Women’s History Month is a great opportunity to commemorate the contributions of God-fearing women in American history. Women have played an important role in our nation’s history and the women in this series represent those who have faithfully, courageously, and humbly served their families, communities, and our nation. Periodically throughout the month of March, we will be sharing some of these inspiring stories.
Abigail Smith Adams is best known as the wife of our nation’s second president, John Adams, and the mother of our sixth president, John Quincy Adams. She served as the close advisor and confidant of her husband and the first teacher of her son. But Abigail was also a formidable public figure in her own right. She was among the first to advocate for equal rights for American women. She also promoted formal education for girls and staunchly opposed slavery.
Abigail was born on November 11, 1744, in Weymouth, Massachusetts. Her father was a Congregationalist minister, and her mother was the daughter of John Quincy, who served as Speaker of the Massachusetts Assembly for over 40 years. Abigail was the second oldest of five children and stood barely over five feet tall. She did not receive a formal education as a young woman (this was common at the time); however, she was taught to read and write by her mother at home and availed herself of the family library, where she learned philosophy, theology, government, and law. She also read the classics and Shakespeare’s plays. Abigail was raised on the family farm, but her poor health as a child relegated her to spending most of her days indoors, writing letters and reading books.
On October 25, 1764, 19-year-old Abigail Smith married 28-year-old lawyer John Adams, who is said to have greatly admired her for her intellect and opinionated nature. They had six children together (one was stillborn). The oldest, Abigail (“Nabby”), was born nine months after their marriage. Her second oldest and most famous child, John Quincy Adams, was born in 1767. Sadly, Abigail buried four of her children over the course of her life—only John Quincy and Thomas, her second youngest, outlived her. Aside from the large task of raising and educating her children, Abigail also worked closely with her husband to run the series of farms they rented before finally buying their own farm, “Peacefield,” in 1787.
In 1774, John headed to Philadelphia to join the First Continental Congress. The couple began a long correspondence, wherein John would ask his wife’s advice and opinions on various political matters. They also provided each other with updates on the family farm, Congress, the war for independence, and personal matters. In one letter, Abigail expressed her disdain for the institution of slavery:
I wish most sincerely there was not a Slave in the province. It allways appeard a most iniquitious Scheme to me-fight ourselfs for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have. You know my mind upon this Subject.
In 1775, Abigail was appointed to serve as a judge of Tory ladies by the Massachusetts Colony General Court. The governor’s wife, Hannah Winthrop, and poet and playwright Mercy Warren were other prominent appointees. During this time, Abigail also worked alongside Judith Sargent Murray, who wrote one of the earliest books on women’s equality, On the Equality of the Sexes. Adams and Murray both wanted women to have the opportunity for formal education, property rights, and control of their earnings.
In July of 1776, the Continental Congress agreed upon the Declaration of Independence, and freedom from Britain was on the horizon. It was at this time that Abigail wrote her most famous piece of correspondence to her husband, a letter that has since been referred to as “Remember the Ladies.” In this letter, she pleads with John to do what he can to allow women equal opportunity to participate in the new union. She notes, “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.” Although Abigail’s wishes were not immediately realized, her words of wisdom encouraged the creation of public policies to protect women’s rights down the road.
From 1778-88, John served as a U.S. ambassador to England and France. During the first five years of his time abroad, Abigail kept her husband informed of the young country’s new policies and progress while he confided in her on international affairs. She joined her husband in London in 1783, and they remained there until shortly before John was elected to serve as the first vice president under George Washington, from 1789-1797. John greatly respected his wife, and when he was elected the second president of the United States (1797-1801), he wrote her these words, “I never wanted your Advice and assistance more in my life.” John and Abigail Adams were the first presidential family to occupy the White House, although it was later burned down by the British during the War of 1812 and had to be rebuilt.
Although her husband was the president, the public was equally familiar with Abigail, due to her nature of speaking her mind on any and every matter. Her support for her husband’s positions, bills, and opinions on various political issues resulted in her own reputation being criticized in public. While serving as first lady, she went as her husband’s proxy and inspected a military regiment, continued to advance women’s rights to education, and promoted the abolition of slavery. In a particularly memorable incident, Abigail sought to have a free black boy named James admitted to an evening school to learn cyphering. She recounted the story in a letter to John:
The Boy is 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? Is this the Christian principle of doing to others, as we would have others do to us?
Throughout her letters to her husband during their 54 years of marriage, Abigail frequently referenced Scripture to encourage him and as a reminder of the Lord’s grace and sovereignty to guide the country. Her devotion to her husband and her country is commendable, but her true loyalty was to God, who guided her through the toils of life and enabled her to stand strong. Abigail Adams died at the age of 73 on October 28, 1818, at her home in Quincy, Massachusetts.