Abigail Adams, the Founding Mother Who 'Remembered the Ladies'

By: Patty Rasmussen  | 

Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams was the first second and second first lady of the United States. National Gallery of Art Washington/Wikimedia/(CC BY 2.0)

While her husband, John Adams, served as the second president of the United States, Abigail Adams solidified plenty of firsts of her own.

She was the first woman to serve as second lady of the United States when John became the first vice president in 1797. She was the first woman to live in the White House (or the president's house as it was then known) in 1800. And in 1824, six years after her death, her son John Quincy Adams was elected president, making her the first woman whose husband and son both attained the highest elected office in the land. (Barbara Bush was the second.)

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Who Was Abigail Adams?

But before Abigail Adams became a president's wife or mother, she was simply Abigail Smith. She was born Nov. 11, 1744, in Weymouth, Massachusetts, to William Smith, a Congregationalist minister and Elizabeth Quincy Smith, the daughter of John Quincy, a member of the colonial governor's council and colonel of the militia. That lineage was important to Adams' social and intellectual development.

Thanks to her maternal grandfather's involvement in colonial government — he held the post of Speaker of the Massachusetts Assembly for 40 years — Adams grew up understanding government and with a keen interest in public service. And while she wasn't formally educated at school, she was taught to read and write at home and had access to an extensive family library that included books on law, philosophy, history and the classics.

In 1764, when she was 19 years old, she married John Adams, a young Harvard graduate preparing to practice law. They were married in her family home, but soon left to live on a farm — Old House at Peace field — in Braintree near Boston where John Adams set up his practice.

Just one year later the babies started coming. The Adams' had three sons and two daughters: Abigail "Nabby" Adams (1765-1813), John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), Susanna Adams (1768-1770), Charles Adams (1770-1800) and Thomas Boylston Adams (1772-1832). They also had a stillborn daughter, Elizabeth, in 1777.

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Adams as a 'Founding Mother'

Adams was much more than a wife and mother. Owing to John's extensive travels — his legal practice and travels through the circuit courts in the Boston region; participation in the Continental Convention in Philadelphia; and multiple diplomatic assignments abroad — it fell to Adams to manage the day-to-day operations of the farm and other family business affairs. Because the Adams' marriage was a partnership of the minds as much as it was of the heart, John's faith in her abilities was absolute.

How do we know? John and Abigail were avid correspondents — between them they wrote more than 1,100 letters. These letters provide a glimpse into, not only their great affection for each other and their life during the 18th century, but also a behind-the-scenes look at building the United States.

It's also fair to say that Adams was at the very heart of the family's political dynasty. We talked to Sara Martin, editor-in-chief of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society about this memorable "Founding Mother." Martin says Adams managed her household practically and resourcefully, but just saying she was remarkable isn't enough.

"She thought about investing in financial securities," Martin says. "She wanted to (and did) invest in stocks and bonds where her husband believed real estate was the better way to go. I think sharp is a good word to describe her. She was intelligent, but she had that ability in her writing to pull ideas together."

Adams would downplay her influence on her husband, both in letters to him and others. She once wrote to John, "I never pretended to the weight they ascribe to me." John's later critics called her "The Old Woman" and frequently said they wished she'd been present in Philadelphia to temper his presidential decision-making.

But protestations aside, it's clear Adams was influential to her husband's professional success, providing him with essential intelligence as she carved out a unique place of her own in the history of the United States.

"She served as a really important conduit of information for John," Martin says. "John and Abigail are separated for months at a time and she is able to send him information, both what's going on militarily, but also the popular sentiment on the ground as it pertains to the idea of independence. I think that is a very important role that can be easily overlooked because it's not a single action. It takes the cumulative reading of the exchange of correspondence to tease that out."

Abigail and John Adams
Abigail and John Adams were prolific letter writers during their lifetimes. Today their letters survive as a remarkable archive about their life, the Revolutionary War, politics and even women's rights at the time.
Public Domain

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'Remember the Ladies'

One of her most memorable letters to John was written March 31, 1776, when he was toiling away in Philadelphia at the Continental Congress, and she was feeling the privation of war back on the farm in Braintree.

She made her voice heard writing the following to John:

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 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 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 not voice, or representation.

Adams chose her words intentionally.

"She is speaking very particularly about 'husbands,'" says Martin. "Her language is conscious there and that's because of the legal constructs of the time. Married women had fewer legal rights. They weren't lowest on the list because enslaved people were much further down, but married women had very little legal standing."

Does this mean Adams was a feminist? Martin says that depends on the definition.

"She certainly advocated for more equal footing and a lot of how that takes shape for her in her correspondence is through women's education," she adds. "[Adams] felt the lack of it because she didn't go to school. Even though she was an incredibly well-read, well-educated woman for her time, she felt the disadvantage."

Later in 1776, Adams wrote what Martin says is one of her favorite quotes:

'If we mean to have heroes, statesmen and philosophers, we should have learned women.'

"That's because of women's position in society," Martin says. "They're the ones raising the next generation of citizens, and therefore those should be educated as well."

Old House at Peace field
The Old House at Peace field was built in 1731 and became the residence of the Adams family for four generations, from 1788 to 1927.
National Park Service

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From First Lady to Private Citizen

When John was elected president in March 1797, Adams served as first lady. They lived first in Philadelphia (the temporary capital), then moved to Washington, D.C.

"She was an active participant in John Adams' executive period," Martin says. "Abigail had social responsibilities but she also worked to influence public opinion, to support her husband's policies. She actively worked to combat the press and what she considered misinformation in the press."

But throughout John's one term presidency, Martin says, you read in her correspondence a desire to be out of the spotlight.

"[Adams] says she would be happy to retire," says Martin. "She believed in duty to country as well and also saw herself having a role in that. I think that's the thing that is sometimes missed when we're talking about the founding generation. Both John and Abigail at times talk about both sharing in this arduous journey within public life and during the presidency or both of them retiring from public life."

That time finally came after Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams for the presidency in 1800. That allowed the couple to return to Peace field, and focus on their large family and the farm. And though they remained interested in politics, they kept to themselves.

Adams died at her home in 1818 at age 73. She was buried at the First Unitarian Church in Quincy, Massachusetts. Her eldest son, John Quincy Adams, became the nation's sixth president six years later. Some of her most famous letters were published in 1848, giving her another first — the first published book attributed to a former first lady.

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