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Abigail Smith Adams

1744-1818

Wife of John Adams

Abigail Adams lived in this home until her marriage to John Adams. It is now owned by the Abigail Adams Historical Society in Weymouth, Massachusetts.
A woman, who exercised great and far-reaching Influence in her day and generation and that influence always for the greatest good, was Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams of Massachusetts. Always distrusting her own abilities and education, and never realizing that she had talent other than that of being a good wife to John Adams and a mother to his children, her letters pulse with life and feeling, while the pedantic, though patriotic, poems, plays, essays, and histories of her friend, Mercy Warren, are relegated to the dusty shelves of the reference libraries.

Abigail's years were not filled with great events, though she lived in a history-making epoch and her life lines were closely interwoven with those who were among the makers of history. It was never given to her to perform deeds of heroism for country or for cause, but her life was always so lived that we feel that she would have gone to the scaffold if necessary with the same quiet, gracious dignity which always characterized her, from the little farmhouse at Braintree to the gilded drawing-rooms of the French and English Courts, or to the unfinished parlors of the White House.

The wife of John Adams was born his social superior, according to the conventions of a community founded almost exclusively on motives of religious zeal, and where "the ordinary distinctions of society were in a great degree subverted, and the leaders of the church, though without worldly possessions to boast of, were held highest in honor." She was the daughter of the Rev. William Smith, a Congregationalist minister of Weymouth. Her grandfather was also a minister, and through her veins, on her mother's side, flowed the blood of the Quincys, as blue as any in New England. To this mating John Adams brought nothing but the vigor and strength of mind and body that had come to the son of a farmer of limited means but of correct life and high ideals. He had his profession but little practice, and the profession itself was not held in the highest regard by many of the good people of the day. Still there was no decided opposition* and John and Abigail were married October 26, 1764, when she was twenty years old. They went to Braintree to live on his little farm, for although he was a lawyer of promise and acknowledged capabilities, his income from his profession must be helped out by his farm in order that they might live.

Mrs. Adams had but a limited education. Educational opportunities, especially for women, were restricted in the early days, and the delicate condition of her health had always precluded her being sent from home to acquire even the common-school training of the day. As she herself wrote in later years: "My early education did not partake of the abundant opportunities which the present day affords and which even our common schools now afford. I was never sent to any school; I was always sick." Massachusetts, even at that day, ranked high in point of its educational facilities, but not for its women. "While the sons of the family received every possible advantage, compatible with the means of the father, the daughters' interests, so far as mental development was concerned, were ignored. To aid the mother in manual household labor and by self-denial and increased industry to forward the welfare of the brothers, was the most exalted responsibility to which any woman aspired. To women, there was then no career open, no life work to perform outside the narrow walls of home. Every idea of self-culture was swallowed up in the routine of so-called practical life, and what knowledge they obtained was from the society of the learned and the eagerness with which they treasured up and considered the conversation of others."

The girl was, however, a great reader and a voluminous letter-writer. "The women of the last century," her biographer continues, "were more remarkable for their letter-writing propensities than the novel-reading and more pretentious daughters of this era; their field was larger and the stirring events of the times made it an object of more interest. Even though self-taught, the young ladies of Massachusetts were certainly readers and their taste was not for the feeble and nerveless sentiments, but was derived from the deepest wells of English literature. Almost every house in the Colony possessed some heirlooms in the shape of standard books, even if the number was limited to the Bible and Dictionary. Many, especially ministers, could display relics of 'their English ancestors' intelligence in the libraries handed down to them, and the study of their contents was evident in many of the grave correspondences of that early time."

For ten years after they were married, the current of life moved very smoothly for the Adams family. Mistress Adams spun and wove, knitted stockings for her family, looked after the little farm, and wrote frequent letters to her girlhood friend, Mrs. Mercy Warren, the gifted sister of James Otis. Within this time, Abigail had become the mother of a daughter and three sons. In 1774, Mr. Adams was one of the delegates chosen from Massachusetts to confer with delegates from other Colonies upon matters of common interest; and in August he accompanied Samuel Adams, Robert Treat Paine, and Thomas Cushing to Philadelphia, where the meeting was held. In two months he was again at home, but in May, 1775, the Congress again met and he returned to Philadelphia, making the long journey on horseback. At Hartford, only five days after he had left home, he received the news of the happenings at Lexington.

John and Abigail raised their family in this house built next to his childhood home in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts.
That was an eventful year for Mrs. Adams. Bancroft writes of her: "In November, 1775, Abigail Smith, wife of John Adams, was at her home near the foot of Penn Hill charged with the sole care of her little brood of children; managing their farm; keeping house with frugality, though opening her doors to the houseless and giving with good will a part of her scant portion to the poor; seeking work for her own hands and ever busily occupied, now at the spinning-wheel, now making amends for never having been sent to school by learning French, though with the aid of books alone. Since the departure of her husband for Congress, the arrow of death had sped near her by day and the pestilence that walks in darkness had entered her humble mansion. She herself was still very weak after a violent illness; her house was a hospital in every part; and such was the distress of the neighborhood she could hardly find a well person to look after the sick. Her youngest son had been rescued from the grave by her nursing. Her mother had been taken away and, after the austere manner of her forefathers, buried without prayer. Winter was hurrying on; during the days family affairs took all her attention, but her long evenings, broken by the sound of the storm on the ocean, or the enemy's artillery on Boston, were lonesome and melancholy. Ever in the silent night ruminating on the love and tenderness of her departed parent, she needed the consolation of her husband's presence; but when she read the King's proclamation she willingly gave up her nearest friend exclusively to his perilous duties and sent him her cheering message: 'This intelligence will make a plain path for you, though a dangerous one. I could not join to-day in the petition of our worthy pastor for a reconciliation between our no longer parent. state but tyrant state and these Colonies. Let us separate; they are unworthy to be our brethren. Let us renounce them; and instead of supplications, as formerly, for their prosperity, let us beseech the Almighty to blast their counsels and bring to naught all their devices.'"

In December, Mr. Adams was home again, but only for a few weeks, and in March he was on his way back to Philadelphia. One of her letters to him at this time speaks of the anticipated attack on Boston, and says: "It has been said to-morrow and to-morrow, but when the dreadful to-morrow will be I know not."

"Yet even as she wrote," says her biographer,** "the first peal of the American guns rang out their dissonance on the chilling night winds, and the house shook from cellar to garret." It was no time for calm thoughts now, and she left her letter unfinished to go out and watch the lurid lights that flashed and disappeared in the distance. Next morning she walked to Penn Hill where she sat listening to the amazing roar and watching the British shells as they fell around about the camp of her friends. Her home at the foot of the hill was all of her earthly wealth, and the careful husbanding of each year's crop her only income; yet while she ever and anon cast her eye upon it, the thoughts that welled into words were not of selfish repinings, but of proud expressions of high-souled patriotism. "The cannonade is from our army," she continues, "and the sight is one of the grandest in nature, and is of the true species of the sublime. 'Tis now an incessant roar. To-night we shall realise more terrible scenes still; I wish myself with you out of hearing, as I cannot assist them, but I hope to give you joy of Boston, even if it is in ruins before I send this away."

Mr. Adams returned early in the fall, but it was but a short respite for her loneliness as he came to announce that he had been chosen to go to France. At first it was thought that he could take his wife and little ones with him, but the manifold dangers of the voyage deterred him. A small and not very fast vessel had been secured, and this the British fleet was bent on capturing, as John Adams was a man with a price on his head. On every account it was decided that it would be best for Mr. Adams to go alone, but he compromised by taking his son, John Quincy Adams, then eleven years old, and they sailed in February. Again was Mrs. Adams left alone to care for her little farm and her young children, with but little to break the lonesome monotony but her letters. After an absence of eighteen months Mr. Adams came home, but it was only for a breathing spell, as almost immediately he was sent to Great Britain to negotiate a peace.

To the wife at least the parting seemed the hardest they had yet endured and her heart found relief in the following words: "My habitation, how desolate it looks! my table, I sit down to it, but cannot swallow my food. Oh! why was I born with so much of sensibility, and why possessing it have I so often been called on to struggle with it? Were I sure you would not be gone, I could not withstand the temptation of coming to you, though my heart would suffer over again the cruel torture of separation." In the spring of 1781, Mrs. Adams could stand the separation no longer; some six months before she had written: "I feel unable to sustain even the idea that it will be half that period ere we meet again. Could we live to the age of antediluvians, we might better support this separation, but with threescore years circumscribing the life of man, how painful is the idea that of that short space only a few years of social happiness are our allotted portion!" A few months after that, she laid her aged father away in the Boston churchyard beside her mother, and there was nothing left to hold her away from her husband except the hardships and perils of a sea voyage. It was early in 1784 that Mrs. Adams, accompanied by her daughter, sailed in the Active for England. It was Mrs. Adams's first sea voyage and she suffered so much from sea-sickness that she wrote nothing for the first sixteen days of her voyage--a long time for Abigail Adams to keep her pen from paper. From that time her journal is a narrative of rare interest. Mrs. Adams reached London July 23d, where she was met by her husband and by her son, John Quincy Adams, whom she had not seen for six years. The united family accompanied the father to Paris, where they took up their residence at Auteuil, not far from the residence of Dr. Franklin, and where they resided for a year. Then they removed to London, Mr. Adams having been appointed Minister to that country.

"Mrs. Adams, at the age of forty," writes her biographer, "found herself suddenly transplanted into a scene wholly new. From a life of the utmost retirement in a small and quiet country town in New England, she was at once thrown into the busy and bustling scenes of the populous and wealthy cities of Europe. Not only was her position novel to herself, but there had been nothing like it among her countrywomen. She was the first representative of her sex from the United States at the Court of Great Britain. The impressions made upon her mind were, therefore, uncommonly open and free from the restraints which an established routine of precedents is apt to create. Her residence in France during the first of her European experience appears to have been much enjoyed, notwithstanding the embarrassment felt by her from not speaking the language. That in England, which lasted three years, was some-what affected by the temper of the sovereign. George and his Queen could not get over the mortification attending the loss of the American Colonies, nor at all times suppress the manifestation of it, when the presence of their Minister forced the subject on their recollection."

In one of the many letters which she was constantly writing to her sister or her daughter, Mrs. Adams refers to this in a way, though it is rare that the good woman allows herself to show that much ill feeling. It was at the time when, in consequence of the French Revolution, the throne of England was thought to be in danger, she wrote "with regret for the country but without sympathy for the Queen. Humiliation for Charlotte is no sorrow for me; she richly deserves her full portion for the contempt and scorn which she took pains to discover."

Mr. Adams returned to America with his family in the summer of 1788. The government was organized under its present Constitution in April of the following year, and he was elected vice-president and established his home in New York. In a letter to her sister, Mrs. Adams writes that she "would return to Braintree during the recess of Congress, but the season of the year renders the attempt impracticable." In her letter she speaks of Mrs. Washington's "drawing-rooms" and tells of the many invitations to entertainments she receives, but that her own delicate health and the illness of her son prevent her going much into society. After a year's residence in New York, the Adamses removed, with the seat of government, to Philadelphia. She still called the little farm-house at Braintree, home, and visited there a portion of every year. It was from Braintree that she wrote in February, 1797, to President Adams, as he succeeded Washington:

"The sun is dressed in brightest beams

To give thy honours to the day.

And may it prove an auspicious prelude to each ensuing season. You have this day to declare yourself head of a nation. 'And now, O Lord my God, thou hast made thy servant ruler over the people; give him an understanding heart, that he may know how to go out and come in before this great people; that he may discern between good and bad. For who is able to judge this thy so great people'; were words of a royal sovereign and not less applicable to him

who is invested with the Chief Magistracy of a nation, though he wear not a crown nor the robes of royalty. My thoughts and my meditations are with you, though personally absent; and my petitions to Heaven are that 'the things that make for peace may not be hidden from your eye.' My feelings are not those of pride or ostentation upon this occasion. They are solemnized by a sense of the obligations, the important trusts, and numerous duties connected with it. That you may be enabled to discharge them with honour to yourself, with justice and impartiality to your country, and with satisfaction to this great people shall be the daily prayer of your"

In June, 1800, the Federal Government was removed to Washington where in January, 1801, Mrs. Adams presided at the first New Year's reception ever given at the White House, keeping up the formal etiquette established by Mrs. Washington in New York and Philadelphia. In that year, Mrs. Adams's health began to fail and the necessity of the bracing climate of her old home as well as a desire to look after Mr. Adams's little property led her to spend much of her time in Massachusetts. One of her biographers has said of her career in Washington: "She lived in Washington only four months and yet she is inseparably connected with it. She was mistress of the White House less than half a year, but she stamped it with her individuality and none have lived there since who have not looked upon her as the model and guide. It is not asserting too much to say that the first occupant of that historic house stands without a rival, and receives a meed of praise awarded to no other American woman."

A few days after Mrs. Adams became mistress of the White House, she wrote the following letter to her daughter, Mrs. Smith:

"Washington, November 21, 1800.

"MY DEAR CHILD:

"I arrived here on Sunday last, and without meeting with any accident worth noticing, except losing ourselves when we left Baltimore, and going eight or nine miles on the Frederick road, by which means we were obliged to go the other eight through woods, where we wandered two hours without finding a guide or the path. Fortunately, a straggling black came up with us, and we engaged him as a guide to extricate us out of our difficulty. But woods are all you see from Baltimore until you reach the city, which is only so in name. Here and there is a small cot, without a glass window, interspersed amongst the forests, through which you travel miles without seeing any human being. In the city there are buildings enough, if they were compact and finished, to accommodate Congress and those attached to it: but as they are, and scattered as they are, I see no great comfort for them. The river, which runs up to Alexandria, is in full view of my window, and I see the vessels as they pass and repass. The house is upon a grand and superb scale, requiring about thirty servants to attend and keep the apartments in proper order, and perform the ordinary business of the house and stables: an establishment very well proportioned to the President's salary. The light in the apartments from the kitchen to parlours and chambers, is a tax indeed; daily agues, is another very cheering comfort. To assist us in this great castle, and render less attendance necessary, bells are wholly wanting, not one single one being hung through the whole house, and promises are all you can obtain. This is so great an inconvenience, that I know not what to do, or how to do. The ladies from Georgetown and in the city have many of them visited me. Yesterday I returned fifteen visits,--but such a place as Georgetown appears,--why our Milton is beautiful. But no comparisons;--if they will put me up some bells, and let me have wood enough to keep fires, I design to be pleased. I could content myself almost anywhere three months; but surrounded with forest, can you believe that wood is not to be had, because people cannot be found to cut and cart it? Briesler entered into a contract with a man to supply him with wood; a small part, a few cords only, has he been able to get. Most of that was expended to dry the walls of the house before we came in, and yesterday the man told him it was impossible for him to procure it to be cut and carted. He has had recourse to coals; but we cannot get grates made and set. We have indeed come into a new country.

"You must keep all this to yourself, and when asked how I like it, say that I write you the situation is beautiful, which is true. The house is made habitable, but there is not a single apartment finished, and all withinside, except the plastering, has been done since Briesler came. We have not the least fence-yard, or other convenience, without, and the great unfinished audience room I make a drying-room of, to hang up the clothes in. The principal stairs are not up, and will not be this winter. Six chambers are made comfortable; two are occupied by the President and Mr. Shaw; two lower rooms, one for a common parlor and one for a levee room. Upstairs there is the oval room, which is designed for the drafting-room, and has the crimson furniture in it. It is a very handsome room now, but when completed, wilt be beautiful. If the twelve years, in which this place has been considered as the future seat of government, had been improved, as they would have been if in New England, very many of the present inconveniences would have been removed. It is a beautiful spot, capable of every improvement, and the more I view it, the more I am delighted with it. Since I sat down to write, I have been called down to a servant from Mount Vernon, with a billet from Major Custis, and a haunch of venison, and a kind, congratulatory letter from Mrs. Lewis, upon my arrival in the city, with Mrs. Washington's love, inviting me to Mount Vernon, where, health permitting, I will go, before I leave this place.... Two articles are much distressed for: the one is bells, but the more important one is wood. Yet you cannot see wood for the trees. No arrangement has been made, but by promises never performed, to supply the newcomers with fuel. Of the promises, Briesler had received his full share. He had procured nine cords of wood: between six and seven of that was kindly burnt up to dry the walls of the house, which ought to have been done by the commissioners, but which, if left to them, would have remained undone to this day. Congress poured in, but shiver, shiver. No wood-cutters nor carters to be had at any rate. We are now indebted to a Pennsylvania waggon to bring us, through the first clerk in the Treasury Of/ice, one cord and a half of wood, which is all we have for this house, where twelve fires are constantly required and where, we are told, the roads will soon be so bad that it cannot be drawn. Briesler procured two hundred bushels of coal, or we must have suffered. This is the situation of almost every other person. The public officers have sent to Philadelphia for wood cutters and waggons.

"The vessel which has my clothes and other matters is not arrived. The ladies are impatient for a drawing-room: I have no looking-glasses, but dwarfs, for this house; not a twentieth part lamps enough to light it. Many things were stolen, many are broken by the removal; amongst the number, my tea-china is more than half missing. Georgetown affords nothing. My rooms are very pleasant and warm, whilst the doors of the hall are closed.

"You can scarce believe that here, in this wilderness-city, I should find myself so occupied as it is. My visitors--some of them come three or four miles. The return of one of them is the work of one day. Most of the ladies reside in Georgetown, or in scattered parts of the city, at two and three miles' distance. We have all been very well as yet; if we can by any means get wood, we shall not let our fires go out, but it is at a price indeed; from four dollars it has risen to nine. Some say it will fall, but there must be more industry than is to be found here to bring half enough to the market for the consumption of the inhabitants."

The remainder of her life, 1801 to 1818, Mrs. Adams lived almost uninterruptedly at Quincy and her declining years were marked with that cheerfulness and dignity that were ever her dominant characteristics. She retained her faculties to the last and as one who knew her well, said: "Her sunny spirit enlivened the small social circle around her, brightened the solitary hours of her husband, and spread the influence of her example over the town where she lived." To her granddaughter she wrote October 26, 1814: "Yesterday completes half a century since I entered the marriage state, then just your age. I have great cause of thankfulness that I have lived so long and enjoyed so large a portion of happiness as has been my lot. The greatest source of unhappiness I have known in that period has arisen from the long and cruel separations which I was called, in a time of war, and with a young family around me, to submit to."

Mrs. Adams died of an attack of fever, October 26, 1818, in the seventy-fifth year of her age, and was laid at rest in the Congregational church of Quincy, where eight years later her eminent husband was laid beside her. Over their last resting-place has been placed a marble slab with an inscription prepared by their eldest son, John Quincy Adams.

Thus passed away one of the most remarkable and interesting women of the Revolutionary period. "To learning, in the ordinary acceptance of that term," writes her grandson, "Mrs. Adams could make no claim. Her reading had been extensive in the lighter departments of literature and she was well acquainted with the poets of her own language, but it went no further. It is the soul shining through the words that gives them their greatest attraction; the spirit ever equal to the occasion, whether a great or a small one; a spirit inquisitive and earnest in the little details of life, as when in France or England; playful when she describes daily duties, but rising to the call when the roar of the cannon is in her ears--or when she is reproving her husband for not knowing her better than to think her a coward and to fear telling her bad news."

In Randall's Life of Thomas Jefferson, the author has given a rarely interesting estimate of the character of Mrs. Adams. Speaking of her in connection with certain letters which she wrote to Mr. Jefferson, the writer says: "We must not judge too harshly of Mrs. Adams, or pronounce her destitute of womanly amiability. Her lofty lineaments carried a trace of the Puritan severity. They were those of the helmed Minerva, and not of the cestus-girdled Venus. Her correspondence uniformly exhibits a didactic personage--a little inclined to assume a sermonising attitude, as befitted the well-trained and self-reliant daughter of a New England country clergyman--and a little inclined, after the custom of her people, to return thanks that she had no lot or part in anything that was not of Massachusetts. Perhaps the masculineness of her understanding extended somewhat to the firmness of her temper. But towering above and obscuring these minor angularities, she possessed a strength of intellectual and moral character which commands unqualified admiration. Her decision would have manifested itself for her friend or her cause, when softer spirits would have shrunk away, or been paralysed with terror. When her New England frigidness gave way and kindled to enthusiasm, it was not the burning straw but the red-hot steel. On the stranding deck, at the gibbet's foot, in any other deadly pass where undaunted moral courage can light up the coming gloom of 'the valley of the shadow of death,' Mrs. Adams would have stood by the side of those she loved, uttering words of encouragement; and in that more desperate pass where death or overthrow are balanced against dishonour, she would have firmly bade the most loved friends on earth embrace the former like a bride."

Source: Wives of the Signers: The Women Behind the Declaration of Independence, by Harry Clinton Green and Mary Wolcott Green, A.B. (Aledo, TX: Wallbuilder Press, 1997). Orignaly Published in 1912 as volume 3 of The Pioneer Mothers of America: A Record of the More Notable Women of the Early Days of the Country, and Particularly of the Colonial and Revolutionary Periods (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons). Pages 32-59. (Some minor spelling changes may have been made.)

* [pgs. 149-150] Abigail and Blanche were daughters of Rev. William Smith. They had as suitors, the Rev. Zedadiah Chapman and John Adams. The young, handsome, and accomplished clergyman was acceptable to the father; his horse had the best of care and every attention was paid to him. The horse of the young lawyer who came to see Abigail did not fare so well but stood the whole evening, shivering unpro-tected. When Blanche went to ask her father's consent to her marriage to the Rev. Mr. Chapman, his reply was: "You have my cordial approval, my child. Mr. Chapman will have a warm wel-come in our home circle. Now choose a text, child, and I will preach you a sermon. "Father, ' said Blanche, "this is my text,' For Mary hath chosen that good part which shall not be taken from her.'" Young Abigail approached more timidly, when the time came for her to ask for his approval of her marriage to her lively young suitor. When his reluctant consent was given, he could do no less than preach her a sermon also. "Father," said Abigail, "I know that you will preach a sermon for me." The father said he would if she would select the text. "This is my text," she said, "And John came neither eating nor drinking and ye say he hath a devil. "--From anecdotes of Rev. Mr. Chapman.

** [pgs. 150] Charles Francis Adams, grandson of Abigail Adams.

 
 


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