Historians refer to Abigail Adams as a “Woman of Firsts”: the first woman to be Second Lady of the United States, first woman to be the wife of a United States president as well as a mother of one, the first First Lady to inhabit the newly constructed White House, and one of the first American women to publicly oppose the existing condition of women in society as inferior to men. Abigail Adams serves as an example to women of the present to remain firm in the face of adversity and disallow the status quo to determine their limitations.
Abigail Smith was born the youngest of three daughters in Weymouth, Massachusetts in November of 1744. Her father, Reverend William Smith, was considered a prestigious Congregationalist preacher within the colony of Massachusetts and her mother, Elizabeth, was a descendant of the politically-prominent Quincy family. Though Abigail heralded from a wealthy family, she was not formally educated as many upper-class daughters were during the Colonial period – she considered this deprivation insufferable and much to her chagrin for the entirety of her life. Abigail’s opportunistic spirit however forbade her to remain in ignorance, and she could often be found in her family library voraciously reading. Her dedication to learning would result in her becoming one of the most erudite First Ladies in the course of American history as well as one of the fiercest advocates for the education of women.
Benjamin Blyth, “Portrait of Abigail Smith Adams”, 1766.
Abigail married John Adams in 1764 after several years of courting. In 1765, she would give birth to their first child, one of six she would have over a twelve year period. The young family would move several times between Boston and Braintree, Massachusetts until finally establishing themselves in Braintree in 1774 due to the increasing insecurity brought on by revolutionary fervor most tenacious in Boston. As a staunch revolutionary himself dedicated to the Patriot cause, John was often called away to meet with the Continental Congress, on which he served as a representative to the Massachusetts colony. Abigail was thus charged with running the affairs of the Adams’ estate in John’s absence, which included investing and running the family farm. Economic historians cite Abigail’s prudent investments made during the Revolution as reason for the augmentation and continuation of the Adams family fortune.
Adams family home in Braintree, Massachusetts (left), birthplace of President John Adams (right).
In the midst of the Revolution, Abigail sent a letter to the Continental Congress imploring the representatives to:
“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.”
Not a feminist in the modern connotation, Adams’ letter argued for greater protection for women under the law, including property and voting rights as well as the organized, formal education of women. Though her husband’s reply to the letter was more than patronizing, and her plea ignored by the gentleman of the Congress, Abigail continued to promote the female cause for the rest of her life. When John was elected President in 1797, officials seeking favors or the passage of important legislation knew the opinion of Abigail or, “Mrs. President” as she was referred to, was a necessary factor in achieving either. So valuable to President Adams was the estimation of his wife that he wrote in a 1797 letter to her before ascending to office that “I never wanted your Advice and assistance more in my life…”. Abigail staunchly committed herself to causes relating to her husband’s presidency including supporting the very unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts (1798) and even planting favorable stories about him in the press.
Gilbert Stuart, “Abigail Smith Adams (Mrs. John Adams)”, 1800-1815.
Abigail Adams would pass away on October 28, 1818 from typhoid fever. John would follow her eight years later. They lay entombed together at the United First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts. It is through her conviction that we “remember the ladies” and collectively strive to advance the position of women around the globe.
Written by Katie Costanzo, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum