Throughout her life, Abigail Adams (1744-1818) held steadfast to core principles: she was a humanitarian, activist, and leader with an acute sense of both America's successes and failures. Adams advocated for gender equality in public education and the need to pay attention to the social, political, and educational needs of women. She also firmly believed in the necessity for the emancipation of African Americans from slavery and, like her husband, firmly believed in dissolving the political union with Great Britain. In one final act of rebellion, Adams, a married woman whose property was controlled by her living husband, wrote a will and left the majority of her possessions to her female kin.
Frequently forsaking private joy for the greater public good, Adams voiced her views not only in quasi-political situations—such as during her appointment to the Massachusetts Colony General Court in 1775—but also to her husband during his numerous domestic and overseas diplomatic missions. It was in her role as unofficial advisor that she made her greatest contributions to the early American nation. It is believed that Abigail and John Adams exchanged more than 1,100 letters on topics ranging from government and politics to women's rights. Her firm views on American independence were succinctly expressed in a 1775 letter, explaining: "Let us separate, they are unworthy to be our Brethren. Let us renounce them. . .."1
Abigail Adams first met George Washington shortly after he took command of the Continental Army. Adams had initial hesitations regarding Washington as a slaveholder and member of the Virginia planter elite. However, after meeting, Adams wrote her husband that she was "struck with General Washington," and that his appointment was received with "universal satisfaction." Adams further explained that Washington was marked by "Dignity with ease. . .the Gentleman and Soldier look agreeably blended in him."2
An ardent advocate for the cause of American liberty, Adams was uniquely able to express herself with eloquence at a time when women received little formal instruction. In a series of letters written beginning in 1776, Adams boldly argued for women’s rights. After learning that her husband would serve on the committee that would draft the Declaration of Independence, Adams admonished him to: "Remember the Ladies... ." Although John Adams did not follow his wife's advice, ultimately his political agenda was shaped as much by his own opinions as by his valuable discourse with Abigail.
Abigail was John's all-encompassing aide-de-camp, chief of staff, and brain trust. However, her influence was not appreciated by all, particularly those who scathingly called her "Mrs. President." Abigail accompanied John to his diplomatic post in Paris in 1784. In 1785, she carefully handled the complex role of wife of the first United States Minister to Great Britain. And later she was wife of the first U.S. Vice President, and wife of the second U.S. President, serving as First Lady from March 4, 1797 to March 4, 1801.
A granddaughter of pre-revolutionary era politician John Quincy, and the daughter of a Congregationalist minister, Abigail married John Adams in October 1764 at the age of nineteen. Abigail's lifelong enjoyment of philosophy, theology, ancient history, government, and law, which was championed by her grandmother and other relatives, helped both Abigail and the young American nation chart a new course. Abigail played a vital role in America until her passing in 1818.
Today people continue to recognize Abigail Adams for her unique and important role in American history, particularly in the founding era of the early American republic. She is remembered on a ten dollar gold coin in the First Spouse coin series by the United States Mint. She receives special mention in the Boston Women's Heritage Trail. She is commemorated in the "John and Abigail Adams Scholarship" with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. She continues to be the subject of numerous articles and books.
Elizabeth Bissell Miller
University of Missouri
1. Abigail Adams to John Adams, 12 November 1775, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-01-02-0214.
2. Abigail Adams to John Adams, 16 July 1775, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-01-02-0162.
Bober, Natalie S. Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1995.
Gelles, Edith B. Abigail Adams: A Writing Life. New York: Routledge, 2002.
------. "Abigail Adams: Domesticity and the American Revolution." The New England Quarterly 1979, 500-521.
Holton, Woody. Abigail Adams. New York: Free Press, 2009.
Levin, Phyllis Lee. Abigail Adams: A Biography. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2001.
Shuffelton, Frank, ed. The Letters of John and Abigail Adams. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.