structure so cold and damp that fires
had to be kept lit constantly to make a few rooms habitable. Abigail
set up a laundry in one of the great rooms, with clothes lines
spanning its vast space. In these challenging and uncomfortable
circumstances Abigail showed her usual good cheer and refusal
to feel sorry for herself.
leaving public life in 1800, John and Abigail enjoyed a productive
retirement at their homestead in Braintree. They took pleasure
in their son John Quincy Adams's rise to prominence, as a U.S.
Senator, then minister to Russia, and in 1817 as James Monroe's
Secretary of State. They worried about the errant ways of their
sons Thomas and Charles and were concerned about their beloved
daughter Nabby's profligate and spendthrift husband. On the whole,
however, they took much pleasure in their family, their prospering
farm and their community.
and Abigail Adams were active members of the First Parish Church
in Quincy, which was already Unitarian in doctrine by 1753. Although
she did not sign the membership book (John did), she attended
the church, supported it, and showed active concern and care for
its ministry. She is a celebrated figure in her congregation's
tradition. Abigail's theology is clearly stated in her correspondence.
Writing to her son, John Quincy Adams, on May 5, 1816, she said,
"I acknowledge myself a Unitarian—Believing that the
Father alone, is the supreme God, and that Jesus Christ derived
his Being, and all his powers and honors from the Father….There
is not any reasoning which can convince me, contrary to my senses,
that three is one, and one three." On January 3, 1818, writing
to her daughter-in-law, Louisa, Abigail wondered "when will
Mankind be convinced that true Religion is from the Heart, between
Man and his creator, and not the imposition of Man or creeds and
tests?" Like many early Unitarians she discounted sectarian
claims and was "assured that those who fear God and work
righteousness shall be accepted of him, and that I presume of
what ever sect or persuasion."
in October, 1818, Abigail fell ill with typhus and died several
weeks later. She was buried in the cemetery of First Church in