SAN JOSE, Calif., March 21, 2016 – In the United States, March is designated as the month to remember women’s history. Much of that is focused on American women, particularly political activists. Sadly, this leaves out many other important women and reflects an underlying assumption that a woman’s value is derived from her ability to vote.
One of the women in American history who are studied in women’s studies classes in colleges and universities today is Abigail Adams. She is viewed as a pioneer who helped to plant the seeds of the women’s rights movement. This amazing woman is studied in women’s studies classrooms primarily for this reason, but not much else.
Today Americans have an opportunity to come to know Abigail Adams more deeply. Some notable historians have recently done more extensive research into Abigail Adams and her life, and they provide a more complete picture of this extraordinary woman.
David McCullough’s book “John Adams” (2001) is a great source of information about the life of John Adams, the country’s first vice president and second president, but it also reveals much about Abigail as his wife, as a good mother and as a partner in the creation of the United States of America. It is also noteworthy that McCullough’s book was converted into an HBO mini-series, “John Adams,” which does a great deal to bring to life this couple’s indispensable role in American history. The mini-series featured Laura Linney as Abigail Adams.
Additionally, the well-known historian Joseph Ellis explains that Americans have a great opportunity to come to know John and Abigail Adams via their extensive correspondence, which reveals not only insights about their relationship but also a glimpse of the founding of the U.S. as a unique nation.
Ellis helps readers to see John and Abigail Adams as exceptional people in his book “Passionate Sage: the Character and Legacy of John Adams” (1993). Ellis used about 1,200 surviving letters from the correspondence between Abigail and John to write his books on the couple. Ellis commented these letters “constituted a treasure trove of unexpected intimacy and candor, more revealing than any other correspondence between a prominent American husband and wife in American history.”
In his more recent book “First Family: Abigail and John” (2011), Ellis revisited these revealing letters to describe more fully the relationship between these two passionately patriotic Americans. He explains that “no other couple left a documentary record of their mutual thoughts and feelings even remotely comparable to Abigail’s and John’s.”
The picture emerging from Ellis and McCullough is one of Abigail as more than a one-dimensional political activist. She was a good mother, as well as a good wife and partner in times that tried men’s souls, as well as the souls of many women.
Conversely, the primary focus upon Abigail Adams in a majority of college-level women’s studies courses zeroes in on a single letter that she wrote to John while he was away in Philadelphia creating the new nation that would be “conceived in Liberty.” Mrs. Adams’ sentiments in that single letter would eventually provide a foundation for women who would use her words as inspiration and guidance for the creation of the Women’s Suffrage movement.
Abigail’s letter to John on March 31, 1776, is the one most often quoted with regard to women’s rights, as it expressed a strong and serious admonition to her husband, but also was directed to John as a representative of the Second Continental Congress:
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.
Her views were quite potent, and they carried even more weight since she was also once the First Lady of the United States. Her perspective and courage in sharing her mind were a century ahead of her time. It would be no easy task to now determine whether many other women of her generation were of the same opinions or framework of mind. Nevertheless, the building of the critical mass for the feminist movement developed years later.
Abigail Adams may have had little idea that her words would have such a powerful effect on future generations of women, but the attitude expressed in her letters to her husband would generate just such seeds of sentiment. Such a letter must be kept in proper perspective, as it says much more than it initially is presumed.
First, the letter was dated March 31, 1776. Thomas Jefferson did not even know he was going to pen the words of the Declaration until sometime in June of that year. The common denominator in this is John Adams, as he is the one who requested the formation of a committee to draft an explanation for the declaring of independence, should it become necessary based upon a unanimous vote to do so. Once he had named his committee, John Adams was the one who requested that Jefferson write the first draft. What this means simply is John trusted Abigail with some of the deeper aspects of what was actually transpiring in the Continental Congress in 1776. Trust is the essential element here.
The letter by Abigail also expresses her opinion regarding independence and its relationship to law, which with her husband was deeply versed, since he was formerly an attorney for the Crown. She is aware a “new code of laws” was necessary as part of the foundation of independence from the British tyranny. She is also saying the new code should require consent of the governed, which is what the concept of “no taxation, without representation” was all about. After all, it was also her cousin, Sam Adams, who most represented this outcry, especially in the time of the Boston Tea Party.
Her ideas are not only reflective of a well-educated woman, but a well-educated individual – despite the fact that women were not encouraged in higher education in her day. Her education came from inner motivation.
The letter expresses that Abigail Adams’ perspective and courage in sharing her mind was far ahead of her time. She would not have shared her mind with anyone unsympathetic. Perhaps one of the most important points that should be acknowledged is that it is highly unlikely Abigail would have felt such freedom to share her innermost thoughts and sentiments with John if he had been an ogre or a tyrant.
Abigail once admitted, in a letter she wrote to John in 1775, “My pen is always freer than my tongue; I have wrote many things to you that I suppose I never would have talked.” Such an admission leads one to believe that without the lengthy periods of necessary separation, John might have missed the chance to know his wife so completely, and the world would have missed the opportunity to have learned the innermost thoughts of this remarkable woman. It is Abigail who chose to share.
While it is true that Abigail Adams dared to express her issues with the tyrannical nature of men and her strong belief in the rights of women, these views were likely written absent the anticipation others would someday read her words – thus she was not quite an activist on a soap box. It is reported that Abigail and John instructed others who received their letters to burn them, as Martha Washington did with her letters from George. Many did not follow the Adams’ instructions, and now people around the world have access to her views in other letters and have the opportunity to know this remarkable woman beyond the recent image as just an activist for women’s rights.
As American history usually only focuses on the Founding Fathers, it is long overdue that American historians fully acknowledge the old maxim that “behind every great man is a great woman” and acknowledge Abigail Adams as the great woman behind her friend and husband. Her son, John Quincy, who went on to become the sixth president of the United States, had a wee bit of support from his mother as well. His own expression of praise of his mother’s relationship to his father serves as a proper tribute to Abigail:
There is not a virtue that can abide in the female heart but it was the ornament of hers. She had been fifty-four years the delight of my father’s heart, the sweetener of all his toils, the comforter of all his sorrows, the sharer and heightener of all his joys. It was but the last time when I saw my father that he told me… [that] through all the good report and evil report of the world, in all his struggles and in all his sorrows, the affectionate participation and cheering encouragement of his wife had been his never – failing support, without which he was sure he should never have lived through them.
Abigail and John Adams serve as a great example of a couple in unity working for the greater good and sacrificing for a higher purpose. If John Adams is one of the original Founding Fathers of the nation, Abigail Adams should be more than qualified to be one of the Founding Mothers. Each in his or her own way planted the seeds of freedom that would ultimately be harvested by their descendants.