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In a literary context, Abigail Adams is best known for the thousands of letters she wrote from the 1760s until her death in 1818. The wife of John Adams, the second president of the United states, and the mother of john Quincy Adams, the sixth president, Abigail Adams’s correspondence reflected a woman’s experience during this key era in American history. Adams’s letters to her husband and others include information on her domestic life as well as her commentary on the political, social, and cultural events of her time. Thousands of her letters survived and have been published in several collections beginning in the mid-nineteenth century.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Traditional Puritan Family
Adams was born Abigail smith in Weymouth, Massachusetts, on November 11, 1744, the daughter of Reverend William Smith and his wife, Elizabeth Quincy Smith. Her father was a Congregational minister, while her mother was descended from a line of distinguished New England clergymen and Puritan leaders of Massachusetts. The Congregational Church was the established church of the Puritan religious group that began settling in New England in the early 1600s.
Adams was raised in a traditional Puritan household in Weymouth and received a thorough education at home. Her father had an extensive library, and Adams was an avid reader of the books. From an early age, the outspoken Adams wrote letters to various family members. She met her future husband, the Harvard-educated lawyer John Adams, when she was fifteen years old. During the course of their five-year courtship, they exchanged many letters as John Adams lived five miles away in Braintree, Massachusetts (later known as Quincy, Massachusetts).
Marriage to John Adams
In October 1764, Abigail Adams married John Adams. She gave birth to six children over the next thirteen years, but only four would survive to adulthood. The family lived in Braintree, where John Adams also owned a farm. Between 1765 and 1770, Abigail continued to have an extensive correspondence with family and friends. In 1773, she began a correspondence with Mercy Otis Warren, an American writer and future revolutionary.
In her letters of this period, Adams wrote primarily about her family but also touched on political issues of the day, especially with warren. The women wrote about increasing legal rights for women, including the right of married women to own property, which was not legal at that time, and the need for a republican form of government.
In the early 1770s, John Adams began his political career, first as a local selectman and then as a member of the Massachusetts legislature. He was considered the best lawyer in Massachusetts, and both he and his wife greatly supported the burgeoning American Revolution. The revolution was caused by the increasingly strained relationship between the American colonies and Great Britain in the eighteenth century. While the colonies had been essentially self-governing for much of their existence, Great Britain tried to increase control, add trade restrictions and more taxation, and deny the colonies a representative voice in the British government. Because Great Britain was unwilling to change its methods of governance, the resistant colonies declared their independence. From 1775 to 1783, American and British troops fought for control of North America.
During the last quarter of the eighteenth century, John Adams spent a significant amount of time away from his wife and family as his increasingly important role in American politics demanded he travel and, sometimes live, in distant places in North America and Europe. For the most part, Abigail Adams remained in Braintree, where she ran the farm and supported her family through small business ventures such as buying and selling prop erty in John Adams’s name, speculating in currency, and selling items her husband sent from Europe.
Because of the physical separation, Adams began writing many letters to her husband as he traveled as well as to other family members (such as her sisters Elizabeth Smith Shaw and Mary Smith Cranch) and friends (such as Thomas Jefferson and Warren). In her letters, she expressed no resentment for taking on additional responsibilities at home while her husband was gone. Indeed, she regarded it as her patriotic duty in a time of war. While John Adams was away on diplomatic missions, he came to depend on his wife’s letters for information on politics and the activities of Congress as well as the revolutionary battles she witnessed.
Adams sometimes tried to influence her husband in her letters. In one famous letter written on March 31, 1776, she urged her husband to remember women and women’s rights as he and his colleagues wrote the Declaration of Independence, the formal document in which the colonies broke with Great Britain. In the same letter, she also suggested that slavery should not be allowed to continue. Other letters from Adams to her husband later in the summer urged him to improve education for women.
A Leading Lady of the United States
After the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, John Adams was asked to remain in France to negotiate trade agreements with European countries. Abigail Adams joined him in Paris in 1784. The couple then moved to London in 1785 when John Adams became the first U.S. minister to Great Britain. In her letters of this time period, she shared her impressions of Europe in letters to her family and friends.
After the couple returned to the United States, John Adams was elected vice president in 1789. He retained the role for two terms, and then was elected president in 1796. In her letters of this time period, Abigail Adams described the events, spirit, and consciousness of the era informed by her public role at the early capitals of the United States: New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington.
Life at Home in Quincy
When John Adams left office in 1801, the family returned to their home in Quincy. In her letters of this time period, Adams described her life and beliefs as she continued to run the family farm and finances, gardened, attended church services, remained informed about political events of the day, and engaged in social activities.
Adams died on October 24, 1818, in Quincy, Massachusetts. Sources vary on the cause of her death (stroke, typhoid fever, and typhus are all listed as causes), although all agree she was ill for a time at the end of her life. Her letters were never intended for publication, and she often asked her husband to burn them. Instead, John Adams held onto them, and they were regularly collected for publication in the centuries after her death.
Works in Literary Context
Adams wrote eloquent, insightful letters that provide a detailed social history of her and her life with John Adams. While many creative outlets were considered unsuitable for women to pursue in eighteenth century America, letter writing was a socially sanctioned literary art for women. Abigail Adams felt compelled to write and was prolific in the medium, although she stayed within the prescribed social roles for women of her day. Her letters featured her frank opinions on a variety of subject matters from manners to morals, feelings, and ideas. They were regularly newsy, and they underscored her sense of humor. The correspondence also related the happiness and heartache of early American families and almost always included a discussion of the politics of the day.
In some of the best known of Adams’s letters, she touches on issues related to women’s rights and is regarded as an early proponent of them. Writing to her husband in 1776 as the new United States was being legally defined, she asked John Adams to establish such legal rights as guaranteeing women protection from physical abuse and allowing property ownership in their own names. She also expressed her belief that women, like men, had a right to independence.
Adams also advocated equal education for women within the context of her perception of women’s traditional domestic roles. She strongly believed that education was as important for women as it was for men. Adams held that because women taught the sons who were destined to become leaders, women had an important role in maintaining the existence of an informed citizenry capable of supporting a republican government. To teach their sons successfully, women required equal education, which Adams hoped would be supported by law.
Impressions of Europe and American Superiority
Although many of Adams’s letters focused on domestic concerns, some of her letters were written while living abroad in the 1780s as John Adams represented the United States in France and Great Britain. In her letters home from Europe, she shared her opinions on French manners and morals and her observations on French culture. Coming from a frugal background, she was amazed by the number of servants that upper-class Europeans needed to maintain a large house and the time and money spent on looking fashionable. She disapproved of the behavior of the wealthy French people, telling her friends that they mainly pursued luxury and pleasure. She also dismissed Paris as one of the dirtiest cities she had ever seen.
Adams’s letters from Great Britain were similarly full of descriptions of her adventures in and impressions of that country. In one letter, she described a holdup of her coach in Blackheath, a forest notorious for its roving bands of robbers. Adams admitted that she sympathized with one bandit, a young, desperate man. Adams was also appalled at the conditions in which rural people, most of them poor, lived. She often compared conditions in the Old World with those at home. While noting the differences appreciatively, she most often concluded that things, including people, food, customs, and church architecture, were better in America.
Works in Critical Context
Adams’s letters were not published during her lifetime but in various collections starting several decades after her death. The earliest collections were put together by her grandson, Charles Francis Adams, who edited Letters of
Mrs. Adams, The Wife of John Adams (1840) and The Familiar Letters of John Adams and His Wife Abigail During the Revolution (1875). Collections of Adams’s letters have been published regularly since then, allowing readers to learn about the customs, habits, and manners of the Adams family daily life as well as the details about the American Revolution. The initial enthusiasm for the letters was rooted in the way the John and Abigail Adams epitomized the values of independence, sacrifice, and fortitude associated with revolutionary America.
Over time, critics continued to praise the letters in such collections for insights into politically significant men like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Critics also agree that the letters have historical and literary value of their own, reflecting on the great political and social developments of the early American nation as well as on the personal and domestic concerns of people of the age. Adams’s letters provided an invaluable view of the concerns of eighteenth century women and their participation in a literary sphere that existed independently of the world of print but was nonetheless culturally significant.
My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams
As with many collections of the letters of Adams and her husband, critics writing about the 2007 volume My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams found the correspondence illuminating of their relationship as well as of the era in which the couple lived. In the Weekly Standard, Edward Achorn wrote of the letters, ‘‘The crude stuff of life is here, illuminated with the lightning flashes of history. The letters remind us that these were two people who were groping in the darkness, unsure what would become of their lives and their new country. The loneliness and boredom, particularly in Abigail’s life, seem palpable.’’ Writing in Booklist, Michele Leber noted positively that ‘‘This is a treasure, for general readers and scholars alike.’’
- Gelles, Edith B. Abigail Adams: A Writing Life. New York: Routledge, 2002.
- Achorn, Edward. ”Epistolary Marriage: An Intimate Glimpse of the Adams Household.” Weekly Standard (June 2, 2008).
- Leber, Michele. Review of My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams. Booklist (September 15, 2007): 20.
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