Friday, November 16, 2012


JOHN ADAMS (1735-1826) & 

Unlike most other early Presidential couples, John and Abigail were evenly matched. True, John was a highly educated Harvard graduate, as statesman and successful lawyer, while Abigail was largely self-taught. But as the daughter of a minister, Abigail had grown up in a cultured household and enjoyed many advantages not generally available to girls of her time. Abigail was also blessed with a curious mind and sharp wit that made her a delightful, as well as an indispensable, help meet to John throughout their married life.

Americans owe a particularly great debt to this devoted New England couple, separated throughout their lives by service to their country. Constantly yearning for one another, they wrote often; and recognizing the importance of their times, they saved their letters. More than 1,100 Adams letters survive, and since both husband and wife were keen observers, a great deal of what we know about the Founders and the Revolutionary era is what they saw fit to record. 

But lets get back to that innocent time--some 15 years before anyone even thought about breaking with Great Britain--when Abigail was still a girl in her teens, John was a young lawyer, and nothing mattered more than courtship and love.



“Miss Adorable,
"By the same token that the bearer hereof, John Adams, sat up with you last night. I hereby order you to give him as many kisses and as many hours of your company after 9:00 o’clock as he pleases to demand, and charge them to my account.”
--John Adams to Abigail Smith, 1761
   Waymouth, MA

“Humanity obliges us to be affected with the distresses and Miserys of our fellow creatures. Friendship is a bond yet stronger, which causes us to feel with greater tenderness the afflictions of our Friends. And there is a tye more binding than Humanity, and stronger than Friendship, which makes us anxious for the happiness and welfare of those to whom it binds us. It makes their Misfortunes, Sorrows and afflictions, our own. Unite these, and there is a threefold cord - by this cord I am not ashamed to own myself bound, nor do I believe that you are wholly free from it.”
          --Abigail Smith to John Adams, 1763
                Waymouth, MA

Marriage, October 25, 1764

The day before they were married, 19-year-old Abigail wrote John, then 28, to discuss arrangements for transporting her things to their future home in Braintree, then added:

and then Sir, if you please, you may, take me.”
--Abigail Smith to John Adams, 1764

Married Life and Politics

In the 10 years that followed, Abigail and John Adams had six children, three of whom survived. Unlike so many rich Founders, who lived on large landed estates worked by slaves, John and Abigail Adams began their married life on a small inherited farm, where any work that had to be done was either paid for or Abigail did it herself.

In 1776,  Adams used his considerable eloquence to convince his fellow delegates to the Continental Congress to break with Great Britain. Then war came, and the Congress sent him abroad to seek support for the American cause. 

Back in New England, Abigail found herself running the farm, surrounded by the flood of incoming British troops, and raising the children on her own. In France, John had his own troubles. Rather than finding him principled and eloquent, the French courtiers saw Adams as brusque, prudish, bumpkinish, and rude (he didn’t speak French). When it came to securing support for the American cause, he failed miserably. 

[The French court far preferred the famous and worldly Dr. Franklin, who told funny stories, charmed their women, fed their frontier fantasies by wearing a coonskin cap, and ended up securing the French war fleet and millions of francs for the American cause—but therein lies another tale.]

As noted above, John and Abigail's long years of enforced separation, so fruitless and hard, were yet a great legacy to the nation. And in their  correspondence for the ages, Abigail more than holds her own. Her letters gleam with snippets from literature, poetry, and current events, and fairly sparkle—as do John’s—with keen observations, gimlet humor, and ready wit.

From John’s letters we know that this man, who had a sharpish word for everyone, adored his wife. He prized her loyalty and her character and was titillated by her deliciously “saucy” turn of mind. Abigail, who heartily returned this devotion, admired her husband’s independent spirit and eloquence, and hated his enemies with a vengeance. (It was the desire to protect her husband from libelous attacks that made her urge him to support passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, so reminiscent of our Patriot Act today.) 

During all their long years apart, Abigail craved the company of her absent husband, whom she called: “My dearest friend. . . .” As for John, he simply could not do without her.


Remember the Ladies . . .

In 1776, when Abigail wrote the following famous request, she was 31 and had been married for 12 years. Often quoted, it is yet rarely cited in its entirety—or shown together with John’s response. The exchange is a wonderful example of the couple’s habitual and affectionate sparring over  ideas and words. Yet here, unusually, Abigail rejects her husband’s playful tone, sticks to her guns, and stands up for what she knows to be right. (Underlining is mine.)  

“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.

"That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute; but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up -- the harsh tide of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend. Why, then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity? 

"Men of sense in all ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the (servants) of your sex; regard us then as being placed by Providence under your protection, and in imitation of the Supreme Being make use of that power only for our happiness."
      Abigail Adams to John Adams
          Boston, MA, March 31, 1776


". . . . As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our struggle [for independence from Britain] has loosened the bonds 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.

"Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and in practice, you know we are the subjects.

"We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight."
John Adams to Abigail Adams
   Philadelphia, PA, April 14, 1776


"I cannot say that I think you are very generous to the ladies; for, whilst you are proclaiming peace and good-will to men, emancipating all nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over wives.

"But you must remember that arbitrary power is like most other things that are very hard — very liable to be broken; and, notwithstanding all your wise laws and maxims, we have it in our power, not only to free ourselves, but to subdue our masters, and without violence, throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet."
Abigail Adams to John Adams
   Boston, MA, May 7, 1776

Lessons from John and Abigail Adams
  • In a marriage of equals, the dialogue grows and continues throughout life.
  • Few today appreciate the what it cost the Founders, male and female, to create our country.


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