November 18, 2023 at 8:30 a.m.
The Marriage of John and Abigail Adams
Compiled by Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter
On October 25, 1764, future President John Adams married Abigail Smith. When they married, John Adams was a Harvard graduate beginning a law career. From their earliest married days, the couple began an extensive correspondence, which provides insight into the social and political climate of the Revolutionary and Early National periods in American history. This devoted couple’s prolific correspondence during their married life has provided entertainment and a glimpse of early American life for generations of history buffs.
Future first lady Abigail Adams was the daughter of a parson - Reverend William Smith of Weymouth, Massachusetts. Like other women, Abigail had no formal education, but she availed herself of the family’s library to master subjects most women never considered. She also joined her mother in caring for and tending to the poor and sick. She was home-taught and read everything from the classics to contemporary law. When she met her future husband, Adams appreciated her intellect and outspokenness. Both were staunch Federalists and abolitionists, but when their views did diverge, Abigail never hesitated to debate her husband on political or social matters. Their letters to each other during long absences imposed by his ministerial duties in France and England have been archived, published, and analyzed in great detail. They discuss an array of public issues of concern to early Americans and shed a special light on the debate over the role of women in the new nation.
While Adams was attending the first Continental Congress in 1774, Abigail wrote to him to “remember the ladies” when he and his revolutionary cohorts began drafting new laws for the fledgling nation. She asserted that “all men would be tyrants if they could” and pointed out that male Patriots who were fighting British tyranny would appear hypocritical if they should disregard the rights of half the population, the country’s women, when drafting a constitution. Abigail warned “if particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” Hailed for her now-famous admonition that the Founding Fathers “remember the ladies” in their new laws, Abigail Adams was not only an early advocate for women’s rights, but she was also a vital confidant and advisor to her husband John Adams, the nation’s second president. She opposed slavery and supported women’s education.
As her husband increasingly traveled as a lawyer, political revolutionary, and—after the Revolution—a diplomat, Abigail managed their farm and business affairs while raising the children. Although married women at this time had limited property rights, Adams began to refer to their property as hers. She also made investment decisions that enhanced the family’s prosperity. Though not exactly the feminist some historians have depicted her to be, Abigail Adams was concerned with greater protection for women under the new laws, as well as access to formal education. She allied with Judith Sargent Murray’s efforts to expand women’s education because she, too, saw mothers as having a vital role in preparing sons to be virtuous citizens and leaders in the new republic.
While some would say that John Adams showed his dislike for her independence by dismissing her “Remember the ladies” comments, nothing could be further than the truth. Though John Adams did not take his wife’s letter seriously, throughout his life, he sought her opinions on political and other matters. She traveled with him throughout Europe for five years (1783-1788) during his stint as a diplomat. When he was elected president in 1797, Adams eagerly wrote to his wife, “I never wanted your Advice and assistance more in my life…” An outspoken First Lady, Adams often defended her husband’s positions, including his advocacy of the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts (1798).
In 1800, the Adams’ became the first Presidential “First” Family to occupy the White House, after the capital moved from Philadelphia to Washington, DC. With the rise of political factions, Adams and his wife found themselves attacked in the press by their Republican opponents during his presidency (1797 – 1801) and unsuccessful reelection campaign against Thomas Jefferson in 1800.
When Adams lost his re-election bid, the couple retreated to Massachusetts and John Adams spent his last years writing his memoirs. Abigail maintained correspondence with political leaders including presidents Thomas Jefferson—who defeated her husband in a bitter election—and James Madison, as well as Dolley Madison, who remained influential after her husband’s death. Adams also worked for the political advancement of her son, John Quincy Adams, though she would not live to see his election as President in 1824. Abigail Adams died in 1818 at the age of 73. Her grandson, Charles Francis Adams published Adams’ letters in 1848. John Adams died on July 4, 1826.
[Side note: This writer is honored to be a cousin to both John Adams and Abigail Smith Adams.]
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