Abigail Adams – First Lady and First Feminist
Abigail was born Abigail Smith in Weymouth, Ma on Nov. 11, 1744 to Elizabeth Quincy Smith and William Smith.
Young Abigail Smith was romantic, energetic and intelligent, at the same time shy and very determined, a mix that seemed to always lead to her being in trouble and causing mischief.
She was educated at home, only young men were given formal training but, she overcame this minor setback by the use of her maternal grandfather’s extensive library. Miss Smith excelled in academics with a preference for math, philosophy, and government. With no formal education, she was very 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 time.
Abigail and John
Abigail had known John Adams her entire life, after all, they were third cousins. That relationship did not stop him from professing his love and asking for her hand.
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 livestock, buying provisions, nursing and educating her children, that their neighbors would surely remark on how much better things seemed to go in his absence.
Abigail as Our Founder
Abigail Adams is known for many accomplishments, but a favored recount is of her melting down her pewter dinnerware and household items to make ammunition for the soldiers during the Revolutionary War.
Around the time of the Revolutionary War, Abigail Adams served the Massachusetts Colony General Court who commissioned her, along with a few other women, to talk to ladies in the area who were loyal to the British. This was only the first of her dealings with women’s influence in politics.
Abigail’s Famous Letters
Because Abigail and her husband were away from each other often for extended periods, the two of them corresponded through lengthy letters. In some of these letters, Abigail urged her husband, during the days surrounding the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War, to pay attention to the rights of women. She believed women’s rights should be equal to those of the men. She did not bring the founding fathers around to her way of thinking, but she continued to campaign for various equalities for females, including the right to a formal education.
Abigail continued to speak 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 and that women should not content themselves with the role of being decorous companions to their husbands. She believed women 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 to morally guide and influence the lives of their children and husbands. Although Abigail 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.”
A trip to southern areas strengthened Abigail’s conviction, passionately shared by her husband, that slavery was not only evil, but a threat to the American freedom 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.
In 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 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. In what was seen as disturbing, Abigail approved. Adams’s opponents expressed that Abigail’s partisanship was too overt and her influence on the president too great.
Excerpts from Abigail’s letters to her husband…depicted as they were written, highlighted font added for emphasis:
I wish most sincerely there was not a slave in this province. It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me — to fight for ourselves what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.
November 1775 (The famous “Remember the Ladies” letter)
I long to hear that you have declared an independency.
And by the way, in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would
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 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.
That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend.
Why, then, not put it out of the power of the
vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and
indignity with impunity? Men of Sense in all
Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as
the vassals of your sex; regard us then as Beings
placed by Providence under your protection, and
in imitation of the Supreme Being make use of
that power only for our happiness.
Whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to men, emancipating all nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over wives. But you must remember that arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken — and notwithstanding all your wise laws and maxims we have it in our power not only to free ourselves but to subdue our masters, and without violence throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet.
If you complain of neglect of Education in sons, what shall I say with regard to daughters, who every day experience the want of it?
With regard to the Education of my own children, I find myself soon out of my depth, destitute and deficient in every part of Education.
I most sincerely wish that some more liberal plan might be laid and executed for the Benefit of the rising Generation, and that our new Constitution may be distinguished for encouraging Learning and Virtue.
If we mean to have Heroes Statesmen and Philosophers, we should have learned women. The world perhaps would laugh at me and accuse me of vanity, But you I know have a mind too enlarged and liberal to disregard the Sentiment.
If much depends as is allowed upon the early
education of youth and the first principles which
are instill’d take the deepest root, great benefit
must arise from literary accomplishments in women.
I regret the narrow contracted education of the
females of my own country.
Patriotism in the female sex is the most disinterested of all virtues. Excluded from honors and from offices, we cannot attach ourselves to the State or Government from having held a place of eminence. Even in the freest countries our property is subject to the control and disposal of our partners, to whom the laws have given a sovereign authority.
Deprived of a voice in legislation, obliged to submit to those laws which are imposed upon us, is it not sufficient to make us indifferent to the public welfare? Yet all history and every age exhibit instances of patriotic virtue in the female sex; which considering our situation equals the most heroic of yours.
Abigail Adams, the new nation’s first Feminist/Activist would not live to see the movement grow to the point of not only assuring the rights she fought for but, many more. Nor would she live to see her son, John Quincy, become the sixth President.
Abigail Adams died on October 28, 1818 of typhoid fever.
These were her last words: “Do not grieve, my friend, my dearest friend. I am ready to go. And John, it will not be long.”
She was buried in the cemetery of First Church in Quincy. John Adams died in 1826 during the presidency of John Quincy Adams.
This but scratches the surface of the life of one of our “Founding Mothers”, one of the many of whom we hear so little.
http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=2 https://www.biography.com/people/abigail-adams-9175670 http://www.history.com/topics/first-ladies/abigail-adams https://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/letter/ https://www.thoughtco.com/abigail-adams-biography-3525085