“Why, then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity?”
This collection of letters from Abigail Adams to her husband, John Adams, was sent between 1764, the year of their marriage, and May 1776, in the months leading to independence. Her words, at times loving, demonstrative, and repulsed, are conveyed with the honest integrity she shared with her husband during their months, and later years, apart. What is significant about this collection is her forthrightness on a number of issues, from the ideals of frugality during the American Revolution to impositions on women. She also very clearly reveals her knowledge and understanding of the issues surrounding government—making her a true confidante to a man so positioned as John Adams. Located as she was in Braintree (now Quincy, Massachusetts), her view from home was a window to momentous events, such as the Battle of Bunker Hill, as they occurred, preserving a firsthand glimpse of America in its early days.
On March 31, 1776, Adams penned what is perhaps her most famous—and most often quoted—letter to her husband, in which she asks him to “remember the ladies.” In making this request, Adams confronts her husband on the subject of women’s legal submission to their husbands. Her words ring with emotion: “Why, then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity?” It is left to history why and how such a topic became so passionate within her, but it is plain that she truly hoped her husband would listen. She also makes pointed use of the term “friend,” an endearment used numerous times between the two of them in their letters. Adams, aware that not all women were as lucky as she was, asks her husband why men should wish to be the “masters” when they can instead be friends.
This topic did not rest with the March letter alone but continued in another dated May 7, 1776; here Adams has strengthened her resolve. She again demonstrates that, having read her husband’s response to her previous letter, the issue of women is not one she will drop; furthermore, she was not amused: “Charm by accepting, by submitting sway, Yet have our humor most when we obey.”
What is important to take from this seminal letter is that Adams was an exceptional woman; for one without formal schooling, she was educated enough to realize that those of her sex were being exploited by those entrusted with their protection. Though she herself was the life partner of an equally exceptional man, Adams recognized she was in a unique position of being able to convey such ideas to her husband, with the hope his influence may assist those women unable to seek help for themselves. While this attempt proved fruitless, it nevertheless garners a sacred place for Abigail Adams in women’s history.
Abigail Adams was not merely a wife and helpmate to Founding Father John Adams and the mother of four; she holds in her own right an honored place among the visionary legion that brought America into being. Like many women of the time who were thrust into the political and social upheaval of the Revolutionary War, her upbringing did not prepare her for a future filled with fear, uncertainty, and ultimate triumph in America’s victory over Britain and her husband’s installation as the country’s second president, with herself as his First Lady.
She was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, on November 11, 1744, to Reverend William and Elizabeth Quincy Smith. Her family lived within the circle of the local Congregational parish where her father presided, instilling a strong sense of religion in young Abigail. Reverend Smith, unlike his brethren, encouraged his daughter in reading, especially those volumes and works not typically found within the grasp a young girl in the eighteenth century, such as those by William Shakespeare and John Milton.
Such an education helped Abigail develop robust understanding, one that found ready and equal exchange with John Adams (1735–1826), whom she married on October 25, 1764. This education also served her well in the years that saw her husband back and forth to Philadelphia, and thence to France and Holland negotiating treaties. Moreover, she continued to keep herself informed as much as confidence and the post would allow. In this, she well served her husband as confidante and advisor.
Political tidings were not the only matters of concern to Abigail Adams during the tumultuous years of war. Left to care for the family farm in Braintree—incorporated as Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1792—she oversaw the hiring of laborers, purchase of additional lands, and upbringing of their four surviving children: Abigail (b. 1765), John Quincy (b. 1767), Charles (b. 1770), and Thomas (b. 1772). A second daughter, Susannah, a toddler, died in 1770, and another daughter, Elizabeth, was stillborn in 1777.
Adams, in her later years, came to hold a few special distinctions in history: the first First Lady to reside within the White House and to have a son become president, John Quincy Adams in 1825. Her place among the Founding Mothers firmly established, Adams died at her home on October 28, 1818, at the age of seventy-three.
It is remarkable to consider the wealth of information provided within the letters of Abigail Adams—from household worries and joys to her eyewitness accounts of historical events as they occurred. It is inconceivable to consider it was her wish to her correspondents that her letters be destroyed—she frequently requested they be burned; luckily, they were lovingly preserved. When approaching Adams’s letters, the intended audience and purpose must be kept in mind. They were written for her husband, John Adams, to keep him informed of private matters as well as local political events and happenings. Though these are the primary aims of her letters—other than for the simplest reason of keeping in touch with her husband during his prolonged absences—insight into her own political leanings and evidence of her level of education also come through. Some of her statements have been cited erroneously by feminists as proof of her being an early suffragette (a label consistently discounted by recent historians), while she also establishes herself as making sacrifices for the war effort. These four letters, a mere fraction of those saved, nonetheless display a woman not to be trifled with, one who sought to keep herself as informed as possible on her husband’s doings in Philadelphia, while keeping a handle on all her responsibilities at home. Much like her husband, Adams herself was a stalwart Patriot.
Examining these four letters against one another, there is a definite progression in the topics Abigail discusses, especially when the dates are reviewed within their historical context. The first letter, dated April 19, 1764—a date now most famously associated with the Battles of Lexington and Concord eleven years later—was penned two weeks after the passage of the Revenue Act of 1764, more commonly known as the Sugar Act. The Sugar Act was one of the first attempts by the British to extract money from the American colonies in an effort to recover the costs of the French and Indian War. As the name implies, the taxation was placed upon imported molasses, which was then used in sugar production. Unlike later missives, this letter does not imply anything of recent events. Rather, she playfully teases him, asking that he be as open with her as possible, even him to confront her with any idiosyncrasies she may possess. The following letter, dated nearly ten and a half years later, displays much angst. John Adams has left their Braintree farm to attend the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, leaving her with four children, ranging from two to nine years old. Adams is very much aware of the risks and dangers involved with the actions of the congress—her husband, by taking part, was, in fact, committing treason; she also shows concern about possible future actions of the British. She muses, “Did ever any kingdom or state/ regain its liberty, when once it was invaded, with out bloodshed?” She then relates ancient history to the present situation, as a reminder of when to tread carefully. John Adams and the other members of the congress needed to choose their courses of action judiciously, otherwise the American colonies might wind up like Sparta, who “from an excessive love of peace, they neglected the means of making it sure and lasting.”
Before closing her letter, Adams casually mentions having gone through Charles Rollin’s book on ancient history and has involved their son John Quincy Adams in it. She again displays her newly acquired knowledge from the book by expressing her wish that September, the start of the congress, will always be foreboding to the British, “as the Ides of March were to Caesar.” Adams’s reference to the Roman general Julius Caesar, who, having set himself up as sole ruler of Rome, was stabbed to death on the fifteenth (ides) of March by those in favor of the Roman Republic, is most fitting given the republicanism her husband and other Revolutionary leaders were advocating.
Adams’s next letter in this examination is undoubtedly her most famous—both for her words and for the way in which historians and feminists have subsequently interpreted them. That spring of 1776, only months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was one of relief to those within and around Boston. Just two weeks prior to her letter, on March 17, 1776, known now as Evacuation Day, the British left the city down Orange Street (tellingly, present-day Washington Street). In the full version of her letter, she describes how she feels, “very differently at the approach of spring,” than previously, and that “the Sun looks brighter, the Birds sing more melodiously, and Nature puts on a more chearfull countenance.” Living as close to Boston as she did, Adams felt the war’s constant presence—in June of the previous year, she had watched the Battle of Bunker Hill from Penn’s Hill in Braintree; the sound of cannons firing was close enough to cause her distress. The evacuation of the British soldiers no doubt left Adams a measure of peace for the safety of her children. After sharing her calm over the state of affairs in Boston, Adams launches into a missive for those of her sex. She is well aware of the necessity of composing a “new code of laws” and memorably asks her husband to “remember the ladies.” Given the audience and private nature of their letters, she could not have imagined the later implications of her statements.
When reading and interpreting primary source documents, such as these letters by Abigail Adams, it is all too easy to approach them with a twenty-first century perspective. However, attempting to analyze a historical document without considering the temporal perspective leads to an irrelevant infusion of modern prejudices and assumptions, resulting in the loss of the original understandings of the topic and the author—and such has happened in relation to Adams’s request. Instead of reading her words within her contextual background, historians and feminists have attributed her meaning as relating to women’s suffrage, an aim Adams nowhere implies. While the temptation to extrapolate such a meaning may be there—her husband valiantly striving for freedom from Britain and Adams doing the same for women—there is nothing in her statement that suggests such political autonomy for the female sex.
Adams’s words, when taken together, show her deep understanding of the legal rights of women under the yoke of their husbands; her husband, working in the law profession both before and during the early years of the war, would have fully understood what she meant. She implores, “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.” Eighteenth-century married women were completely within the legal control of their husbands: They could not hold property, and everything they possessed fell under their husband’s ownership upon marriage. Although it is left to conjecture whether she knew firsthand from friends or neighbors the personal tyranny to which they were subjected by their husbands, she was informed nonetheless of the potentially disastrous legal power that held married women of her time in check. Here, she reminds her husband how not all men behave kindly toward their wives, and there are those who would take full advantage of their position.
The final letter under examination, dated May 7 and 9, 1776, roughly six weeks since the previous, is a further missive on the occurrences surrounding her and her husband in Philadelphia. Adams is very concerned with the state of things—safety of persons and property—in Boston, and she issues a not-so-subtle appeal that the congress seek to remedy them. She writes: “The eyes of our rulers have been closed. . . . Whilst the building is in flames, they tremble at the expense of water to quench it. In short, two months have elapsed since the evacuation . . . and very little has been done in that time to secure it, or the harbor, from future invasion.” She then asserts that those around her are willing to accept the new government and are eager for the permanence only it can ensure. If they do not address this issue, she fears that other nations will look down on American lawmakers, which would make it hard for the congress to safeguard the foreign assistance it still wanted.
Before closing her letter, along with promises of care for their children, Adams confronts her husband on his response letter, dated April 17, 1776. He responds by saying that he can only laugh at her new code of laws. He then goes on to relate how the congress has heard how the American rebellion has led to the uprisings of blacks and American Indians—thereby casting women alongside others who were not considered worthy of being citizens. He attempts to reassure her that though men possess such power, it does not mean that they will utilize it and even tries to stress that he and other members of the congress are masters in name only. Adams, however, was not amused: “Whilst you are proclaiming peace and good-will to men, emancipating all nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over wives . . . remember, that arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken.”
A following letter from him, though, displays an attempt to heal the breach. In the letter dated, May 22, 1776, he writes that her feelings about the duties they owe to their country are exemplary and that he is blessed to have her as his wife. In another, dated May 27, he does address her confrontation, albeit briefly, and without any indication that the matter will be dealt with. Although Abigail’s desire to have those in her sisterhood given further protection and respect within the law, she certainly held both within her marriage with John Adams.
Although the four letters examined within this analysis represent a small portion of those preserved overall, they nonetheless display the forthright honesty and integrity of Abigail Adams. In writing letters to her husband during his absences, she felt comfortable in completely expressing herself; she felt no need to dress up her emotions or to cloak them to disguise their meaning. While not a suffragette, itself a term that did not exist during her lifetime, and not pursuing political enfranchisement, Adams did seek for her husband and other members of the congress to develop a legal situation more accommodating for women under the solitary power of their husbands. Just as she knew that her husband and other men like him would not take full advantage of their legal authority, she was also aware that there were men who would. Her actions, performed in so private a matter, display her patriotism passionately—she spoke for those who could not and endeavored to secure them future legal stability.
The writings of Abigail Adams have become irrevocably entwined with her legacy, both legitimately as well as infamously. While she was not a feminist in modern terms, she was conscious of the plight of women tyrannized by husbands who acted within their rights, at least inside of the law, and she sought a way to use her influence with her husband, himself influential in forming a new American government. Another line, though, can be read as contradictory to this undertaking. In her letter from March 31, 1776, she implores him to “regard us then as being placed by Providence under your protection, and in imitation of the Supreme Being make use of that power only for our happiness.” Again, her words must be read in her historical context. While she wished for married women to have more legal rights and protection, she did believe men and women to have appropriate and separate roles. To be a housewife, the occupation she learned under her mother’s tutelage, was considered a noble one and was one in which she took pride.
While keeping the farm in Braintree running, Adams was steadfast in insuring that frugality and self-sufficiency ruled the day. Such acts as spinning her own wool for clothes were patriotic stances, acts taken up by many women in the colonies; in a further effort to avoid buying British goods, she produced as much as the family’s food as possible, making butter and tending to her poultry. In May 1801, a few months after the end of her husband’s tenure as president, she still found pleasure in such tasks, writing her son-in-law William Smith about her early morning duties as a dairy woman. In carrying out such domestic tasks, Adams fulfilled her role as a housewife, but these actions also gave her and other women like her the opportunity to demonstrate their patriotism. As Adams exhibited in many ways, women’s acts—even those typically done for their families—served the greater cause of American independence.
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