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Remember the Ladies: The Stage of Liberty and Justice for All


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Vincent Valentine, MD
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA
vgvalent@utmb.edu



Hundreds of letters have provided us clear pictures of Abigail Adam's character, marriage and everyday life from colonial Massachusetts and revolutionary America to the courts of Europe and the new democratic republic of America. She was upright, moralistic, devout, and possessed all the Yankee virtues of prudence, thrift, hard work and sobriety. She was widely read, headstrong and fascinated by the changing world around her. She described her experiences in writings to her husband, friends and relatives. At a time when women had no political rights, she raised the possibility that a revolutionary nation might consider the idea. At a time when slavery was all around her, she was one of the first critics of slavery. She was the first woman to live in the White House. Abigail and Martha Washington set the stage that American First Ladies have followed in American history.

She was born Abigail Smith on November 11, 1744 in Weymouth, Massachusetts. She was from a distinguished family where her father, a learned man, Congregationalist minister and an important figure, provided home schooling for Abigail and her two sisters. As a teenager, she was wooed by John Adams. Her family did not believe he, a farmer's son and a lawyer was good enough for her. Despite family tensions, the strong-minded and determined 20-year-old married John in 1764. They had five children, their second, John Quincy later became secretary of state and President. She was the first, First Lady in many respects and to have a son as President of the United States.

Because of John Adams' rapid rise to power kept her apart from John through revolutionary America, a massive compilation of correspondence with one another became and remains available. She was vehemently in favor of the American Revolution. After the Battles of Lexington and Concord, she was determined that America will declare its independence.

She wrote to her husband after hearing the minister preacher for the need of reconciliation in church:

"I could not join today in the petitions of our worthy pastor for a reconciliation between our no longer parent state, but tyrant state and these colonies. Let us separate: they are unworthy to be our brethren. Let us renounce them; and instead of supplications, as formerly, for their prosperity and happiness, let us beseech the Almighty to blast their counsels, and bring to naught all their devices."

When the United States finally declared its independence in July 1776, Abigail was delighted, then she reminded her husband in a joking (with an obvious undercurrent of seriousness) letter:

"Just as America was now declaring its independence from the British tyrant, so the time might be coming when women would declare their independence from their Husband tyrants. 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 favorable 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 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."

In response, John wrote:

"As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bands of Government everywhere. That children and apprentices were disobedient-that schools and Colleges were grown turbulent-that Indians slighted their guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerful than all the rest were grown discontented. This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy. I won't blot it out."

Now Abigail also had serious doubt that the Virginians, as slave owners, could really be dedicated to liberty. She represents the northern point of view as she wrote:

"I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion of liberty cannot be Equally Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs. Of this I am certain that it is not founded upon the generous and Christian principal of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us."

She supported voting rights and education for girls as well as boys. She grieved over the fact that she had no formal education.

"If we mean to have Heroes, Statesmen and Philosophers, we should have learned women…, after all it's the women who begin the early Education of youth and it may advantageous to start out at the highest possible level."

There was a list of individuals Abigail did not like among those were John Hancock and Benjamin Franklin. She thought John Hancock as flashy and vulgar with his "big" signature. He was all too eager to profit from his service to the nation. While in Europe she met Ben Franklin. She pointed out that Franklin was constantly flirting with much younger women. She called him the "old sorcerer" and described him as a "disreputable rogue wandering about Paris."

It was in Europe, now accompanying John on his diplomatic missions, where she developed a great deal of social poise and confidence, she would have never gained had she remained confined to America. Despite her Puritan upbringing, she was fascinated by the theater but shocked by the scantily CLAD (not chronic lung allograft dysfunction) dancing girls on stage. She felt her delicacy was wounded. She learned the self-discipline required to be a diplomatic hostess. This was her training ground to be a future first Vice-President's wife and future First Lady. She learned how to make the innocuous small talk even when she did not care for someone would attend events she hosted.

Abigail became First Lady at age 52 when John Adams was elected president in 1796. She was nervous about Alexander Hamilton who she suspected was plotting against her husband as wrote to John:

"Beware that spare Cassius (Hamilton), has always occurred to me when I have seen that cock sparrow. O, I have read his heart and wicked eyes many times. The very devil is in them. They are lasciviousness itself or I have no skill in physiognomy."

With her refined and dignified behavior she gave us a glimpse of the sense of duty necessary to be the First Lady.

"My feelings are not those of pride or ostentation upon the occasion. They are solemnized by a sense of obligations, the important trusts and numerous duties connected with it. That you may be enable to discharge them with honor to yourself, with justice and impartiality to your country, and with satisfaction to this great people, shall be the daily prayer of your Abigail."

Abigail was a better hostess than Martha Washington. Martha had no interest in politics, and she was always worried about George's personal welfare. After her extensive "training in Europe" as a diplomatic wife, Abigail sparkled as a hostess and was in the know. Just about everyone who attended the receptions were impressed how welcoming and politically savvy she was.

When John Adams and Abigail finally moved to Washington DC in the last year of his Presidency in November, 1800 they began to wander about the in the forest and got lost because of the primitive and backward conditions of the Federal City. DC was just a clearing in the swampy woods with no roads, plenty stumps everywhere and muddy tracks. They were shocked by the raw, unfinished and unrefined capital with no running water and firewood which had to be carried in from miles away. She lamented, "Here we are surrounded by forests, but no wood?" She was the first female occupant of the White House. After every rain, the unpaved streets became rivers of red mud and along with the nearby swamps, malaria and yellow fever became rampant during the hot and humid summers. Most took the conditions in stride, but it was the First Lady Abigail who commented on the incomplete White House, "the more I view of it, the more I am delighted with it." Also, this brief time in Washington, DC cemented her antipathy towards slavery.

With her husband's loss to Jefferson in 1800, John and Abigail were finally able to live together for their remaining years. But what endured was the stage she set as First Lady, now an esteemed part of American tradition.

A First Lady defined by Abigail must be loyal to her husband, represent the ideal wife and mother, and should offer implicit, not explicit, support for his policies. She should not appear to be too political. Jackie Kennedy embodied this role as the glamorous and beautiful wife, yet a devoted mother. Her name was never implicated on any particular policies President Kennedy pursued. However, a few broke the rules. Edith Wilson became notorious after Woodrow Wilson became disabled by a stroke. Word got out that Mrs Wilson had taken over and that America was suffering from "Petticoat Government." It was inappropriate for a First Lady to have such a role. Bill Clinton gambled by giving the First Lady a new kind of role. Hiliary was tasked to try popularizing the idea of a national health service which failed.

Above all, the First Lady must represent a very high moral tone. There is a lot of literature in American History about the moral superiority of women. The best example of high moral conduct came from First Lady Lucy Hayes, wife of the 19th President, Rutherford B Hayes. She was a prohibitionist and to her husband's dismay she insisted that no alcohol will be served in the White House. A famous letter from a British Ambassador stated, "The water flowed like champagne in the Hayes White House."

First Ladies were most successful when they conducted campaigns of symbolic good work such as: Lady Bird Johnson's beautification of the highways, Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign, Laura Bush's Education and Michelle Obama on Childhood Obesity.

Abigail died on October 28, 1818. John Quincy Adams summed up his mother's life:

"She had been fifty-four years the delight of my father's heart, the sweetener of all his toils, the comforter of all his sorrows, the sharer and heightener of all his joys."

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.


References:

  1. Charles W. Akers, Abigail Adams: An American Woman.
  2. David McCullough, John Adams
  3. L. H. Butterfield et al, eds, The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family.
  4. Lynne Withey, Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams.




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