Who was Abigail Adams?
Abigail Adams was the wife of second president John Adams and mother of the sixth president, John Quincy Adams. She is mostly remembered for the letters she wrote to her husband while he was away during the Continental Congress and while he served as a diplomat in Europe. The letters were filled with discussions and advice on government matters, she played an important role in her husband’s success as a young lawyer and a politician.
Abigail Adams née Abigail Smith was born on November 11, 1744 in Weymouth, Massachusetts. His father was Reverend William Smith from the Congregational Church and her mother Elizabeth Quincy. The Quincy family was a well-know political family in Massachusetts. Abigail was the second born and often in poor health. She had an older sister Mary, a younger brother and sister, William and Elizabeth. She was 5’1”, had brown hair and brown eyes.
At the time girls did not attend school, her mother home-schooled Abigail and her sisters, teaching them reading and writing. Even though the girls did not receive a formal education, they had access to extensive libraries belonging to their father and maternal grandfather. This enabled them to study French and English literature as well as history, philosophy, theology, law and government. Abigail read avidly becoming an intellectual open minded woman, not common in those days. Her curiosity and intellect attracted John Adams, an aspiring lawyer, who she married after three years of courtship.
Marriage to John Adams
On October 25, 1764, when Abigail was 19, she married John Adams and moved into a house in Braintree he inherited from his late father. This house stands 75 feet away from the house he was born and raised. There was much happiness in the marriage; Abigail was an attractive and intelligent woman who John admired and considered her equal.
The following year she gave birth to their first daughter, Abigail, who they called Nabby and in 1767, their first son, John Quincy, was born. At this time John Adams decided to move the family to Boston as most of his practice was located in the city. They lived in a series of rental houses as their need for space increased. In the following years the couple had four more children and moved back and forth from Braintree to Boston. In 1768 Susanna was born, in 1770 Charles, 1772 Thomas Boylston and 1777 Elizabeth, a stillborn. In 10 years the couple had six children.
John Adams absences
Abigail adjusted to her husband’s work and frequent absences. She was responsible for the children’s education, the house, farm and finances. As Adams’ political career climbed so did his time away from home. Longer absences from home started in 1774 when John left Braintree for Philadelphia to attend the Continental Congress. Letters were exchanged often. While in the process of drafting the constitution Abigail wrote a letter to her husband and the congress requesting for the new government to grant women equal rights.
In 1777 he was assigned a post in Paris where he was accompanied by John Quincy. He was separated from the rest of his family for more than eighteen months. Other international assignments followed by longer periods of separation. During this time she kept him informed of domestic politics and occurrences while he of international affairs.
By 1784 and since they married in 1764 the couple had lived separately almost half of the time. Years of separation ended in the summer of 1785 when Abigail joined John in Europe starting a new journey in her life. That year John was appointed Minister to England where they resided until 1788. That year they returned to Massachusetts and as the family became more affluent they moved to a large house known as the Old House or Peacefield in Quincy, Massachusetts. Here is where the John and Abigail lived the rest of their lives and the next three generations also called it home.
Abigail always supported and showed active interest in her husband’s political career, more so during his two presidential campaigns in 1796 and 1800. She became First Lady in March 1801, at 52 years of age, she was conscious that her live would change with new challenges and duties ahead. Her residence for the four years was in the temporary capital of Philadelphia and Washington for the last eighteen months of her husband’s term. She was the first First Lady to live in the Presidential House, later called White House.
During Adams’ term as president she assumed an active role as an informal adviser to the president and as the First Lady. She remained an advocate for women’s rights and equal public education for women as well as the emancipation of slaves which she considered a threat to democracy.
Abigail Adams by Jane Stuart, C. 1800. This portrait is located in the Old House in the Adams National Park.
John and Abigail exchanged over 1,100 letters from 1762 until 1801. The correspondence began during their courtship in 1762 and provides a vivid account of their lives through the critical moments of America’s fight for independence. The letters show the hardship of their daily lives and Abigail’s strength in taking the role of head of the family during her husband’s long absences. Her determination in raising a family, dealing with childbirth, the loss of a child, smallpox and wartime shortages. They also show her support to her husband’s career and her own political views.
They exchanged numerous letters during his time away from home during the Continental Congress and diplomatic assignments in Europe. Writing letters during the war was challenging and some were intercepted. They wrote letters when they were in Europe in a couple of occasions in 1786 and 1789 when they were apart. During Adams’ vice-presidency and presidency they exchange many letters when Adam’s was away or Abigail was in their house in Quincy.
Most of the couple’s life and insights are known from their collection of letters which is part of the Adams Family Papers of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Their website features 1,160 letters.
Abigail suffered of poor health during her final years. She died of typhoid fever in her home in Quincy, Massachusetts on October 28, 1818 when she was 73 years old. She is buried in the First Unitarian Church in Quincy, Massachusetts beside John Adams, John Quincy and his wife Catherine Adams.