Hillary Clinton? No.
Nancy Reagan? No. (!!!)
Eleanor Roosevelt? Again, no. It's Abigail Adams, second "First Lady," loving wife to John Adams and a Revolutionary firebrand in her own right. Read on for more about this complex and engaging intellectual, one of our most important Founding Mothers.
Abigail Smith, Auto-Didact
The daughter of a Congregational clergyman in Weymouth, Massahusetts, Abigail Smith received a formal education typical for girls of her day-- not much! She and her sisters were encouraged to read voraciously in their father's library, however. There they devoured Shakespeare, Pope, and all the literature, theology, and philosophy that they could get their hands on. Throughout her life, Abigail remained keenly aware of her educational shortcomings, but her intellectual attainments were remarkable for anyone of her era, especially for someone so completely self-taught.
In 1764, at 20, she married the irascible young lawyer John Adams. They shared a love of books and enjoyed a genuine intellectual connection that fueled over fifty years of a passionate marriage. Although frequently separated for long periods, they wrote voluminous letters. In these, they consistently addressed each other as "dearest friend," writing political philosophy, sharing current news, and composing playfully erotic passages expressing their yearning for each other.
As a young couple, they settled on John's farm near Braintree, Massachusetts. There, Abigail demonstrated her remarkable talents for business and management.
Abigail Adams, Colonial Businesswoman
As was true for most 18th century households, the Adams farm played a key role in the family's economic fortunes. In their pre-industrial world, men and women did not separate "housework" from paid work, making most households centers of production as well as consumption.
In the household, families might make sausages, process milk into dairy products, or grow grain to sell. Many businesses (such as printing, candlemaking, and weaving) were be conducted entirely from the household, with father as the owner, mother as manager, and children and servants as workers. Because the later 18th century colonial economy mixed both cash and barter, households might trade some items, and buy others. Households served as both factories and farms--- husbands and wives were, essentially, "in business" together.
But for John and Abigail, the picture was little different. John Adams was an ambitious lawyer pursuing cases far away from Braintree. His cases were not always profitable; supporting their growing family fell heavily onto Abigail's shoulders. It was a task she relished; even after their household moved to Boston in 1768 she continued to manage the farm and other household production. Her financial support freed John to take an active role in contentious colonial politics, virtually abandoning his law practice entirely during the Continental Congresses.
Abigail Adams, Patriot and Manufacturer
Abigail was a keen Patriot, conversant with the political theory of her day. She wrote angrily to John about a church leader who used the pulpit to council obedience to the king:
I could not join to-day in the petition 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, let us beseech the Almighty to blast their counsels and bring to naught all their devices
Abigail gave John frequent updates on the war in Boston as he labored in Philadelphia. The war came uncomfortably close; she gave him heart-rending reports of disease and privations caused by the British blockade of Boston's harbor, not to mention the the Battle of Bunker Hill, which she and son Quincy personally observed. A statue in Quincy Massachusetts commemorates their witness.
She also offered reports on her own and other household's support for the Continental Army, which included learning to make saltpeter to aid the Continental forces with gunpowder.
Like other good Patriot households, the Adams farm diverted many of its precious resources to manufacturing the arms and supplies that the army so desperately needed. We may think the picture of Martha Washington knitting socks for the troops is quaint; in fact, in the era before textile factories, such female home production was the only way to outfit the Revolutionary forces.
Further, women's maintenance of a boycott against British goods put important economic pressure on the merchant class of Great Britain in an attempt to weaken British political enthusiasm for military action against the rebellious colonies. Hostile political speeches and cartoons like the one below mocked the women who formed Revolutionary associations and pledged–in writing--to keep up the economic pressure; the mockery only highlighted the efficacy of the boycott.
Abigail Adams, Women's Advocate
All of this took tremendous resources away from normal household manufacturing, and Abigail, like other women, faced economic hardship during the course of the war, at times fearing their farm might fail completely. Perhaps this motivated her to encourage John to do something about ensuring married women's rights in the new Republic. In 1776, she famously wrote him:
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. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.
The language seems quaint, almost charming, especially with Adams' idiosyncratic spelling. But to chalk this as some amusing "battle of the sexes" discussion is to ignore the very real problem Adams was addressing.
Legally speaking, 18th century women disappeared upon marriage. Under the English legal concept of "femmes couvert," these ladies simply did not exist under the law. They could expect no protection for themselves–nor for their children–if their husband was abusive. If they left, he still owned everything and had an absolute right to his children. Even a woman who earned her own money did not "own" that cash—it all went the husband. Husbands were free to starve and beat wives and children if they saw fit.
Abigail was reminding John that not all husbands and wives shared a happy partnership like their own. What about those trapped in unhappy, even life-threatening situations? Just as the Congress sought to limit the tendency of those in political power to abuse it, Abigail hoped for the same in the domestic realm. Her plea, if heeded, might have been a major step forward for American women and families.
But it was not to be. Although women's civil rights were occasionally mentioned in the conversations of the male Founders, legal personhood for married women remained in the distant future. It is worth noting that Abigail was not advocating full political participation for women, and she accepted most of the 18th century's gender distinctions. Rather, she was concerned that women's roles be honored and their opinions considered by those in power:
Let each planet shine in their own orbit, God and nature designed it so. If man is Lord, woman is Lordess — that is what I contend for, and if a woman does not hold the Reigns of Government, I see no reason for her not judging how they are conducted.
"Dr." Abigail Adams, Female Intellectual
Abigail found her husband more in sympathy when she pressed on her concern about the state of education amongst America's women:
I regret the trifling narrow contracted Education of the Females of my own country. You need not be told how much female education is neglected, nor how fashionable it has been to ridicule Female learning... If we mean to have Heroes, Statesmen, and philosophers, we should have learned women.
Abigail Adams's travels in Europe only deepened her commitment to improving women's intellectual attainments. She found herself astonished by the easy erudition of French women, who often had been thoroughly educated at convent schools----institutions with no clear equivalent in the mostly-Protestant United States. Always eager to improve her own mind, she even attended a series of science lectures in England, learning about the wonders of electricity, magnetism, hydrostatics, optics, and pneumatics.
She described this heady intellectual experience as "... like going into a Beautiful country, which I never saw before...A Country which our American Females are not permitted to visit or inspect." Her deepening appreciation of science may have driven her embrace of Unitarianism, which rejected the notion of Jesus's divinity and the wrathful Puritan God; instead, the movement embraces God as a loving, somewhat distant, benevolent force behind the laws of Nature.
In her lifelong correspondence with such intellectual heavyweights as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, and Mercy Otis Warren, Abigail Adams more than held her own. Jefferson affectionately referred to her as a learned "doctor" and seems to have enjoyed her wit as much as he appreciated her assistance in rearing his motherless daughter.
Abigail Adams, Education Reformer
Abigail's continued advocacy for women's education encouraged other reformers like Judith Sargeant Murray, and helped fuel a wider movement that resulted in an explosion of ladies' academies in the early republic. At these schools, girls learned household skills and "female graces"—but also, increasingly, literature, languages (especially French), and history. Sadly, Abigail did not live to see Emma Willard open the country's first publicly-endowed institution of women's higher education in 1821.
Adams was also appalled by the limited educational opportunities afforded African-Americans in her country. Abigail Adams' thoughts on race were not enlightened by our standards. Although opposed to slavery, she was uncomfortable with the idea of inter-racial marriage and was shocked at seeing the same represented in a London production of Othello.
Yet she saw no reason that blacks and whites should not be schooled together. Back in Massachusetts, she caused a stir in 1791 by enrolling a young black servant in the local evening school. Several whites complained, which exasperated Adams. She argued that the young man was
...a Freeman as much as any of the young Men and merely because his Face is Black, is he to be denied instruction? How is he to be qualified to procure a livelihood? . . . I have not thought it any disgrace to my self to take him into my parlor and teach him both to read and write.
"Queen" Abigail, Political Partner
During the later 1790s, Abigail served as a counselor and able political networker to her husband during his troubled presidency.. He wrote to her during an absence:
I never wanted your Advice and assistance more in my life...The Times are critical and dangerous, and I must have you here to assist me.
Abigail's influence was sneered at by John's political opponents, who mocked "Her Majesty" as a power-hungry queen wannabe. And indeed, Abigail's opinions, like John's, took a decidedly authoritarian (and arguably un-Constitutional) turn during the widespread national security fears of the 1790s. She vigorously defended the Alien and Sedition Acts, confessing herself in fear for her husband's life. She and John broke decisively with Thomas Jefferson, their old friendship withering in bitter political disagreement.
But the charge that Adams had regal ambitions is a bit unfair. She was doing what she had always done: offering John and others her sincere political opinion while continuing to run the domestic economy. It was the same old routine for Abigail, whether hanging laundry up to dry in the unfinished east Room of the presidential mansion and or drumming up political support for her beloved John at Federalist soirees.
Abigail Adams, Founding Mother
After John's presidency was over, Abigail led the way in forging a reconciliation between her tempermental husband and Jefferson. Upon learning of the death of his daughter, Abigail wrote Jefferson a conciliatory letter that was the first step in a slow rekindling of the closeness that had once characterized the two families.
In her last years, Abigail continued to farm with John, and to maintain her correspondence, counseling her son John Quincy Adams in his overseas ambassadorial duties, and offering sound advice to her successor Dolly Madison. She died in 1818, at 73 years old.
Although the term "First Lady" was not used during her day, Abigail Adams certainly earned the title, and through more than merely being married to one president (and mother to another). In 2003, Abigail Adams was honored with a statue at the Boston Women's Memorial, taking her place alongside Lucy Stone and Phyllis Wheatley in honor of her role in helping to secure the rights of women—and all Americans.
Further Reading and About the Series
For younger readers, Abigail Adams: Courageous Patriot provides a nice introduction to Abigail Adams. Natalie S. Bober's Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution is aimed at middle grades and high school readers, but offers enough complexity to be an enjoyable read for adults. Edith Gelles' scholarly treatment Abigail Adams: A Writing Lifetreats Adams as serious literary figure.
The best way to get to know the Adamses is from their own words. The Letters of John and Abigail Adams provides a complete look at the lifelong partnership and marriage between these two fiery intellects. The Adams Letters offers up the complete correspondance amongst Jefferson and both the Adamses, providing a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the beginnings of the United States. (Those who would like to skip the reading altogether might enjoy the PBS American Experience John and Abigail Adams or the more commercial A&E Biography episode about the same.)
Founding Mothers is an ongoing DKos series about early American history examining women such as Revolutionary solider Deborah Sampson, Puritan rebel Anne Hutchinson, and Matoaka, the Real Pocahontas. Next week, look for a special crossover between Founding Mothers and Unitary Moonbat's History for Kossacks when your humble author takes a turn in the Moonbat's cave! I'll examinine the role of women abolitionists and the Seneca Falls movement in American politics 1830-1860. Until then, get your history fix with the terrific Forgotten Founding Fathers series by mkfox, or check out my other series, Canadian History for Americans.