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Profiles in Greatness: Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams was a voice for women’s rights,
abolition and independence at a time when
most women’s voices were silent. As wife
to the second U.S. president and mother to
the sixth, she had a profound effect on the
burgeoning nation.
“Here I can serve my partner, my family and
myself, and enjoy the satisfaction of your
serving your country.”

Born Abigail Quincy Smith in Weymouth, Mass., on Nov. 11,
1744, Abigail was one of four children. Her father was a
Congregational minister. Despite the fact that women were not
given formal education, Abigail spent a great deal of time in her
father’s library and studying at the knee of her esteemed maternal
grandfather, Col. John Quincy. She was in poor health for much
of her childhood, so most of her time was spent reading and
writing letters. She taught herself French and studied theology,
history, government, law, philosophy and the classics. However,
she felt deprived of a formal education, and later in her life, she
became a vocal advocate for the equal education of girls.

Abigail began a friendship with future president John Adams
when she was still a teen. At 26, he was in Boston pursuing a
law career and became a frequent visitor to the Smith home,
where he found young Abigail to be his intellectual equal, a
woman who loved to discuss politics and literature. Their longdistance
courtship inspired the first of what became a collection
of more than 1,100 letters over the next five decades. They were
married in 1764; Abigail called her new husband her “dearest
and best friend.”
“Alas! How many snow banks divide thee and
me, and my warmest wishes to see thee will
not melt one of them.”

The newlyweds lived in Braintree on John’s small farm, and
over the next few years rented homes in Boston as well. Abigail
gave birth to five children, including John Quincy Adams in
1767, who would become the sixth president of the United States.
In 1774, her husband, whose reputation in the legal community
had grown, left for Philadelphia to serve as a delegate to the fi rst
Continental Congress. Over the next 10 years, John’s political
career kept him away from home, and most of Abigail’s communication
with her husband was through letters.

She took on the duties of running their farm in Braintree
and raising their five children. As a manager of the farming
business—a unique position for a woman at that time—Abigail
excelled. “I hope in time to have the reputation of being as good
a farmeress as my partner has of being a good statesman,” she
wrote in 1776. Years after she had left to join John in Europe,
she continued to manage the farm and dairy operations long
distance. Her business acumen resulted in annual profits for
most of the couple’s life together.

Abigail also tutored her children at home when they were
younger, and as they started school, she often noted in her
letters her dissatisfaction with the educational discrimination
against girls. To make up for the inequality, she spent a great
deal of time ensuring that her daughters received the education
she was denied.
“Remember the ladies, and be more generous
and favorable to them than your ancestors.”

As John played an active role in the formation of the United
States, Abigail engaged in lively debate with her husband over
the issues she saw as imperative to the success of the new
nation. One of these was the equality of women in American
society. She wrote to John: “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 ferment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves
bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.”

Although neither John nor the other men writing the Declaration
of Independence were swayed by her arguments, Abigail created
some of the earliest-known writings calling for women’s equality,
and she continued to speak out against restrictions on women. She
did not allow her domestic position to limit her; rather, she took the
opportunity to continue her education, to develop business skills
running the household and farm, and to become an example of
female abilities and potential in a society that limited women to the
domestic sphere.
“A people may let a king fall, yet still remain a
people: But if a king lets his people slip from him,
he is no longer a king. And this is most certainly
our case. Why not proclaim to the world, in
decisive terms, your
own independence?”

As the colonies fought for
their independence, Abigail,
along with a few other prominent
women, was appointed the Massachusetts Colony Court in 1775 to investigate loyalty of colonial women were charged with fighting
independence.

She also continued her farm and as an unofficial advisor whose political career expanded internationally.
In 1784, she joined and a year later, he became ambassador
to Great Britain. Abigail was required
to fill the social role of the ambassador’s wife, a difficult task in the
face of lingering hostilities.

The couple returned to Massachusetts in 1788, and the following
year, John became the first vice president of the new nation. Abigail
and Mrs. Washington were good friends, and her experience in
social circles abroad made her an invaluable diplomatic asset.
“I have sometimes been ready to think that the
passion for liberty cannot be equally strong in the
breasts of those who have been accustomed to
deprive their fellow creatures of theirs.”

In 1797, John was elected president of the United States. He relied
more than ever on Abigail’s counsel, writing, “I never wanted your
advice and assistance more in my life.”

Abigail continued to make her arguments for women’s equality
and was also vocal in her opposition to slavery and racial discrimination.
When a free African-American boy asked her to help him
learn to read, she began to tutor him. When she sent him to evening
school to continue his education, a neighbor complained of his presence.
Abigail told the neighbor it was an issue 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?” Her support allowed the boy to
continue in school.

As first lady, Abigail hosted official dinners and receptions, as well
as one of the first Fourth of July celebrations in Washington, D.C.
Her opinions were mentioned alongside her husband’s in the press,
and she wrote numerous letters expressing her political leanings.
Her high visibility and participation in diplomatic and political
events led one newspaper to dub her “Mrs. President.”

After John lost his bid for a second term, the couple returned
to Quincy, Mass., in 1801. She spent her last years tutoring
her grandchildren and watching son John Quincy build a
promising political career. However, she passed away in
1818, six years before he was elected president. Her legacy
in letters reveals a unique woman, one who was strong,
intelligent and fiercely American.

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