John and Abigail Adams
John Adams was the second President of the United States as his wife, Abigail, was the second first lady. Throughout his term and much of their lives, the two exchanged thousands of letters to each other. Many people believe Adams recorded their relationship on purpose as an account of their lives for the world to remember. Certain excerpts lead to the review of the letters for decades to come rather than their present-day time. They discussed politics, childbirth, and even the equalities between husband and wife. Many of these ideas were not supposed to be discussed nor were they accepted during their time era.
Abigail Adams was thirty-one years old and her husband John was forty-one when they exchanged these letters. Abigail was the daughter of the Reverend William and Elizabeth Quincy Smith of Weymouth, Massachusetts. She had been a well-read young woman, which attracted the attention of John Adams of Braintree, a graduate of Harvard College, schoolteacher, and lawyer-in-training. They married in 1764. They kept their farm in Braintree even as John's law practice grew and they relocated to Boston. Abigail kept house, bore five children, and supported John in his efforts to make the rule of law the foundation for government and society in America. John became a very vocal advocate for American rights, yet his defense of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre showed that his concern for justice was equally great. He represented Massachusetts in the First Continental Congress in 1774, followed by the Second Continental Congress a year later. This latter Congress was still meeting in Philadelphia when Abigail wrote John in March 1776.
Abigail's love for John and the wit of her personality surface in letters echoing the formal standards of the epistle. The elegance of the correspondent's handwriting matched the artistry of words and sentences. Abigail's letter shows that she completely understood the political situation of the spring of 1776. The thirteen colonies were loosely united by a common enemy; otherwise the middle-class farmers and merchants of New England would want little to do with the arrogant aristocrats of the South who enslaved other human beings even as they proclaimed the God-given rights of equality and freedom. Abigail was tongue in cheek in chastising John not to forget the "ladies" and their rights, which she clearly considered to be equal to their husbands.
The standards of eighteenth-century letter writing were to respond to each topic in the order presented in a letter. John knew Abigail was his intellectual equal, and he treated her accordingly, responding to each of her queries as he would any male correspondent. He responded in kind to her playful yet wholly serious comments about women's rights, arguing that his wife and other "saucy" colonial dames have the power in fact if not in name.
On this day in 1777, Continental Congressman John Adams writes three letters to and receives two letters from his wife, Abigail. He is with Congress in Philadelphia, while she maintains their farm in Braintree, Massachusetts.
The remarkable correspondence between Abigail and John Adams—numbering 1,160 letters in total—covered topics ranging from politics and military strategy to household economy and family health. Their mutual respect and adoration served as evidence that even in an age when women were unable to vote, there were nonetheless marriages in which wives and husbands were true intellectual and emotional equals.
In the second letter John drafted to Abigail on March 7, he declared that Philadelphia had lost its vibrancy during Congress' removal to Baltimore. This City is a dull Place, in Comparison [sic] of what it was. More than one half the Inhabitants have removed to the Country, as it was their Wisdom to do—the Remainder are chiefly Quakers as dull as Beetles. From these neither good is to be expected nor evil to be apprehended. They are a kind of neutral Tribe, or the Race of the insipids. By contrast, Adams described the Loyalists, who prepared their Minds and Bodies, Houses and Cellars, to receive General William Howe should he attack, as a Pack of sordid Scoundrels male and female.
In the letters John received, which Abigail had written in February, she bemoaned not only the difficulty of correspondence during war, but also of the lack of military fervor demonstrated by the New Englanders around her. She wrote that she awaited greater patriotism, greater prosperity and future correspondence from her beloved husband to his devoted Portia. (Portia, Adams' nickname for his wife was likely a reference to the intelligent and devoted heroine of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.)
Questions to Consider for Writing:
1. In what ways does John Adams describe himself in these letters, as a private citizen, as a husband and father, and as a political figure? How does this “self-portrait” develop and change during the events of the 1770s and 1780s? How do the various elements of his responsibilities fit together?
2. What do you see as the major parallels between John Adam’s personal values and those he believes ought to form the basis of the new nation he is helping to bring into being? That is, how do you see the continuity between the private and public sides of Adams’ personality and character?
3. What impressions does Adams convey of historical figures that come to play a major role in our nation’s history? Consider, for example, his descriptions of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and John Hancock. How do these impressions relate to those that we might already have?
4. What insights into daily life and its struggles do Abigail’s letters provide? What kind of a person/wife do they reveal her to be?
5. What do these letters reveal about traditional and non-traditional gender roles in Colonial America? How would you describe the dynamic between John and Abigail? What sense of their marriage do these letters present?
6. How do the details of these letters help us to understand the day-to-day conditions of life in the 1770s? Consider things like travel, living conditions, diet, health, and commerce. Are you surprised or enlightened by any of the information that these letters reveal?
7. If you were to describe the America that John Adams envisions, how would you do so? On what basis does he argue the need for independence from the English monarchy? What are the principles and goals that guide his decision? What are his hopes and aspirations for this new nation? What realities and obstacles does he struggle against? How does his vision compare to the America we live in today?