Abigail Adams Juvenile/Educational Biography
Abigail Smith Adams
(November 11, 1744 o.s. – October 28, 1818)
As a keen observer of life around her, of the political climate, of the morals of her age, and of kings and commoners, Abigail Adams left a legacy second to none in her letters to her husband, her children, and her friends. As a woman, a mother, and a helpmate to her husband, her life was unusual in its depth, its experiences, and its opportunities to make the keen observations for which she is known. Today we delight in her succinct remarks, her piercing insights, and her obvious and undeniable intelligence. If at times she was harsh and judgmental in her views, she could change her mind upon reflection. Time and age would soften some of the sharper edges of her spirit without dimming her intelligence. As an observer of her times, her sex, and her nation, Abigail Adams was unique.
Birth, Youth, and Marriage
Abigail Quincy Smith was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, a coastal town south of Boston, to the Congregational minister, William Smith, and his wife. Abigail’s mother, Elizabeth Quincy Smith, was descended from the prominent Quincys, a family of great prestige in the colony. In this society, the clergy was held in high esteem. Abigail, the second of four children, was not a healthy child. This fact, coupled with the typical eighteenth century practice of refusing to educate females beyond reading, penmanship, sums (arithmetic), and music, led Abigail’s inquisitive mind to her father’s extensive library under his tutelage. And there, she educated herself. In fact, in later letters, she referred to herself as “an eager gatherer.” Conversation in the parsonage was lively and varied, and it is clear from surviving letters that all the Smith daughters were familiar with Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, and Thomson, with the periodical and travel literature of the eighteenth century, and with the popular sermon writers and moralists of their own and preceding ages. Abigail managed to teach herself French, but she never mastered Latin.
During the summer prior to her fifteenth birthday, her father noted in his diary that he had received his daughter Abigail into full membership in the church. She remained an adherent of the Congregational faith her entire life. Later that same summer, her future brother-in-law introduced her to the young Harvard graduate, John Adams, who was embarking on a law career in Boston. They found in each other like minds for the classics, literature, and politics, and he became a frequent visitor to the parsonage. By early 1762, John and Abigail were exchanging love letters marked by their gaiety and lack of inhibition. Two years later, on October 25, 1764, Abigail Smith and John Adams were married. This was a marriage of the mind and of the heart during which they deemed each other “dearest and best friend.” It lasted for over half a century.
Home, Family, and the Revolutionary War
The young couple lived in the saltbox “cottage” on John’s small farm in Braintree (now present-day Franklin Street in Quincy) or in Boston. He was just getting a foothold in the highly competitive legal profession in a city that became the center of American defiance of British rule. During the next ten years, five children were born: Abigail (1765-1813), future president John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), Susanna (1768-1770), Charles (1770-1800), and Thomas Boylston Adams (1772-1832). A sixth child, born in 1778, was stillborn.
Both Abigail and John supported the colonists’ cause. John’s solid reputation and tireless ambition drew him increasingly into the public eye. In August of 1774, John left Boston for Philadelphia where he was to serve as a delegate to the first Continental Congress. For the next ten years, he and Abigail seldom lived together except for brief intervals because of his political career and foreign service. As a result of his absences, the full responsibility of the home, the farm, and the children fell to Abigail. She was both thrifty and capable. She educated her “little flock” but admitted that she was “in need of the constant assistance of my Better half.” In addition, she became the manager of her husband’s farming and business affairs. In a time of war and the accompanying economic disruption, these became burdensome. She wrote to John in 1776, “I hope in time to have the Reputation of being as good a Farmeress as my partner has of being a good Statesman.” She bought farm stock, hired help, coped with argumentative tenants when refugees from wartime Boston overran Braintree, bought advantageous bits of farmland and woodlands, and paid bills. Even after she joined John in Europe and later when she lived in New York and Philadelphia, she directed the farm and dairy operations by correspondence. She became so skilled, in fact, that her grandson Charles credited her prudence and ability in this role with saving his grandfather from the financial ruin that came to so many of their contemporaries who gave up their lives to public service.
Early in her married life, she accepted the “domestic” role as part of a woman’s world. However, she repeatedly spoke out against the restrictions women faced. In a letter to John dated March 31, 1776, she pleaded with her husband and his associates in Congress to “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 [sic] care and attention is not paid to the Laidies [sic] we are determined to foment a Rebelion, [sic] and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”
Although she may have been teasing John in the letter cited above, Abigail viewed this subject quite seriously. She noticed and commented on the discrimination between boys and girls, especially with respect to education. She stated in 1778 that she could only attribute the discrimination to men’s “ungenerous jealosy [sic] of rivals near the Throne.” She saw to it that her daughters received a good education, the lack of which she felt in her own life. She was embarrassed by her lack of consistent spelling and appropriate punctuation, and her barely legible penmanship.
She was equally strong in views about racial discrimination. A short visit south of the Mason-Dixon Line ratified her lifelong conviction that slavery was wholly evil. In a letter to John dated February of 1797, she described how she had sent a black servant boy, at his own request, to an evening school to learn “ciphering.” She had already taught him to read and write in her parlor. When a respectable neighbor came to report the serious objections of others to the young man’s presence, Abigail defended the principle of “equality of Rights. The Boy is 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 parlour and teach him both to read and write.” In the face of such a strong argument, no further complaints were made.
The White House Years
In 1784, Abigail joined John at his diplomatic post in Paris. A year later when John became Ambassador to Great Britain, she filled the difficult role of wife of our first ambassador to our former sovereign after the loss of the American colonies. This she did with tact and dignity, despite the repeated rudeness and social discourtesies with which she was treated by the English monarchs, George III and his wife, Queen Charlotte. In later years, Abigail wrote, “Humiliation for Charlotte is no sorrow for me.”
The couple happily returned to their new home in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, in 1788. In 1789, John became the first Vice President of the newly constituted United States. Abigail became a good friend to Mrs. Washington and a valued help in official entertaining because she was able to draw on her experience in the courts and society abroad. However, after 1791, poor health forced her to spend as much time in Quincy as possible. When John was elected President in1797, he begged her to join him immediately. “I never wanted your Advice and assistance more in my life.” Later he wrote, “The Times are critical and dangerous, and I must have you here to assist me.”
At long last, she was well enough to join him and continue the formal pattern of entertaining begun by Mrs. Washington. This despite the primitive conditions Abigail found in the newly constructed city of Washington, DC, when she arrived in November of 1800. The city was in the wilderness and few streets were laid out. Not many of those were paved. The President’s House (now called the White House) was not yet completed. In fact, servants hauled water to the house from a park five city blocks away and Abigail hung laundry to dry in what became the East Room! “We had not the least fence, yard or other convenience without, and the great unfinished audience room, I made a drying room of—nor were there enough lusters or lamps, so candles were stuck here and there for light.” Neither the main staircase nor the outer steps were completed, so Abigail and John entered the White House by means of temporary wooden stairs and a platform. But for the three months she was in the new capitol city, Abigail duly held the dinners and receptions required of her. Monday night receptions were open to everyone and the formal dinners for members of Congress were held on Wednesday evenings. She also planned and hosted one of the first Fourth of July celebrations in Washington, DC.
Late in John’s term as President, he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. John relied on Abigail for political advice and as a sounding board, and signing the Acts was a move that Abigail vigorously supported. These four acts placed restrictions on aliens who wanted to become citizens, treated aliens as enemies in times of war, and censured the press. These acts, especially the last one, proved extremely unpopular with the public and were used against John in his bid for reelection. His former friend and now bitter enemy, Thomas Jefferson, soundly defeated him.
The Later Years
The couple returned to their home in Quincy, Massachusetts, in February of 1801, where they spent their remaining years. For the first time in their thirty-six year marriage, they lived together without the pressures and demands of political life or long separations. Her last years were happy ones, filled with grandchildren and watching her son John Quincy’s blossoming career in politics and diplomacy. She was the first of only two women to be the wife and mother of presidents. Her intervention resulted in the resumption of the correspondence between her beloved husband and his former friend Thomas Jefferson. The result was a renewed and deepened friendship between the two giants of our Revolutionary War and early independence period.
But all was not well for Abigail; her son Charles had died just before the election of 1800, her daughter Abigail (“Nabby”) died of cancer in 1813, and her own health began to slip. When she fell ill with typhoid fever, she did not have the strength to combat it, and she died on October 28, 1818. She thought she had lived long enough to become, to use her word, a “curiosity.” She is buried at the First Church of Quincy, Massachusetts.
The legacy of Abigail Adams is that of a witty, intelligent woman whose keen insight and observations help us to clearly see a bygone age. Her letters, whether speaking of the smoke and carnage of the Battle of Bunker Hill, or of the Parisians and their pursuit of pleasure, or of the cry “Remember the Ladies” let us know, appreciate, and come to admire a most remarkable woman of any era. She was extraordinary not only for what she did and whom she married, but also for what she was. She has a unique and formidable place is our nation’s history—as a wife, as a First Lady, as a woman, and as an American.