The Adamses: Abigail Adams (1744-1818)

If John Adams was a “colossus of Independence,” as Thomas Jefferson said, then Abigail Adams was truly the first lady of American democracy.

During the couple’s 54-year marriage, Abigail was an equal and a partner to her husband in every way: in intellect, courage, integrity, competence, and in her fierce devotion to democratic ideals. Her insights about politics, human nature, and family life, captured in hundreds of letters, are as relevant today as they were during her lifetime. Her love and tireless support for John gave him the resolve he needed to be away from home for long stretches, working for independence and then serving in the new government, often at great personal sacrifice to them both.

For these reasons, and many more, Abigail Adams is one of the most influential and inspirational woman in American history.

A daughter of New England

Abigail Smith was born in 1744 in Weymouth, Massachusetts, the daughter of a prosperous pastor and the granddaughter of Colonel John Quincy, an important figure in the Massachusetts colony. Typical of girls of the era, she was educated at home, where she was accustomed to thinking and speaking for herself. With access to her father’s library—and later, to her husband’s—she became one of the most well-read women of the 18th century and one of the most articulate of any era.

John and Abigail married in 1764 and raised four children, including John Quincy Adams who, like his father, would become president of the United States. (A fifth child, Susanna, died shortly after her first birthday.) John initially practiced law. However, his growing involvement in the struggle for independence eclipsed all other pursuits and often required him to be away for long periods. In his absence, Abigail ran their farm, raised and educated their children, and nursed relatives and neighbors through sickness. Yet she still found time to correspond frequently with her husband, boosting his spirits, offering advice, and keeping him informed of military and political developments in Boston.

A war just down the road

The Revolutionary War tested her courage in many ways. During 1775 and 1776, while John was away at the Continental Congress, major battles were fought just a few miles from the family’s doorstep: at Lexington and Concord, in Charlestown at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and at nearby Dorchester Heights. In 1778, she suppressed her protective instincts and agreed to allow young John Quincy to go with his father to Europe, knowing it would foster the exceptional abilities he already displayed at the age of 10.

The war also caused shortages and hardships, but Abigail found ways around them. When John sent her porcelain dinnerware from Paris, she kept some pieces to use at home and sold others to support the family. In 1776, at the height of a smallpox epidemic, she took the children into Boston so they could all be inoculated with the live virus, a dangerous procedure.

A woman of independent mind

Abigail was famously outspoken in her views. Her writings on women’s rights are timeless as are her thoughts on slavery. In an era when many of the Founding Fathers were slaveholders, she decried the hypocrisy of the practice, writing, “I wish most sincerely there was not a slave in this province. It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me—to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.”

A longing for home

For several years following the American Revolution, the family lived in France and then England, where John was Minister to Great Britain. Though she marveled at the unfamiliar sights and customs of Europe, where she formed a warm friendship with Thomas Jefferson, she always longed to be home. During John’s presidency, when they became the first occupants of the partially constructed White House, she was unimpressed, observing that the rooms were cold and drafty, though the East Room was well suited for hanging laundry to dry.

Retiring in 1801 to their farm, John and Abigail were surrounded by their children and grandchildren. While John reflected on the sate of the nation–not always happily–they watched their oldest son, John Quincy Adams, rise to national prominence as a diplomat and secretary of state, although Abigail did not live to see him elected president. In 1818, she contracted typhoid fever and died at home, prompting her heartbroken husband to proclaim, “I wish I could lie down beside her and die, too.”

A common loss

At her funeral, Reverend Peter Whitney might have been speaking for a nation rather than the town of Quincy when he said, “The tidings of her illness were heard with grief in every house, and her death is felt as a common loss.”

John Adams, who had spent long years away from his beloved Abigail—always to return—took comfort at the prospect of his own death. He wrote to John Quincy that, “The bitterness of death is past. … My consolations are more than I can number. The separation cannot be so long as twenty separations heretofore. The pangs and anguish have not been so great as when you and I embarked for France in 1778.”