My Booking It Through History: First Ladies focus for the month of February was the indomitable Abigail Adams. Often described by using her most famous quote (Remember the Ladies!), there was so much more to Abigail than at first glance. Following in the first First Lady’s footsteps had to be challenging, but Abigail is revered today for her wit, spirit, and example of how a woman can be both a devoted wife and mother and a feminist icon.
Each month, I’ll detail the life of the first lady and their legacy. Then I’ll share what I learned while studying them, along with ways you can travel in their footsteps through historical sites and museums. I’ll also share books, podcasts, TV shows, and websites where you can learn even more about that first lady. Read all of the way through the blog post or click on the links below to go straight to those sections.
Abigail Smith was born in 1744 to a Weymouth, Massachusetts Congregationalist minister and his wife who hailed from one of New England’s most well-known political families, the Quincys. The youngest of three sisters, Abigail didn’t receive a formal education but was taught to read and write and was given access to her family’s large library. As a sickly child, she spent many hours reading her favorite books and honing her sharp mind, becoming an intelligent and opinionated young woman. As her grandmother said, “wild colts make the best horses.”
In 1759, when John Adams, a young Harvard student, visited her home with a friend who was courting Abigail’s sister, he must have been flabbergasted with the fifteen year old Abigail and her keen intellect. He was at first disdainful of her strong personality, but in a few years’ time, he grew to appreciate and even admire it. By 1761, they were courting even though her parents did not approve of John’s social station and career prospects. Their letters which have survived from this time period describe him calling her, “Miss Adorable,” and her beginning letters with, “My Friend” (a term of endearment).
They married in 1764 in her father’s parsonage and moved into a home beside his childhood home in Braintree, Massachusetts.
They soon had their first child, little Abigail (called Nabby) and added several more children in the coming years – John Quincy, Susanna (who died at a year old), Charles, and Thomas (plus a stillborn girl during the Revolutionary War years). John’s work as a lawyer often took him throughout Massachusetts, leaving Abigail in charge of the farm and home. She rose to the occasion, running the household and overseeing the tenant farmers. This immense responsibility would serve her well in the coming years when John was gone for the Revolution.
The family moved to Boston in 1768 because of John’s growing legal work there, and they settled in a home near what would soon become the site of the Boston Massacre. After the event, John represented the British soldiers who fired into the crowd, and by 1771, the Adams family was back in Braintree as political fervor reached a boiling point with the Boston Tea Party. While John served in Philadelphia with the First and Second Continental Congress, Abigail was left at home with the children for months at a time with the British just miles away in Boston.
The Revolutionary War began at nearby Lexington and Concord in 1775, and the following year’s Battle of Bunker Hill was so close that Abigail and young John Quincy could see it from the hill near the home. Throughout the war, Abigail had to run a home in the midst of inflation and scarcity, and the responsibility on Abigail’s shoulders was mighty but she was up to the task. She took charge of the family’s finances by purchasing land and beginning a soon-to-be-thriving mercantile business, using John to send her needed items that she could then resell. She did all of this while dealing with the inevitable sicknesses of 18th century life and seeing to her children’s education. She was lonely, but she understood that in a public life, one gave up their own good for the greater good (not that the knowledge made it any easier!).
She kept up with politics and read many different papers, writing to John with her advice and suggestions. Never reticent in her opinions, she thought that women deserved a better education and opportunities in the new country John was helping to form. This led to her famous quote:
“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.”
Much has been made of this quote, and while Abigail fought for women’s rights, she was also a woman of her time, believing in the traditional roles of marriage and station. But when you read the words above, you can’t help but feel that she was decades ahead of her time, especially a few years later when she advocated for women in public office. She was also clever enough to turn the Founding Fathers’ own arguments with Britain against them.
In early 1778, John left America to negotiate a military alliance with France, taking John Quincy with him as he sailed across the sea. One can only imagine the heartsick Abigail watching the ship sail away in Massachusetts Bay, leaving her with three small children and a farm to run in the midst of a war. Upon his return in 1779, he was home only a few months before the Continental Congress sent him back to Europe to negotiate peace with Britain. This time, he took both John Quincy and Charles, leaving Abigail with Nabby and Thomas. For years, Abigail and John were separated with only sporadic letters flowing between them (at one point, she didn’t hear from John for ten months!). I can’t imagine her motherly worry as her oldest son was eventually sent to Russia (and didn’t write to her for two years!) and her youngest was sent home – alone. I’m sure she wanted to wring John’s neck!
With the boys at school and John still in Europe, Abigail was finally free to join him in 1784, taking Nabby away from an unsuitable love match. She was apprehensive about the journey, but they set sail for London on a horrible and wretched voyage where she cleaned the ship and cooked for the crew to make it up to her standards. After being separated for over three years, she was soon reunited with John, and they made their way to France where John served with Thomas Jefferson, whom Abigail thought of as “one of the choice ones of the earth.” She even served as guardian of his young daughter, Polly, when she came to Europe.
In 1785, the Adamses left the “immoral” traditions of France to serve as the American representative in Britain. Abigail did not think highly of the formal British court and hated how the British papers treated John. During their time in England, Nabby married John’s secretary who had been one of Washington’s aide-de-camps during the war, William Smith (ironically the same name as Abigail’s brother!). John and Abigail returned to America in 1788 and settled at a new, bigger home in Braintree.
Not home for long, John was elected Vice-President in 1789 and set out for the capital of New York City where Abigail joined him a few months later. Their home, Richmond Hill, had served as one of Washington’s headquarters during the war and would eventually be Aaron Burr’s home. She enjoyed living there and especially getting to know Lady Washington, joining her for levees and receptions although Abigail was much more interested in attending the Congressional debates. Upon the capital’s move to Philadelphia, Abigail continued her hostess duties until she came down with malaria and headed back to Massachusetts, destined to not visit Philadelphia for five years (missing John’s entire second term).
Abigail enjoyed being back on her farm and tending to her family’s business, especially since she thought the federal government didn’t adequately pay John. She continued to express her political opinions in letters to John, horrified at the revolutionary fever in France and angry at the anti-Federalists (including her friend, Jefferson) who were scheming against John. Like most First Ladies, she hated her husband’s political opponents and slanders in the press.
When John became president in March of 1797, Abigail was not at his swearing in (like Martha before her). She worried about becoming First lady, about having to “look at every word before I utter it, and to impose a silence upon my self, when I long to talk.” I think some of the modern First Ladies could empathize with this! She came to Philadelphia reluctantly, brokenhearted at her mother-in-law’s recent death and the distress of Nabby’s marriage. She entertained in the capital but was always ready to flee back to Massachusetts during the summer.
Her time as First Lady was not her happiest with the virulent fevers sweeping through Philadelphia and, at times, keeping her separated from John. Despair over her children’s foibles in marriage and finances also weighed heavily on the first couple’s minds (Charles was troubled by alcoholism and debt, Nabby’s husband was in financial distress, and John Quincy had been gone for years and married during his ambassadorship to London). As John wrote to her that children were nothing but trouble and that George Washington was a happy man because he had no children to give him pain, Abigail responded that “if he has none to give him pain, he has none to give him pleasure.” Ever the mother, she defended her children to him even as she was upset at their behavior.
When the capital moved to the fledgling city of Washington, Abigail headed to the unfinished President’s House in December of 1800 and made it a home even though it was drafty and too large (it took thirteen fires to heat!). On her way, she stopped to see her son, Charles, in New York City who was dying of alcoholism. Soon after her arrival, she learned he had died and also that John would likely lose reelection. It must have been a hard time, establishing a new home for the country’s president and knowing that she wouldn’t be the one living in it. She also spent time at Mount Vernon with the widowed Mrs. Washington, and one can only imagine the stories they shared!
Stuart, Gilbert, Artist. Abigail Smith Adams wife of John Adams / photo of portrait by Gilbert Stuart. , 1830. [Between ? and 1860?] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2014648296/.
After only three months in Washington, she set out for home, enduring a terrifying trip across an icy river. Abigail was happy to be home but worried about meeting John Quincy’s wife, Louisa (a future First Lady!), who she expected to be a spoiled, idle woman. With John Quincy in Boston, Abigail was happy to have them close but never had a warm relationship with Louisa, even when they left for an appointment in Russia and Louisa suffered from much of the same issues as the wife of an ambassador as Abigail had decades earlier. Nabby’s family was also a source of despair with her husband and son’s involvement in a plot to free the Spanish colony in Venezuela and with Nabby’s diagnosis of breast cancer and subsequent mastectomy (with only laudenum to dull the pain).
The years John and Abigail spent together at the end of their lives were full of family issues and hardship, but at least they were together for all of it. After so many years of separation and giving up their lives for the country, they were able to face all of these crises together. That had to be gratifying, especially as they learned about the death of John Quincy’s infant daughter in Russia and Nabby’s eventual death from breast cancer. Even though death was pervasive in the 18th century, it didn’t mean that they suffered any less. The losses aged Abigail but she still had much responsibility in raising her grandchildren and seeing to their marriages and education. She lived to see John Quincy come back from Russia and be appointed Secretary of State, but soon after contracted typhus and died a few weeks shy of her 74th birthday in 1818. She had a will that was not legal (as married women had no property to distribute) but gave her money and goods to her female relatives. Even in her death, Abigail fought for the rights of women.
Quotes taken from Dearest Friend by Lynne Withey and Abigail Adams by Woody Holton
Abigail is one of the most studied and revered women from the 18th century. Her famous quote to “Remember the Ladies” is one of the most cited slogans from the era. She leaves a legacy for women’s rights that is forward-thinking and ambitious. Not only did she advocate for women to own property and be in charge of their finances (much like she did!), she also believed that women should have a say in the politics that affected them and that they should be provided an equal education to the men. Her lack of a formal education was something she never got over, and she always fought for women to have the chance to better their families through schooling.
This doesn’t mean that she was progressive in all ways, and she still believed that women should support their husbands as the head of the household. Maybe while also securing independence much like she did by purchasing property and running the farm during the Revolution? Abigail was able to do so because she knew John would support her efforts; most women could not rely upon that guarantee.
Abigail was a typical independent New Englander who valued cheerful industriousness and moral certitudes. She believed that mothers were primarily responsible for making sure her children were upstanding Christian citizens, but as she learned in her later years, a mother’s devotion doesn’t guarantee a good outcome for her children. The revolutionary fervor she experienced also mellowed in her later years as she saw the outcomes of the French Revolution and the election of a Republican government, led by her former friend, Jefferson.
Abigail was opinionated and always had a choice comment to make on John’s political opponents, especially those from the southern states whom she considered lazy and indolent. She was prescient in a letter to her sister where she said that “If I live ten years longer, I shall see a devision [sic] of the Southern and Northern states.” She saw the growing divide between the industrial North and the agricultural South, especially around slavery, and knew it could only lead to troubles.
Abigail grew up in a home that had two enslaved workers but as she grew older, she became opposed to slavery. During the Revolution, she wrote to John that she thought it was hard to “fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.” She also fought for the rights of African Americans to an education. Living for just a few months in Washington, she saw the capital being built on the backs of the enslaved population and was horrified.
Abigail’s legacy is enhanced by the over 1100 letters that still exist between her and John, not to mention the letters she sent to others. Unlike Martha Washington who burned her entire correspondence with George, we can read John and Abigail’s own words to see how they truly felt about issues of the time. It is a treasure trove of information (and is accessible online through the Massachusetts Historical Society). Due to the presence of these letters, we feel like we really know Abigail and can hear her words in our own quests for freedom and independence.
She is also known as one of only two women to be the wife and mother of a president (she was the only one until Barbara Bush joined her in 2001). What an amazing woman!
My Time with Abigail
Growing up in North Carolina, Abigail Adams wasn’t someone I learned much about with John not participating as a soldier in the battle that took place near my hometown and with their home hundreds of miles away in Massachusetts. Even living in Virginia, the mother of presidents, Abigail is not a huge presence (mainly because Adams is the only president of the first five who didn’t hail from Virginia!). I thoroughly enjoyed this deep dive into her life and admire her tenacity and determination to keep her family afloat and together during a war. I can only imagine how lonely it was for her to be separated from her husband for years as soldiers marched through her front yard and battles took place close enough to smell the gunpowder. She faced an uncertain financial future with John gone, and I couldn’t get over her resourcefulness in buying property and selling goods. She certainly rose to the occasion that was thrust upon her and didn’t give up.
While I didn’t connect with her personality as much as Martha Washington, I enjoyed learning about her outspokenness and pluck. At the end of the day, she was a devoted wife and mother who knew that the Founding Fathers were creating a unique country that would be her children’s legacy. Her work to ensure the “ladies” weren’t forgotten and to promote the education of women is a foundation upon which I stand. I am grateful.
Travels with Abigail
While I was unable to travel to Massachusetts to walk in Abigail’s footsteps, I did live there for two years. I wish I had visited these sites then but they’re now on my to visit list!
Abigail was born in Weymouth, about 14 miles southeast of Boston, and her birthplace is open for tours. There is also a nearby park named for Abigail.
Adams National Historical Park
Go to nearby Quincy to see the home where Abigail lived with John and gave birth to their children. With John’s birthplace next door, it checks two presidential birthsites off your list! You can also tour their bigger home, the Old House of Peacefield, and see the bedroom where Abigail (and John) died. If you can’t make it in person, check out the virtual tours on its website.
You can stand in the very spot where Abigail and John Quincy watched the Battle of Bunker Hill a few streets south of the national park.
Blocks from the national park is the final resting place for Abigail, John, John Quincy, and Louisa. A statue of Abigail can be found across the street from the church.
While their home, Richmond Hill, is no longer standing, you can visit its location in Greenwich Village.
The President’s House in historic Philadelphia is where Abigail spent most of her time as First Lady.
Note that John Adams is one of the few Founding Fathers not honored by a monument or memorial in Washington, DC. There is a commission to build one honoring the entire Adams family but it has never taken off (see this blog for more information).
Abigail was the first First Lady to live in the President’s House (soon to be known as the White House), even if it was only for a few months. Visit the East Room and imagine her stringing up laundry in it!
Smithsonian Museum of American History
At this amazing museum, you can view Abigail’s china purchased while in France and learn more about all of the First Ladies.
Visit the site of their home in Paris.
Visit Abigail’s home in London and see the commemorative plaque outside.
To Learn More
Books to Read:
There are so many books written about Abigail! She’s a fun woman to research.
All links are Amazon affiliate links. You can also purchase the books through my affiliate link to Bookshop.org which supports independent bookstores.
Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams by Lynne Withey – a highly readable biography
Abigail Adams by Woody Holton
My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams
First Family: Abigail and John Adams by Joseph J. Ellis
Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters by Diane Jacobs
First Ladies of the Republic: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, and the Creation of an Iconic American Role by Jeanne E. Abrams
Founding Mothers by Cokie Roberts
The Ninth Daughter (An Abigail Adams Mystery Book 1) – this is a cozy mystery series with Abigail as the protagonist. While not historically accurate with her solving murders, the historical details seem well-researched.
A Love Like No Other: Abigail and John Adams, A Modern Love Story by Nancy Taylor Robson
Patriot Hearts: A Novel of the Founding Mothers by Barbara Hambley
And I *think* two of my favorite historical fiction writers will be writing about Mrs. Adams next! Stay tuned for more information!
Abigail Adams: First Lady of the American Revolution
Leave It to Abigail!: The Revolutionary Life of Abigail Adams
Here’s Where It Gets Interesting
The History Chicks
C-SPAN First Ladies: Influence and Image
Massachusetts Historical Society
White House Historical Association
- Also where you can purchase the official White House Christmas ornament in honor of Abigail and John Adams
C-SPAN First Ladies: Influence and Image
Abigail Adams was a woman ahead of her time. Her sharp mind and political acumen may not have been appreciated in her time, but she’s now an icon for all American women. I think she’d be proud!