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Abigail Adams - A Stan Klos Biography
Abigail Smith Adams
(1744 - 1818)
First Lady from March 4, 1797 to March 4, 1801
illustration of the character of this estimable woman, we
must be permitted to transcribe a few remarks on her ancestry, written by her
son, the Hon. John Quincy Adams.
AbigailAdams was the daughter of William
Smith, a minister of a Congregational church at Weymouth, in the colony of
Massachusetts Bay; and of Elizabeth Quincy, a daughter of Col. John Quincy, the
proprietor of Mount Wollaston. This beautiful spot, about seven miles from
Boston, was settled by Thomas Wollaston and thirty of his associates in 1625,
five years before that of the Massachusetts Colony. This settlement was broken
up by Governor Winthrop, in the summer of 1630, shortly after his landing; and
in 1634 was made part of Boston, and the land granted to William Coddington.
This estate descended in a direct line till it became the property of William
Smith, the father of AbigailAdams, and has been the residence and
birthplace of the Adams family to the present day. AbigailAdams,
the second daughter of William and Elizabeth Smith, was born on the 11th day of
November, 1744. Her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had all received
their education at Harvard College. From this line of ancestry, it may justly be
inferred that the family associations of Abigail Smith were from her infancy
among those whose habits, feelings, and tastes are marked by the love and
cultivation of literature and learning. The only learned profession in the first
century of the settlement of New England was that of the clergy. At that time,
lawyers were but little esteemed. Science was scarcely better cultivated by the
practitioners of the medical art; but religion was esteemed among the most
important of worldly concerns, and the controversial spirit with which it was
taught, and which was at once the cause and effect of the Protestant
Reformation, stimulated the thirst for learning, and sharpened the appetite for
study and research.
"The founders of New England, and the settlers of Massachusetts Colony so well
understood the dependence of practical morals upon religious principle, that, no
sooner had they raised their sheds and piled their log-houses, before their
thoughts turned to the erection of the edifice which should serve them and their
children for the habitation of the mind. In 1638, John Harvard, himself one of
the most distinguished of their ministers, bequeathed a sum of money for the
establishment of a college for the education of ministers of the Gospel. This
institution was soon raised and made, by the constitution of the commonwealth of
Massachusetts, a university, bearing the name of its founder in glory from age
to age, down to the extinction of time." At this time the Puritan fathers of New
England considered female education to consist in the happy arrangement of their
domestic concerns. The three daughters of Mr. Smith were therefore educated
under his own roof, partly by his own instruction, with the occasional
assistance of a teacher residing in the same colony. It has often been remarked
that Mr. Smith and his family would have furnished ample materials for another
Vicar of Wakefield. Mr. John Adams, an attorney-at-law residing in Braintree,
became the admirer of Abigail Smith; but it was some time before the consent of
her father could be obtained, he, as a strict Puritan, having conscientious
scruples as to the honesty of the profession. At last, however, he consented,
and they were married on the 25th of October, 1764, Miss Smith being in her
twentieth year. Mr. Adams had been in the practice of the law about seven years
before his marriage, and had made great advancement in his profession both as an
orator and by his judicial talents.
The first year after his marriage he gave a fortunate stamp to his brilliant
talents as counsel for an American seaman, who, in self-defence against a
pressgang from his Majesty's ship in Boston Harbor, had killed the lieutenant of
their party with the stroke of a harpoon. Mr. Adams proved that the usage of
impressment had never extended to the colonies; and that the attempt to impress
was unlawful; that the act of killing was justifiable homicide; the seaman was
acquitted and discharged. This thrilling and talented address to the court,
which lasted four hours, was considered of such importance that it was copied
into the London newspapers, and received an extended circulation in the mother
country; and, by the exertions of the young lawyer of Braintree, that brand of
harsh servitude, stamped on the forehead of the British seaman, was banished
from the code of colonial law.
The year 1765 will ever be remembered as the period when the most violent
fermentation commenced, occasioned by the resistance of the people to the Stamp
Act. Mr. Adams was the first who showed a determination of resistance, and often
did he endeavor to prepare his young bride for the trials and sacrifices which
he foresaw must occur, before his beloved country could be free from the
monarchical shackles by which she was bound. For nearly ten years, Mr. Adams
continued his practice of the law, with increasing reputation, till 1774, when
he was called to the first Congress at Philadelphia. Mrs. Adams remained at
Braintree with her children. In 1775, was the first deadly conflict. This took
place at Lexington. Mr. Adams had left his home some days before, and his
partner and her children were left exposed to continual dangers, and, as orders
had been given to seize and imprison the members of the Continental Congress,
Mrs. Adams expected hourly that her dwelling would be visited in search for her
husband, and that she might be exposed to insult. She immediately packed the
library of her husband, and the most valuable part of her furniture, and had it
removed to a place of safety.
In the autumn of 1775, and during the absence of her husband, Mrs. Adams was
called to pass through a severe affliction. An epidemic dysentery was raging;
every member of her family was afflicted by it; and her mother, a brother of her
husband, and a domestic in her family, were among its victims. In 1778, Mr.
Adams was appointed a joint commissioner with Dr. Franklin at the court of
France, and required to prepare for a hasty departure; but Mrs. Adams, having at
this time four children, concluded to remain at Braintree with the then
youngest Mr. Adams taking with him his eldest son John Quincy, then about
eleven years of age. Mr. Adams remained in France but one year, when he returned
to the bosom of his family; but this happiness was to be but of short duration,
for he had no sooner returned than he was commissioned to negotiate a peace with
Mrs. Adams again remained at home, and Mr. Adams took with him to England his
two eldest sons John Quincy and Charles. In May, 1784, Mrs. Adams left Boston
with her only daughter to join her husband, who on their arrival repaired with
them to France, and took up their residence at the beautiful village of Auteuil.
Here they resided rather more than a year, when Mr. Adams was commissioned as
minister plenipotentiary to Great Britain. Mrs. Adams accompanied her husband
and family to London, where they resided three years; and in 1778 she bid adieu
to the turmoil of foreign courts to return to that country which was the joy of
During the four years Mrs. Adams spent in England and France, she was a minute
observer of persons and things, and seldom allowed any event, however trifling,
to escape her notes. Her letters to her friends, giving descriptions of passing
scenes, were very interesting, and would even at this distant period be read
Many of them which appeared at that time were copied into the London and Paris
journals, and commented on with general admiration.
In 1789, the government of the United States was organized, and Mr. Adams was
elected the first Vice-President. The first Congress met in New York, where Mrs.
Adams removed her family; but, after remaining there one year, it was removed to
Philadelphia, where Mrs. Adams resided for nearly ten years. In 1797, Mr. Adams
was elected President of the United States, the Congress still meeting in
Philadelphia; but, during the first two years of his administration, it was
removed to Washington, and Mrs. Adams with her family took up their residence
there for the remainder of the term.
During all the changes and vicissitudes of her husband's political life, Mrs.
Adams exercised all the virtues that adorn and dignify the Christian character.
The freedom, ingenuousness, and pleasantry of her temper were known and admired
by all who conversed with her. She was a lady of uncommon parts, ready thought,
quick apprehension, and proper expression. In her letters, she used a great
aptness and felicity of language, and, having a fine understanding, accompanied
with a faithful and retentive memory, she soon accomplished whatever she was
desirous to attain. She lived in the habitual practice of benevolence, and of
sincere, unaffected piety. Mrs. Adams died of typhus fever on the 28th of
October, 1818, at the age of seventy-four, leaving to her countrywomen the
example of an obedient and devoted wife, a careful and tender mother, a gentle
and beneficent mistress, a good neighbor, and a true and constant friend.
ADAMS, Abigail (Smith), wife of John Adams,
second president of the United States, born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, 23
Nov., 1744; died in Quincy, Massachusetts, 28 Oct., 1818.
Her father, the Rev. William Smith, was for more than forty years minister of
the Congregational church in Weymouth. Her mother, Elizabeth Quincy, was
great-great-grand-daughter of the eminent Puritan divine, Thomas Shepard, of
Cambridge, and great-grandniece of the Rev. John Norton, of Boston.
She was among the most remarkable women of the revolutionary period. Her
education, so far as books were concerned, was but scanty. Of delicate and
nervous organization, she was so frequently ill during childhood and youth
that she was never sent to any school; but her loss in this respect was not
so great as might appear; for, while the New England clergymen at that time
were usually men of great learning, the education of their daughters seldom
went further than writing or arithmetic, with now and then a smattering of
what passed current as music.
In the course of her long life she became extensively acquainted with the best
English literature, and she wrote in a terse, vigorous, and often elegant
style. Her case may well be cited by those who protest against the exaggerated
value commonly ascribed to the routine of a school education. Her early years
were spent in seclusion, but among people of learning and political sagacity.
On 25 Oct., 1764, she was married to John Adams, then a young lawyer
practicing in Boston, and for the next ten years her life was quiet and happy,
though she shared the intense interest of her husband in the fierce disputes
that were so soon to culminate in war. During this period she became the
mother of a daughter and three sons. Ten years of doubt and anxiety followed
during which Mrs. Adams was left at home in Braintree, while her husband was
absent, first as a delegate to the continental congress, afterward on
diplomatic business in Europe. In the zeal and determination with which John
Adams urged on the declaration of independence he was staunchly supported by
his brave wife, a circumstance that used sometimes to be jocosely alleged in
explanation of his superiority in boldness to John Dickinson, the women of
whose household were perpetually conjuring up visions of the headsman's block.
In 1784 Mrs. Adams joined her husband in France, and early in the following
year she accompanied him to London. With the recent loss of the American
colonies rankling in the minds of George III and his queen, it was hardly to
be expected that much courtesy would be shown to the first, minister from the
United States or to his wife. Mrs. Adams was treated with rudeness, which she
seems to have remembered vindictively. "Humiliation for Charlotte," she
wrote some years later, "is no sorrow for me."
From 1789 to 1801 her residence was at the seat of our federal government. The
remainder of her life was passed in Braintree (in the part called Quincy), and
her lively interest in public affairs was kept up till the day of her death.
Mrs. Adams was a woman of sunny disposition, and great keenness and sagacity.
Her letters are extremely valuable for the light they throw upon the life of
the times. See "Familiar Letters of John Adams and his Wife, Abigail Adams,
during the Revolution," with a memoir by C. F. Adams (New York, 1876).
Adams is remembered for the many letters she wrote to her husband while he
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the
Continental Congresses. John Adams frequently sought the advice of his
wife on many matters, and their letters are filled with intellectual
discussions on government and politics. The letters are invaluable eyewitness
accounts of the
Revolutionary War home front as well as excellent sources of political
Early life and family
Abigail Adams was born in the North Parish Congregational Church in
Weymouth, Massachusetts on November 11, 1744 to Rev. William Smith and
Elizabeth (nee Quincy) Smith. By the calendar used today, it would be November
15. On her mother's side, she was descended from the Quincy family, a
well-known political family in the
Massachusetts colony. Through her mother, she was a cousin of
Dorothy Quincy, wife of
Hancock. Abigail Adams was also the great-granddaughter of Rev. John
Norton, founding pastor of
Old Ship Church in
Hingham, Massachusetts, the only remaining 17th century Puritan
meetinghouse in Massachusetts.
Her father, William Smith (1707-1783), a liberal Congregationalist, and
other forebears were
Congregational ministers, and leaders in a society that held its clergy in
high esteem. However, he did not preach about predestination, original sin, or
the full divinity of Christ, instead emphasizing the importance of reason and
Abigail was a sickly child, and was not considered healthy enough for formal
schooling. Although she did not receive a formal education, her mother taught
her and her sisters Mary (1739-1811) and Elizabeth (1742-1816) (known as
Betsy) to read, write, and cipher; her father's, uncle's and grandfather's
libraries enabled them to study English and French literature.
As an intellectually open-minded woman for her day, Abigail's ideas on women's
rights and government would eventually play a major role, albeit indirectly,
in the founding of the U.S. She became one of the most erudite women ever to
serve as First Lady.
Marriage and children
Although Adams had known the Smith family since he was a boy, he paid no
attention to the delicate child nine years his junior. But in 1762, when John
tagged along with his friend Richard Cranch, who was engaged to Abigail's
older sister Mary, he was quickly attracted to the petite, shy
seventeen-year-old brunette who was forever bent over some book. He was
surprised to learn that she knew so much about poetry, philosophy, and
politics, considered inappropriate reading for a woman in those days.
Although Abigail's father approved of the match, her mother was appalled
that a Smith would throw her life away on a country lawyer whose manners still
reeked of the farm, but eventually she gave in. They married on October 25,
1764, just five days before John's 29th birthday in the Smith's home in
Weymouth, MA. Abigail wore a square-necked gown of white challis; John
appeared in a dark blue coat, contrasting light breeches and white stockings,
a gold-embroidered satin waistcoat his mother had made for the occasion, and
buckle shoes. Rev. Smith (the bride's father) performed the nuptials.
After the reception, the couple mounted a single horse and rode off to
their new home, the small cottage and farm that John had inherited from his
father in Braintree, MA (later renamed Quincy) before moving to
his law practice expanded.
She looked after family and home when he went traveling as circuit judge.
"Alas!" she wrote in December 1773, "How many snow banks divide thee and
In 1784, she and her daughter Nabby joined her husband and her eldest son,
John Quincy, at her husband's diplomatic post in
1785, she filled the role of wife of the first United States Minister to the
Kingdom of Great Britain. They returned in 1788 to a house known as the "Old
House" in Quincy, which she set about vigorously enlarging and remodeling.
It is still standing and open to the public as part of
Adams National Historical Park. Nabby later died of breast cancer, having
endured three years of severe pain.
She raised her two younger sons throughout John Adams' prolonged absences;
she also raised her elder grandchildren, including
George Washington Adams and a younger John Adams, while John Quincy Adams
was minister to Russia. Her childrearing included relentless and continual
reminders of what the children owed to virtue and the Adams tradition.
She had a sixth child but it was a *stillborn.
When John Adams was elected
President of the United States, she continued a formal pattern of
entertaining. With the removal of the capital to Washington in 1800, Abigail
Adams became the first First Lady to preside over the White House, or
President's House, as it was then known. The city was wilderness, the
President's House far from completion. She found the unfinished mansion in
Washington "habitable" and the location "beautiful" but complained that,
despite the thick woods nearby, she could find no one willing to chop and haul
firewood for the First Family. Mrs. Adams' health, never robust, suffered in
Washington. She took an active role in politics and policy, unprecedented by
Martha Washington. She was so politically active that her political opponents
came to refer to her as "Mrs. President".
The Adamses retired to Quincy in 1801 after John Adams' defeat in his bid
for a second term as President of the United States. She followed her son's
political career earnestly as her letters to contemporaries show. In later
years she renewed correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, whose political
opposition to her husband had hurt her deeply.
Abigail Adams died on October 28, 1818, of
typhoid fever, several years before her son became president, and is
buried beside her husband in a crypt located in the
United First Parish Church (also known as the Church of the Presidents)
in Quincy, Massachusetts. She was 73 years old, exactly two weeks shy of her
Her last words were "Do not grieve, my friend, my dearest friend. I am
ready to go. And John, it will not be long."
Abigail Adams was an advocate of married women's property rights and more
opportunities for women, particularly in the field of education. Women, she
believed, should not submit to laws not made in their interest, nor should
they be content with the simple role of being companions to their husbands.
They should educate themselves and thus be recognized for their intellectual
capabilities, so they could guide and influence the lives of their children
and husbands. She is known for her March 1776 letter to John Adams and the
Continental Congress, requesting that they, "...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.
John declined Abigail's "extraordinary code of laws," but
acknowledged to Abigail, "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."
Along with her husband, Adams believed that slavery was not only evil, but
a threat to the American democratic experiment. A letter written by her on
March 31, 1776 explained that she doubted most of the Virginians had such the
"passion for Liberty" they claimed they did, since they "deprive[d] their
fellow Creatures" of freedom.
A notable incident regarding this happened in Philadelphia in 1791, where a
free black youth came to her house asking to be taught how to write.
Subsequently, she placed the boy in a local evening school, though not without
objections from a neighbor. Abigail responded that he was "a Freeman as much
as any of the young Men and merely because his Face is Black, is he to be
denied instruction? How is he to be qualified to procure a livelihood? ... I
have not thought it any disgrace to my self to take him into my parlor and
teach him both to read and write.""
Abigail Adams, as well as her husband, was an active member of the
First Parish Church in Quincy, which became
Unitarian in doctrine by 1753. In a letter to John Quincy Adams dated May
5, 1816, she wrote of her religious beliefs:
I acknowledge myself a unitarian—Believing that the Father alone, is
the supreme God, and that Jesus Christ derived his Being, and all his powers
and honors from the Father ... There is not any reasoning which can convince
me, contrary to my senses, that three is one, and one three.
She also asked
Louisa Adams in a letter dated January 3, 1818, "When will Mankind be
convinced that true Religion is from the Heart, between Man and his creator,
and not the imposition of Man or creeds and tests?"
Portrait on currency
First Spouse Program under the
Presidential $1 Coin Act authorizes the
United States Mint to issue 1/2 ounce $10 gold coins and bronze medal
to honor the first spouses of the United States. The Abigail Adams coin was
released on June 19, 2007, and sold out in just hours. She is pictured on the
back of the coin writing her most famous letter to John Adams.
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