Patriot and First Lady
By Anne Adams
As Abigail Adams and her young son John Quincy mounted the top of the hill near their Massachusetts home to watch the Battle of Bunker Hill in the early days of the Revolutionary War, she was not purposely trying to endanger the boy. Instead as a staunch patriot, she wanted him to see for himself what she believed would be an important battle in the struggle of the American colonies to become a sovereign nation.
Yet Abigail was not just devoted to her country but also to her husband and their unique partnership. Their commitment to each other was very evident in their extensive correspondence as they exchanged information and opinions and at the same time revealed an interesting aspect of the bright intellectual that Abigail became. For in an era when women were expected to be home makers and no more, while Abigail excelled in that area, she also felt free to possess and express her own thoughts and opinions.
Abigail Smith was born in November, 1744 in Weymouth, Massachusetts, her father a Harvard educated minister and her mother a member of the prominent Quincy family. Since girls rarely received formal education at the time Abigail and her sisters receive their education at home, tutored by their father. In addition, Abigail was encouraged to read widely so in effect she educated herself. She grew into a small dark haired, dark eyed young woman with a determined nature and personality.
John Adams first arrived in the Smith household as a friend of her sister’s fiancé, and it soon became evident that John came visiting on his own because he was attracted to Abigail. She was 15 and he 23 and while he reportedly thought her attractive he was most impressed with her conversational ability and the thoughtful opinions she expressed. At the time John was a Harvard graduate and just beginning his law practice and found Abigail an intelligent contrast to the frivolous girls he’d met previously. Also, though he was short, a bit round and sometimes verbose, Abigail found him appealing. However, because he was also just beginning his career, marriage if it was to happen would have to be postponed. So they began a correspondence that led to their developing their friendship into love and after five years they were married in October, 1764 with Abigail’s father performing the ceremony. They moved into a small house as John continued to develop his growing law practice. Their first daughter, Abigail, but called Nabby, was born the next summer, followed by son John Quincy and his brothers Charles and Thomas then another daughter Suzanna who only lived just over a year.
After a few years of marriage John moved his law practice and family to Boston and there he developed an interest in politics. He first expressed this in a Boston newspaper in 1765 as he related his political views on the growing colonial opposition to the newly imposed British taxes.
As tensions grew with this colonial opposition John could sense dangerous days ahead so in 1774 he removed his family to nearby Braintree, and he and Abigail resumed a steady correspondence when he needed to be away from home. She related family events and he replied with a description of political and civic events of the city. Abigail shared his political interests and was careful to warn John that war between England and the colonies was a real possibility unless Parliament did not lessen the severity of their demands.
Though Abigail knew John’s election to the First Continental Congress in 1774 would mean he would be absent all the more, leaving her in total charge of the family and household she supported him in what he wanted to do. While John was serving in Philadelphia he continued to write Abigail, assuring her he would much rather be home with her on their farm.
John returned to Philadelphia to the Second Continental Congress in 1775 as the colonies were taking the first steps toward nationhood by establishing an army and naming George Washington as its commander. Military confrontation was inevitable and after the Battle of Bunker Hill and burning of Charleston many Bostonians fled. Abigail housed those she could.
With John away a great deal of the time Abigail was father, mother and farm manager in one person – undertaking duties that would normally be performed by either John or hired men. After independence was declared in 1776 and with John still absent frequently for long periods it was during one of these periods that he was gone that Abigail had her sixth child, a stillborn daughter in 1777. Abigail grieved alone, and then was saddened all the more when she learned John had been selected to join a diplomatic team to travel to Paris to represent the new nation. Though she would have preferred to travel with him even with the children, John discouraged that idea. Their correspondence continued, and one writer described it as reading like “…a history of the times co-written by two lucid, well educated lovers. They wrote movingly of their relationship, exchanged ideas and humor and longed for the day when they’d be reunited.” (“Secret Lives of the First Ladies” by Cormac O’Brien, p. 20).
Then in 1778 when John came home for a visit when he returned to France he took John Quincy with him. Later when John in a letter mentioned his appreciation for French women and what they had done, Abigail was irritated and replied that French women had more advantages and opportunities than American women. “But in this country you need not be told how much female Education is neglected, nor how fashionable it has been to ridicule Female learning, though I acknowledge it is my happiness to be connected with a person of a more generous mind and liberal Sentiments,” she wrote. Another time when John implied that he did not want to pestered with advice in operating the household, Abigail came to the conclusion that women did not receive the respect they were due for all they accomplished in household operation and childcare.
John and John Quincy returned home in August, 1779 yet after two months Congress chose John as Minister Plenipotentiary to France for more diplomatic duties and when he returned this time he took both John Quincy and Charles.
As the war wound to a close, Abigail struggled with the burdens of home management as well as family illnesses and death – and all without her husband’s presence. But the war was over by 1783 and with the peace treaty the U.S. emerged as an independent nation.
John Quincy did not return to America with his father and Charles because he was to accompany the newly appointed American minister to Russia to his new post. Yet while Abigail continued to encourage her oldest son in his new post and to work toward all she expected of him, his sister Nabby was proving a source of concern for their mother. The younger Abigail had fallen in love with a young man her mother did not consider suitable. Also, since she reasoned Nabby was too young to marry, Abigail decided a trip to Europe to join John would prove advantageous. As it developed, Nabby’s suitor would eventually become a successful playwright, and would have proved a better husband than the man she eventually married.
Abigail and Nabby set sail for Europe in April, 1784, taking two servants, a stock of supplies and a cow. The cargo of whale oil and potash did not help the passengers’ seasickness, and the constant stench required Abigail and Nabby to keep their cabin door open at night for ventilation, which meant they were exposed in their nightclothes to the crew and male passengers. Then Abigail decided to do something about what she considered the ship’s filthy kitchen. The cook was “lazy and dirty” as she described him, and “had no more knowledge of his business than a savage.” She then decided to teach him how to cook, and even ended up doing much of the work herself. Shocked at the continuing unpleasant ships’ odors, Abigail then personally scrubbed the ship from top to bottom. She had so assumed charge that, by the time the ship reached England, as one writer put it: “… the captain was convinced that Abigail wanted his job.” (O’Brien, p. 222).
Once in France while Abigail learned to appreciate some aspects of the culture she never did become fond of things French. She did not hesitate to express her shock at what she considered free manners and conduct of the French women as well as the inefficiency and laziness of French servants. In return the French did not warm to John and Abigail, but the American couple also felt the frustration of knowing as diplomats they should entertain more but lacked the official funds to do so.
Then John was appointed to be American ministry to London and there Nabby, who had not heard from her American suitor, decided in 1786 to marry an American diplomat.
Then when the constitution was ratified in 1787 John decided it was time to return home and soon after they returned in 1788 was elected vice president as George Washington was elected president. While Abigail was delighted with his attaining the office she was not thrilled with the prospect of moving to New York and then Philadelphia. However, she eventually grew to like living in Philadelphia and occasionally assisted Martha Washington with entertaining. Nevertheless she and John had rare official duties and they became restless. John himself saw the vice president’s position only as a step toward the eventual presidency and expressed a view future Vice Presidents would perhaps share: “My country in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”
In fact until John assumed the presidency in 1796, because of her poor health Abigail spent most of the time at their home in Braintree, Massachusetts. Then when he was inaugurated Abigail joined him in Philadelphia to begin an entertaining routine that continued the rigorous etiquette- ridden style that Martha Washington had employed. Then in November, 1800 as the Executive Mansion (later to be called the White House) was finally completed in the new Federal City Abigail moved in. However, the living conditions were to say the least primitive for the time with few trees, and muddy swamps surrounding the new city. The few buildings were mostly wooden and Abigail described their arrival and new conditions in a letter to Nabby: “I arrived here on Sunday last and without meeting with any accident worth noticing…except losing ourselves when we left Baltimore and going 8 or 9 miles on the Frederick road by which we were obliged to go the other eight through woods, where we wandered two hours without finding a guide or the path…” Yet if they had trouble trying to reach their new home what they found was incomplete. “The house is made habitable, but there is not a single apartment finished…we have not the least fence, yard or other convenience without, and the great unfinished audience room I made a drying room of, to hang up the clothes in. The principal stairs are not up, and will not be this winter.” (In short, she used what is now the East Room as a place to hang up her wash.)
Yet despite the less than desirable conditions, she held what would become a New Year’s reception in 1801, and continued with dinners and receptions till John left office in March, 1801 after being defeated by Thomas Jefferson.
It was a heartfelt loss and John was so disconsolate that he did not attend Jefferson’s swearing in, instead leaving for Massachusetts the morning of the inauguration. Once back at their farm in Quincy (formerly Braintree), they began to receive a steady stream of family visitors as Abigail resumed her household and family business management since John still did not want to take a part in it.
During his diplomatic years John Quincy had met and married Louisa Johnson, the daughter of another diplomat, and when he returned with her to the family farm, Abigail was at first concerned that she was too impractical and frail to be a good wife to John Quincy. However, her original displeasure did not prevent her from loving and caring for her grandchildren, keeping them with her when their parents needed to travel or work abroad.
Still, Abigail’s insistence on advising her children what she thought they should do did not sit so well with Thomas and Charles who were determined to go their own ways. Nabby’s husband was often unemployed, so her family was often in financial need, until her only daughter died of cancer in 1813. Then in 1817 John Quincy and Louisa returned home from diplomatic service abroad, which greatly relieved Abigail who had felt she might never see them again. John Quincy was to serve in President Monroe’s administration and would be president himself in a few years. Charles struggled with alcoholism and died in the latter days of his father’s presidency, and Thomas, steady and helpful as always, moved his young family to live near Quincy.
In 1818, shortly after a brief visit by John Quincy and Louisa, Abigail struggled with various ailments until her death in October, 1818.