Americana: Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams was a writer and First Lady whose talent as a correspondent had won her a high regard in American letters. Born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, she was a descendant of many well-known New England families. Self educated, she read widely and studied the French language. In 1764, at the age of nineteen, she married a young lawyer by the name of John Adams, and moved to his home in Braintree, where she stayed through the Revolution. There she raised four children, Abigail, John Quincy, Charles, and Thomas Boylston. Another child died in infancy.
In the 1770s, John Adams became involved in revolutionary politics. He served as a delegate to the Continental Congresses and in other wartime posts. Frequently absent, Abigail ran the household and family farm, engaged in business enterprises, purchased land, and dealt with tenants. In 1784, she joined John in Europe, where he was the American minister to Great Britain. During his terms as vice president and president (1789-1801), she lived in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, and thereafter in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Abigail Adams demonstrated her calling as a correspondent during her courtship in the 1760s with John, but more so during wartime separation from her husband. For over forty years, she wrote letters to him and to her children, relatives, and friends. As a writer she chose the form of writing that became popular to 18th century women when publication was rarely an option. Letter writing was an alternative to defining oneself and a way of expression to society. Abigail was an avid reader that spanned several subjects: literature, history, and political philosophy. Despite her phonetic spelling and faulty grammar, she perfected her style.She stated:

My pen is always freer than my tongue.
She wrote to John in 1775:
I have wrote many things to you that I suppose I never could have talked.
Her letters provide us with a close-up view of 18th century life – private and public. They also reveal Abigail’s roles as wife, parent, and friend; but not just her domestic and social activities, but her opinions and observations. It also showed her zeal for politics, intense interest in national affairs, and her patriotism.
She wrote to Mercy Warren in 1776:
Our country is as it were a Secondary God, and the first and greatest parent. It is to be preferred to parents, to wives, children. Friends and all things the Gods only excepted.
Her wartime correspondence with John Adams combined personal messages, local news, and political commentary. In March of 1776, she vented a complaint about the legal subjection of married women:
I desire your 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.
In her later years, Abigail remained a strong partisan of John Adams and a staunch supporter of her successful oldest son, John Quincy Adams, who was elected president in 1824. In 1840, her grandson, Charles Francis Adams, published 114 of her letters and edited for an 1876 volume the wartime correspondence between John and Abigail Adams.


The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784 by L.H. Butterfield, 1975; Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams by Lynne Withey, 1981.