Abigail Adams brought more intellect and ability to the position of first lady of the United States than any other woman. President Harry Truman once noted that Abigail "would have been a better President than her husband." Yet she lived in an era when women were not supposed to have, or express, their opinions about government or the exciting events of the times. Abigail Adams struggled her whole life with the limitations that society placed upon her dreams. Despite these hardships, she found a way to use her talents to serve her nation by assisting and advising her husband, President John Adams, and teaching and guiding her son, President John Quincy Adams. Throughout her seventy-four-year life, this American heroine was an invaluable contributor to the founding and strengthening of the United States.
Abigail Smith was born on November 11, 1744, in Weymouth, Massachusetts, the second child of Elizabeth Quincy Smith and the Reverend William Smith. Her father was pastor of Weymouth's North Parish Congregational Church and one of the best educated and most prosperous citizens of the community. As a religious man, he taught Abigail to respect God and help others in any way she could. Abigail's mother, Elizabeth, spent much of her time visiting the sick and bringing food, clothing, and firewood to needy families. From the time she was a young woman, Abigail accompanied her mother on these visits and put into practice the lessons her father taught her about helping those who were less fortunate.
New England schools of the time usually admitted only boys; girls were primarily instructed at home. Few people believed that woman needed much learning. Such limitations did not satisfy Abigail, and she began to educate herself by reading the books in her father's library. She read all about different subjects and was probably one of the most well-read women in eighteenth-century America. Abigail regretted, however, that she did not have the opportunity to pursue a formal education, which was reserved for men.
Abigail also learned a great deal during her frequent stays with her grandfather Colonel John Quincy, who was one of the most important citizens in the colony of Massachusetts. He served in several positions throughout his career, including as a colonel in the militia and as speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Colonel Quincy's sense of public service and active concern for the community helped to shape young Abigail's values and provided her with a sense of public duty. He and his guests made the future first lady aware of the importance of freedom and Americans' aspirations to control their own destiny.
As a woman of the 1700s, Abigail could understand her nation's thirst for independence because she longed for it herself. She knew that her life would be decided by her choice of a husband. Abigail wanted a husband who was her intellectual equal and one who would appreciate her accomplishments. Abigail met such a man in John Adams, a young lawyer from nearby Braintree. During their two-year courtship the young couple spent long periods apart and relied upon writing letters to keep in touch. On October 25, 1764, Abigail's father presided over their wedding. The young couple moved into the house John had inherited from his father in Braintree (today a part of the National Park Service, Adams National Historical Park) and began their life together.
John and Abigail's marriage was successful from the outset. Abigail proved to be exceptionally capable of managing the family's finances and household. Meanwhile, John's career took a dramatic turn for the better. He began to ride the court circuit (traveling from one district to another) building a successful law career. John's frequent absences from home and family were prelude to more painful separations in the years ahead, but the young couple was willing to endure personal hardships for the good of their family and nation.
On July 14, 1765, in the Adamses' little farmhouse, John and Abigail's first child, Abigail, was born."Nabby," as she was called, was followed by John Quincy Adams on July 11, 1767, Susanna (who died just after her first year), Charles, and Thomas Boylston.In the spring of the following year, John Adams moved his family to Boston because his work was located there. The Adamses became a part of a social circle that included such patriots as John's cousin Samuel Adams, John Hancock, James Otis, and Joseph Warren. But soon there was little time for socializing as dramatic events in Boston overshadowed other concerns. Abigail's loyalty to her husband was tested by one such event, the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770. At the risk of his own popularity and career, John Adams chose to defend eight British soldiers and their captain, accused of murdering five Americans.
Although John was an ardent patriot and favored independence, he felt the soldiers had acted properly and been provoked into firing by an unruly mob. Also, he felt it was important to prove to the world that the colonists were not under mob rule, lacking direction and principles, and that all men were entitled to due process of law. Most Americans, driven by emotion, were angry with Adams for defending the hated "redcoats," but throughout the ordeal Abigail supported her husband's decision. In the end, Adams was proved correct and all nine of the men were acquitted of the murder charges. While the verdict diffused this crisis, far greater ones were destined for the colonies.
In 1774 John went to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as a delegate to the First Continental Congress where America made its first legislative moves toward forming a government independent of Great Britain. Abigail remained in Braintree to manage the farm and educate their children. Again, letter writing was the only way the Adamses could communicate with each other. Their correspondence took on even greater meaning, for Abigail reported to her husband about the British and American military confrontations around Boston. Abigail was aware of the importance of these events and took her son John Quincy to the top of Penn's Hill near their farm to witness the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775.
Not all Americans shared the Adamses' vision of an independent nation. To those that wavered, Abigail argued, "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?" John agreed with his wife and in June 1776 was appointed to a committee of five men to prepare a Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. Yet Abigail's vision of independence was broader than that of the delegates. She believed all people, and both sexes, should be granted equal rights. In a letter to John she wrote, "I wish most sincerely that there was not a slave in the province. It always seemed to me to fight ourselves for what we are robbing the Negroes of, who have as good a right to freedom as we have." Later Abigail added that John and his fellow delegates should "remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than you ancestors" when they enact new codes of law. She was certainly justified in asking for such rights, for women such as Abigail, by tending the fields and doing other jobs, made possible the U.S. military victory. Despite Abigail's urgings to include all people in America's new system of government, her views were far too progressive for the delegates of the Continental Congress. While they did adopt the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the members of Congress failed to guarantee the rights of blacks or women under the new government they established.
John soon was appointed president of the Board of War and turned to Abigail for advice on carrying out his job. She was the one person he could look to for advice and support in politics and government. Throughout his career, Adams had few confidants. Thus Abigail advised her husband, and John valued her judgment so much that he wrote his wife, "I want to hear you think or see your thoughts."
In 1778 John Adams was sent to Paris on a special mission to negotiate an alliance with France. He subsequently remained in Europe from 1778 to 1787, through a succession of different appointments, except for a three-month rest at home during which time he drafted the Massachusetts Constitution. Now separated from her husband by the Atlantic Ocean, Abigail continued to keep their farm running, paid their bills, and served as teacher to their children. She particularity labored to develop the great abilities of her son John Quincy, who had joined his father in Europe. In one letter to her son, she inspired him to use his superior abilities to confront the challenges before him: "These are times in which a genius would wish to live. . . . Great necessities call out great virtues."
In 1784, with independence and peace secured from Great Britain, Abigail sailed to Europe to join her husband and son. Abigail spent four years in France and England while her husband served as U.S. minister to Great Britain. As the wife of a diplomat, she met and entertained many important people in Paris and London. While never at home in these unfamiliar settings, Abigail did her best to enjoy the people and places of both countries. Nevertheless, Abigail was pleased when the time came to return to Braintree in 1788.
The next year, John Adams was elected the first vice president of the United States. During the course of the next twelve years as John Adams served two terms as vice president (1789-1797) and one term as president (1797-1801), he and Abigail moved back and forth between the new home they bought in Braintree (the "Old House") and the successive political capitals of the United States: New York, Philadelphia, and then Washington, D.C. Throughout these years, Abigail frequently made use of her writing abilities in defense of John and his policies. Time began to take its toll on Abigail, and she had recurring bouts of rheumatism that forced her frequently to retreat to the peace of Braintree recover. After eight years of apprenticeship as vice president, in 1796 John Adams was elected to succeed George Washington as president of the United States. While John and Abigail could be proud to have reached this esteemed position, they had little time to enjoy their success for the United States was in very dangerous condition when Adams took office. Party lines were forming. John Adams faced dissent in his cabinet and the vice president, Thomas Jefferson, was head of the opposition party. John realized the problems he faced and wrote to his wife, who was in Quincy recovering from a rheumatic bout, that "I never wanted your advice and assistance more in my life."
Abigail rushed to her husband's side and maintained a grueling schedule to perform all her duties as first lady. She entertained guests and visited people in support of her husband. The first lady had a limited budget to carry out her duties, but she compensated for this with her attentiveness and charm.
Meanwhile, Great Britain was at war with France, and popular opinion held that America should jump in to aid Great Britain, especially after France insulted the United States by demanding bribes. The president felt that war would weaken the United States and decided on the unpopular course of neutrality. During this time many of Adams' opponents used the press to criticize his policies. Abigail was often referred to as "Mrs. President," for it was widely believed that the president's decisions were heavily influenced by his wife. In reality Abigail disagreed with her husband's stand of neutrality, but people believed she was setting his policies and this weakened John Adams politically.
In 1798, with John Adams' approval, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were aimed at restricting foreign influence over the United States and weakening the opposition press. Abigail supported these measures because she felt they were necessary to stop the press from undermining her husband. The acts proved very unpopular, with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison leading the protest against them. Adams' support of these acts undermined his popular support, already suffering from his courageous but unpopular stand on war with France, and led to his failure to be reelected in 1800. Still, he was forever proud to have prevented a war, and France's capitulation shortly after the 1800 election confirmed the wisdom of his policy.
The year 1800 was bittersweet for the Adamses. In November John and Abigail became the first occupants of the Executive Mansion in Washington, D.C. (today the White House). Meanwhile, their son John Quincy was distinguishing himself abroad as the U.S. minister to Prussia. Eleven months of relative joy, however, was soon overshadowed by a December that brought sadness to the Adams family when they suffered the untimely death of their son Charles, and John's loss to Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800.
In March 1801 John and Abigail retired to Quincy. During her last years, Abigail occupied herself with improving her home and entertaining the many children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews that would visit. In the company of those she loved Abigail was content with her domestic chores, visits to friends, and ceaseless writing. Abigail focused much attention on the advancement of her son John Quincy's career. The proud mother watched as he distinguished himself as a U.S. senator, minister to Russia, and secretary of state. Throughout this time, Abigail constantly advised her son and worked behind the scenes to protect him from the hardships associated with a life of public service. In October 1818 Abigail contracted typhoid fever. Surrounded by family members she died on October 28. John Adams and his wife had shared fifty-four years of happiness and companionship, and the second president was moved by Abigail's death to write, "I wish I could lay down beside her and die too."
Today, nearly two centuries after Abigail's death, her legacy survives in the letters she wrote, which chronicle this important period of history. The memory of Abigail Adams is still present at the Adams National Historical Park, which serves as an invaluable resource for witnessing this woman's contributions to the improvement of her family and nation through public service.Visitors can witness firsthand the environment that shaped the character and ideas of the Adams family and in so doing, arrive at a better understanding of these important men and women. The National Park Service conscientiously preserves these houses and the property around them to provide present and future generations with a window to view an American family who contributed to their country through public service.
Last updated: April 30, 2015