Who Was Abigail Adams?
Throughout President John Adams’ career, his wife, Abigail Adams, served as an unofficial adviser and their letters show him seeking her counsel on many issues, including his presidential aspirations. Adams remained a supportive spouse and confidante after her husband became the president in 1797, and her eldest son, John Quincy, would become president seven years after her death in 1825.
Abigail Smith was born on November 11, 1744, (by the Gregorian calendar we use today) in Weymouth, Massachusetts. The daughter of a minister, she was a devoted reader, studying the works of William Shakespeare and John Milton among others. Adams did not, however, attend school, which was common for girls at the time.
Abigail Smith and John Adams were third cousins and had known each other since they were children. The two happened to meet at a social gathering in 1762, where John saw the petite, shy 17-year-old through different eyes and was immediately smitten. Three years later, the couple married and soon welcomed their first child, a daughter named Abigail, in 1765. Their family continued to grow with the addition of John Quincy in 1767, Susanna in 1768, Charles in 1770 and Thomas Boylston in 1772. Sadly, Susanna died as a toddler and later the family suffered another tragedy when Abigail delivered a stillborn daughter in 1777.
Marriage to John Adams
With a busy law practice, John spent a lot of time away from home. This situation only worsened as he became an active member of the American Revolution and the Revolutionary War. Abigail was often left to carry much of the burden at home, raising their children and caring for the family farm. The couple remained close through continuous and intimate correspondence with each other. It is believed that they exchanged more than 1,100 letters.
As John was busy hammering out a new government, Abigail expressed concern about how women would be treated. In one of her many letters to her husband, she requested that he “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. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” Odd spellings aside, Abigail often expressed her thoughts on political matters with her husband. Throughout her husband's career, Abigail served as his unofficial adviser. Their letters show him seeking her counsel on many issues, including his presidential aspirations.
After the revolution, Abigail joined her husband in France and later in England, where he served from 1785 to 1788 as the first American minister to the Court of St. James. When her husband became vice president the next year, Abigail stayed with him in the capital for only part of the time, often returning to Massachusetts to look after their farm and to tend other business matters. While in the capital, in New York, she helped First Lady Martha Washington with entertaining dignitaries and other officials.
Abigail remained a supportive spouse and confidante after her husband became the president in 1797. Some critics objected to Abigail’s influence over her husband, calling her “Mrs. President.” The nation’s second first lady kept a busy schedule when she was in Philadelphia, the country’s capital at the time. Abigail rose early to tend to family and household matters and spent much of the remainder of the day receiving visitors and hosting events. She still spent a lot of time back in Massachusetts because of her health.
Abigail and John did not always see eye to eye on matters of policy. During her husband’s presidency, the United States had some problems with France. Once a great ally, France was in the midst of a revolution when John became president. The country was being run by a five-man executive group known as the Directory along with a legislative body. The Directory had stopped trade with the United States and refused to meet with any U.S. envoys. In 1798, President Adams was told that the French officials would hold talks for substantial bribes. This attempt at extortion did not sit well with him and he told Congress about the incident. The documents related to the incident were published, and the whole situation became known as the X, Y, Z Affair as President Adams had only used letters to identify the French officials instead of their names. Abigail thought war should be declared while John sought out a peaceful, less costly solution.
The couple did, however, agree on the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The three alien acts were aimed at immigrants increasing the waiting period for naturalization, allowing the government to detain foreign subjects, and permitting the deportation of any alien deemed dangerous. The Sedition Act federalized the ban against malicious anti-government writings and other works inciting opposition to Congress or the president. Under the act, penalties included fines and jail time. An ardent champion of her husband, Abigail thought those who published lies about John should be punished. President Adams signed these acts into law and has since been rebuked by historians for this anti-immigrant, anti-free speech legislation.
Around the time her husband was defeated by Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election, the Adams learned of the death of their second son Charles, which was related to his alcoholism. With great sadness, the Adams soon moved to the country’s new capital, Washington, D.C., where they became the first residents of the White House. Abigail wrote many letters to family around this time, shedding light on the early days of the new capital and complaining about the unfinished state of their new home. A few months later, after John left office in 1801, they returned to their family farm.
With John now retired, the couple was able to spend more time together. Abigail continued to run the farm and to care for the family members, including their eldest child, Nabby (young Abigail’s nickname), who eventually died of cancer at their home in 1814. Struggling with her own health for decades, Abigail had a stroke in October 1818 and died at home with her family on October 28, 1818.
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