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Wifery in Action: Abigail Adams

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In his Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, Founding Brothers, Joseph Ellis names Abigail Adams as one of the eight most prominent political leaders in early America alongside such greats as her husband, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. (It almost goes without saying that she is the only woman on his list.) Her loyalty to her husband, devotion to their common cause, and excellence as a wife and mother make her a beautiful example of Wifery in Action.

Meeting Her Soulmate

Young Abigail’s parents considered her too sickly for formal schooling, so her mother taught her at home. She greedily devoured the works of John Milton, Alexander Pope, and William Shakespeare. By the time she was 17, she knew enough about poetry, philosophy, and politics to catch the eye of her clever and ambitious third-cousin, John Adams.

John and Abigail soon began to write to each other, a tradition they upheld during each of his frequent absences for the next fifty years. In their earliest correspondence, Adam’s wrote to his “Diana,” the virgin goddess of the moon. She returned letters to her “Lysander,” the Spartan hero of the Peloponnesian War. After they married and matured, Abigail addressed letters to “My Dearest Friend,” and signed her letters, “Portia,” wife of the Roman statesman Brutus.

Life as a Young Wife

As John’s wife, Abigail managed the farm and served as head of the household when John was away. A good New England housekeeper, she rose at five to sew, bake, feed livestock, and churn butter. All her life, through the rampant inflation of the Revolutionary War and the ostentation of diplomatic life in Paris, she strove to be frugal and avoid taking on debt.

But Abigail was more than a housekeeper and lover for John. She was his adviser and confidant as well. John actively sought out his wife’s advice and reproofs. “Send more,” he once asked her after a written rebuke, “There is more good thoughts, fine strokes, and mother wit in them than I hear in the whole week.” Later, after his election to the Presidency, he wrote to her, “You must leave the farm to the mercy of the wind. I can do nothing without you.”

The Founding Mother

Leaders of the American Revolution were familiar enough with—and impressed enough by—Abigail that they respected her opinion when she chose to share it. She used some of her influence to promote women’s rights, asking by letter that the Continental Congress “…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.” She strongly encouraged women to educate themselves so that men would recognize their intellectual abilities.

After her husband was elected President, Abigail was the first First Lady to preside over the White House (albeit for a very short time after Jefferson was the presumptive winner of the 1800 election). She took an active, informal role in her husband’s administration—so much so that her political enemies dubbed her “Mrs. President.” When Abigail had to return to Massachusetts to recover from a lingering illness, newspaper writers saw such a difference in his policy making that they said he had lost his wits.

Out of the Public Eye

Abigail was always John’s staunchest supporter. She wrote to Benjamin Franklin after hearing rumors that he was “blacking” her husband’s character, saying, “When he is wounded, I bleed.” Through the course of his Presidential administration, John and Thomas Jefferson become bitter enemies. Knowing how important Jefferson’s friendship was to her husband, Abigail is the one who reinitiated contact with Jefferson. She never apologized for her husband, whom she considered to be entirely in the right, but insisted that Jefferson himself make amends.

When Abigail lay on her deathbed, John told those who stood beside him, “I wish I could lay down beside her and die, too.” Her last words were, “Do not grieve, my dearest friend. I am ready to go. And John, it will not be long.

Abigail’s Legacy

After his mother’s death, her son John Quincy (who later became President himself) wrote about her in his diary:

“My mother… was a minister of blessing to all human beings within her sphere of action… She had no feelings but of kindness and beneficence. Yet her mind was as firm as her temper was mild and gentle. She… has been to me more than a mother. She has been a spirit from above watching over me for good, and contributing by my mere consciousness of her existence, to the comfort of my life… Never have I known another human being, the perpetual object of whose life, was so unremittingly good.”

Abigail’s legacy is not only an invaluable contribution to American independence, but also a model for generations of wives to follow:

  • Great wives take their education into their own hands. Even without formal schooling, Abigail had one of the greatest minds of early America—male or female. She could quote poetry better than her husband and her letters demonstrate more eloquent writing than his. She never stopped learning and encouraged other women to educate themselves as well.
  • Great wives aren’t afraid to challenge their husbands to be better. Abigail was her husband’s strongest supporter, but she wasn’t afraid to admit his faults and challenge him to overcome them. John himself sought her critiques and advice about how he could be a more effective statesman and better person.
  • Great wives know how to help their husbands balance work and family. Even though it was at great personal cost, Abigail suffered John’s frequent absences with as much joy as she could muster. She ran the family farm and educated their children, contributing to his important work in her own way. But Abigail also reminded John that the family’s sacrifice demanded his best efforts; she wrote to him, “I must entreat you to be as careful as you can consistently with the duty you owe your country. That consideration, alone, prevailed with me to consent to your departure.” When she really needed John to come home, she told him so. He nearly always obliged.
  • Great wives stand up for themselves. Abigail never stooped to manipulating her husband through guilt, but she never hid her suffering from her husband, either. She always told him when she missed him, when she wanted to hear more from him, and when she needed him. She wrote to him in 1775 about his devotion to the public good that, “Being part of the public, I lay claim to a larger share than I have had.”
  • And great marriages are partnerships. It isn’t without reason that Ellis dubbed Abigail one of the most prominent political leaders in early America. Abigail did more than manage the responsibilities of their household so John could focus on his work. Abigail also listened and contributed to John’s ideas, which he carried with him as Continental Congressman, Ambassador to France, writer of the Massachusetts constitution, and finally Vice-President and President of the United States. Like the Lavoisiers, John and Abigail Adams worked together to accomplish something great.

Read more about Abigail Adams in The Letters of John and Abigail Adams from Experimental Wifery’s List of 100 Books Every Woman Should Read.  Joseph Ellis’ Founding Brothers and David McCullough’s John Adams are also wonderful resources to learn about Abigail and John’s life together.

2 responses »

  1. I’ve been absent from your blog for the past few weeks, and wasn’t disappointed at all when I finally returned. All of your recent posts have been up to your usual standards (which are excellent) but I really enjoyed this one. It is so inspiring to hear about these incredible women who overcame the odds and societal expectations (and limitations) to become amazing wives, mothers and leaders.

    At times I get frustrated over how small and menial anything I do or accomplish in my life is… But reading your article reminded me how nothing done with love and devotion goes unappreciated. The quote by her son John Quincy was particularly moving – I just hope one day, when I have children of my own, I will have impacted my son or daughter in such a positive way.

  2. That’s a beautiful thought, Karen. I need reminding sometimes that the mundane things I do have purpose. (It’s hard to remember when I’m cleaning my son’s dinner off the floor again!)

    We’ve missed you. Welcome back!


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