Abigail Adams might’ve made a better president than her husband

  • Our nation’s second First Lady is remembered for three words in defense of women’s rights, but she wrote thousands of private letters revealing a sharp political mind.
  • She was also a high roller in financial markets, leaving her husband debt-free, unlike other prominent founders.
  • Despite what others say, she was absolutely a feminist.

The second First Lady of the United States is best remembered for three little words she wrote to her husband, John Adams, in the year 1776:

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency — and by the way, in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.”

There may be no graver disservice we do to our ancestors than when we reduce their lives to these little sound bites. It’s history by convenience, history for a nation of TV-watchers and tweet-readers.

I have had the pleasure these past few days of discovering Abigail Adams’ life in words, words, words! Hundreds of thousands of words, erudite and witty and moral — words reflecting the keen mind and political savvy of a woman who shared with her husband every step of this country’s march to a novel form of representative democracy.

Because nearly all these words were conveyed in private, however, and because she was a woman, they have been largely out of public view since her death 200 years ago.

In 2016 the Library of America, our great compiler of the country’s “best and most significant writing,” sought to right that wrong. LOA published an authoritative edition of 430 letters selected from more than 2,000 that Abigail Adams wrote, including 100 never before published.

Reading them, one is introduced to a singular mind that would be entirely at ease, in many ways, with the modern era (though probably not with television or tweets). When paired with an excellent biography — I recommend Woody Holton’s 2009 Abigail Adams: A Life — one sees the founding of the republic through entirely different eyes.

We see it through the eyes of a politically disempowered citizen who is every bit the equal, and in surprising ways the superior, of her famous partner.

Telling off Jefferson

My favorite letters so far are Abigail’s side of a fiery exchange with then-president Thomas Jefferson in 1804. T.J. had ousted her husband in the rough election of 1800, ending their families’ friendship. But when Jefferson’s daughter Polly, whom Abigail adored, passed away, she was moved to suspend her old grudges and send off a lovely condolence note to the president.

“I know how closely entwined around a parents heart, are those chords which bind the filial to the parental Bosom, and when snaped assunder, how agonizing the pangs of seperation,” Abigail wrote. “That you may derive comfort and consolation in this day of your sorrow and affliction … is the sincere and ardent wish of her, who once took pleasure in subscribing Herself your Friend — Abigail Adams”

Jefferson attempted a warm reply, but like Abigail could not quite restrain himself from referencing the unpleasantness of 1800. In particular, he brought up the “one act” that upset him — in the waning days of his administration, John Adams had appointed a number of judges who, Jefferson complained, “were from among my most ardent political enemies.”

In her lengthy and entertaining reply, Abigail Adams dismisses the notion “that personal unkindness was intended” by these appointments. Then, kicking open the door of memory that Jefferson had just pushed ajar, she pivots to an entirely different matter.

She unloads on the president for his recent decision to reverse a hefty fine leveled by John Adams on a journalist, James Callender, for publishing lies about her husband. These were, she asserts, “the basest libel, the lowest and vilest Slander, which malice could invent.” By rescinding the fine on Callender, she declares, Jefferson was giving “public approbation of his conduct.”

As a journalist myself, I’m not sure what to think about using the Alien and Sedition Act to punish James Callender. But he was pretty much a lowlife, and Jefferson’s reasons for letting him off the hook were not First Amendment-based. Abigail was right — he was rewarding Callender for slandering her husband.

And Jefferson would soon regret his decision. In 1805 Callender started a whispering campaign that the sitting president had secretly fathered a child with a slave named Sally Hemings.

Abigail makes a killing in the markets

John Adams never heeded his wife’s counsel to “remember the ladies.” Coverture — the old English legal doctrine that a woman’s rights are superseded by her husband at marriage — would be the law of the land well past her death in 1818.

But there are many signs, as Woody Holton writes, that Abigail operated her household “as though the doctrine of coverture lost its force at her front door.” The best example of this is how she handled her finances.

Her finances, be it noted. John Adams did not always approve of her investing in Revolutionary War-era bonds or dealing in “European finery” — but he did not put his foot down and stop her, either.

Probably, says Holton, that owed to “her mounting success” as a savvy investor. Indeed, by the end of her life she had socked away so much money and land that Adams respected a document she had left behind — legally Abigail could not write her own will — directing him in the way to dispose of her assets.

Abigail’s almost unblemished run as an investor, trader, and speculator over 30 years meant that John Adams, at his death in 1826, could leave his heirs without debt. Jefferson, Washington, and other founders were not so lucky.

But was she a feminist?

You will hear historians assert that Abigail Adams could not have been a feminist because “that was a 20th-century concept.”

I reject this premise.

What is it about the demand for full social, economic, and political equality that makes it foreign to 18th-century women like Abigail Adams?

Having spent so much time in her mind these past couple of weeks, I am convinced she would pass muster with any reasonable 21st-century feminist.

Let’s take her most famous quote … and stretch it out a few more sentences. From the letter sent April 5, 1776:

“… 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.

“That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend. Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in immitation of the Supreem Being make use of that power only for our happiness.”

Domestic abuse was not against the law. Husbands could do with their wives’ bodies as they saw fit, and also their earnings and assets. Combine that with the high rate of alcohol consumption and abuse in the U.S. at that time, and it’s clear that Abigail Adams is hardly exaggerating when she talks about the tyranny and cruelty of men.

Very little changed over the next 75 years. Clarina Nichols, the Vermont newspaper publisher turned woman’s rights campaigner, would essentially make the same points in her most famous address, “The Responsibilities of Woman,” in 1851. 

Another reason given for why Abigail Adams was not a feminist is that “she never demanded the right to vote.” As Diane’s biography of Clarina Nichols makes clear, however, women and especially married women were deprived of so many basic rights at the start of the movement, following the Seneca Falls meeting of 1848, that it took a while to gain a consensus around suffrage.

So we can hardly fault Abigail Adams for not demanding the vote first and foremost. We should be crediting her, instead, for being a woman way, way ahead of her time.

Dig deeper

At over 1,150 pages, Abigail Adams: Letters is longer than the Library of America edition devoted to the writings of her husband! I will warn you, her Colonial-era spellings and punctuation are left intact. These are a challenge for the untrained modern eye to scan. My solution — read it aloud! Letters are meant to be read aloud, anyway.

If you don’t have time to read Woody Holton’s full biography of Abigail Adams, his interview with the always great Liz Covart is worth an hour. And Liz will tell you how to get a copy of his 2007 paper “Abigail Adams, Bond Speculator” without a JSTOR account.

Of course you should watch the HBO film. It’s free for Prime members and HBO subscribers.

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