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On an unusually warm morning in the middle of January 1816, seventy-one-year-old Abigail Adams, wracked with pain and convinced she was dying, sat down to write her will. For Adams, scratching out this four-page document was, for one simple reason, an act of rebellion. The reason was that Adams's husband John, the former president, was still alive. Throughout Abigail's lifetime (which, despite her apprehensions that January morning, would continue into the fall of 1818), every wife in America was a feme covert -- a covered woman. "The husband and wife are one person in law," the English legal theorist William Blackstone had explained back in 1765; "that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage." The most tangible manifestation of this legal "coverture" was, as Adams complained to her husband in 1782, that married women's property was "subject to the controul and disposal of our partners, to whom the Laws have given a soverign Authority." Husbands assumed complete authority over their wives' real estate (land and buildings). And if a married woman brought to her marriage, or later acquired, personal property (which consisted of everything except real estate, be it cash or cattle), it, along with the income generated by her real estate, went to her husband, to dispose of as he pleased. Thousands of spinsters and widows left wills giving away their belongings, but married women were not permitted to distribute their real estate -- it was divided equally among their children -- and there was no reason for them to express their wishes regarding their personal property, for they had none to give.
Adams nonetheless decided to write a will. She began it by itemizing certain gifts she had previously made to her sons, explaining that she mentioned these so "that injustice may not be supposed to be done" to them. But the bulk of her will took care of her female relatives. They received gowns, watches, and rings -- and also securities and cash. Adams's brother, brother-in-law, son-in-law, and one of her sons had all failed to provide adequately for their families. To make up for these male relatives' failures, she had spent the previous three decades giving money to several men and nearly a dozen women in her family circle, often concealing these payments from her husband. She now decided not to share her belongings -- more precisely, the property she claimed to own -- equally among her heirs, as her husband would do (with a few exceptions) in his own will three years later. Instead she sought to harmonize her benefactions with the recipients' needs. The residuary legatees -- those receiving whatever, if anything, was left after all of her individual bequests had been carried out -- were her six granddaughters.
In the vast trove of Adams Papers housed at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, a copy of Adams's will, in her handwriting, is filed with the family's legal papers, but it was not actually a legal document that any court was bound to respect. Recognizing that hard truth, she did not begin it with the customary language about being of sound mind and body, instead writing, "I Abigail Adams wife to the Hon[ora]ble John Adams of Quincy in the County of Norfolk, by and with his consent, do dispose of the following property." By and with his consent. Although the document did not bear the signature of John Adams, Abigail insisted that she had persuaded her spouse to go along with her challenge to coverture. Over the course of their long lifetimes, John and Abigail Adams had worked together on a host of important projects that have earned them great renown, but this previously unreported collaboration -- in which the wife, not the husband, took the leading role -- may have been the most extraordinary of all.
Today Abigail Adams lives in the American memory as the most illustrious woman of the founding era. Yet the very existence of her will suggests that perhaps we do not know her quite as well as we think we do. What were the converging forces that prompted the wife of the second president to defy hundreds of years of statutes and legal precedents by writing a will? Given that married women of her era were not supposed to own personal property, how did she manage to acquire so much of it? When John discovered this document among his deceased wife's papers, he would have been well within his rights in throwing it in the fire, and that raises an additional question: what made her so sure he would carry out her wishes? The only way to solve these riddles is to trace two long-term developments. The first is the evolution of Abigail Adams's personality across the span of more than seventy years of revolution, war, and social upheaval. The second is the gradual working out, over the course of more than five decades, of her relationship with her husband. Abigail herself was never able to answer another question posed by her will, namely: Did John in fact carry out her instructions? But we can.
For generations, Abigail Adams's words -- in particular her famous "Remember the Ladies" letter of March 31, 1776 -- have inspired women seeking equity in the workplace, before the law, and within their own families. Yet they have always been mere words, and skeptics have emphasized that the only place she ever dared to utter them was in confidential letters to her husband. But the skeptics are wrong. Adams actually shared her views on women's rights with numerous correspondents, male and female, inside and outside her family. She even published a brief critique of one particularly obnoxious misogynist in a Boston newspaper (albeit anonymously). Most important of all, she was not content merely to register her verbal objections to the subjugation of women. She turned her own household into a laboratory where she imagined what the emancipation of women might look like. In the fall of 1781, about the time of the British surrender at Yorktown, she had made the first of her own declarations of independence. She took some of the money she had earned as a wartime dealer in European finery (therein lies another tale, to be told in due course) and placed it "in the hands of a Friend," whose identity she conspicuously withheld from her husband. Later she invested this "money which I call mine" in ways that John considered unsavory. For instance, she speculated in government securities that Revolutionary War soldiers had been forced to part with for pennies on the dollar. Moreover, she sometimes devoted her mercantile and speculative profits to causes of which her husband did not approve, justifying the expenditures as coming out of what she variously called "my own pocket money" or "my pin money."
Adams's determination to enact some of her proto feminist ideals within her own household -- to act as though the doctrine of coverture lost its force at her front door -- is only one of the many surprises concealed within the pages of this woman's extraordinary life history. Given the sheer number of authors who have recounted her story, an astonishingly small portion of it has been told. Biographies of Abigail Adams generally portray her as agreeing with her husband on nearly everything -- a depiction that is only accurate if you concentrate, as most of her biographers have, on her political views. On more personal matters, such as religion, the education of the Adams children, and -- most of all -- family finances, John and Abigail frequently clashed. The sparks that sometimes flew between them illuminate both personalities, and their disagreements can also bring some clarity to a range of broader issues, especially the complex question of what the American Revolution did for -- or to -- women.
Many of the Adamses' marital differences will resonate with modern couples. In fact, one astonishing aspect of Abigail's story is that much of it seems strikingly familiar. As a teenager, she bridled under her mother's overprotective gaze, and even as a young adult she continued to nurse the wounds she felt her mother had inflicted on her. She did not like the man who courted her little sister, Elizabeth, often called Betsy (primarily because he was too Calvinist). She was annoyed at the way her married friends prattled on about their children -- until she became a mother herself. She wondered whether her infant daughter's first smiles were mirth or simply gas, borrowed baby gear from her older sister, Mary, and worried about whether the local school was doing her children more harm than good. Her husband irritated her by ignoring the family as he lost himself in his newspaper -- and infuriated her by leaving her with a houseful of sick children and not even bothering to write. Her teenage daughter resisted her authority in ways that recalled her own adolescent rebellions.
One reason that many of the scenes of Adams's life have a modern resonance is that she prided herself on navigating the most important intellectual currents of her era. Long before her contemporary Thomas Paine christened their epoch the Age of Reason, Abigail and other educated men and women on both sides of the Atlantic had liberated themselves (as they saw it) from the bonds of blind faith, placing new emphasis on the thought processes of every individual. Letter writing and diary keeping both mushroomed during the Enlightenment. Abigail wrote more than two thousand surviving letters, and she devoted large portions of them to exploring her feelings. To an extent that does not seem unusual today but that would have astonished her grandmother, Abigail liked to think about her thoughts. A fortunate byproduct of Adams's fondness for reflection and self-expression is that she is far and away the most richly documented woman of America's founding era. A matchless trove of personal information -- primarily letters -- makes it possible to trace the evolution of her personality in astonishing detail. John Adams constantly berated himself for vanity, and his enemies' accusation of arrogance sticks to him even today. Yet in many ways Abigail was even more self-possessed. To be sure, John's intellectual reach often intimidated her, but in all of her other relationships, she was surprisingly confident -- "saucy," John called her. Adams's self assurance shown brightest in her approach to other people's offspring. Once it became clear that she had failed to dissuade her younger sister, Elizabeth, from marrying Reverend John Shaw, she urged the couple not to have any children. In 1809, her son John Quincy sailed to St. Petersburg, Russia, as the American minister (a diplomatic post below the rank of ambassador), leaving two of his boys behind with their grandmother. Adams periodically sent his mother explicit instructions about who should board and educate the boys, but she routinely overruled his decisions. At one point she placed George and John with Elizabeth (who by then had lost her first husband and taken another), but then she became dissatisfied with her sister's childraising technique and moved the boys yet again.
Having to give up John Quincy's sons was not only humiliating for Elizabeth but a serious financial blow. She and Mary had both taken husbands who were good men but poor providers (twice, in Elizabeth's case). Abigail and her sisters never lost sight of what happened when their brother's addiction to drink prevented him from providing for his family. William's children had to be sent away to be raised by various relatives, including Mary, Abigail, and Elizabeth, and his fate stood like a lighthouse on a rocky shoreline, a constant reminder that the worst consequence of poverty was not material deprivation. Coverture sharply limited Elizabeth's and Mary's ability to compensate for their husbands' financial failings, but they soldiered on, determined to accumulate and retain enough property to keep their families together.
Times were never as hard for Abigail as they often were for her sisters, but she too understood the connection between a family's economic status and its ability to stick together. She once offered to use some of the money she called her own to purchase an additional farm for her husband, but only if he would quit "running away to foreign courts" and return to Braintree. Two decades later she made a similar overture to her youngest son, Thomas, who had moved to Philadelphia to practice law. Abigail's wealth also allowed her to surround herself with other people's children. Louisa Smith, her brother's daughter, spent most of her life in the Adams household. And at various times Abigail's daughter and each of her three sons all felt the need to send their own children to live with "Grandmamma." For instance, her daughter Nabby's boys moved back to Massachusetts after their father spoiled them and then abandoned them (temporarily, as it turned out). Years later, Nabby's daughter Caroline joined the Adams household during her mother's last illness and remained there after her death. After Charles Adams replicated his Uncle William's failures, slowly drinking himself to death, his wife and daughters accepted Abigail's invitation to live with her. And for several years after John Adams's term as president, financial necessity forced his son Thomas's entire family, which included several rambunctious toddlers, to move into the mansion that John had once called "Peace Field."
The widening gap between the Adamses' growing wealth and Mary's and Elizabeth's continuing financial struggles strained Abigail's relationships with both of her sisters. Neither Mary nor Elizabeth could afford to refuse the help that Abigail pressed upon them, but their shared dependence on her embarrassed them terribly. Once in 1797, Mary gratefully acknowledged yet another round of her sister's gifts and then lamented that she and her children were "doom'd to always be the obliged." Abigail's effort to prevent her donations from fraying the sisterly bond called forth diplomatic skills rivaling those displayed on a grander scale by her husband.
Another recipient of Adams's charity was Phoebe Abdee, her father's former slave, who lived in the Adams home rent-free during Abigail's four-year sojourn in Europe. But this relationship was also put to the test when Abdee defied Adams's prohibition against sharing the house with others. Exhibiting a charitable instinct similar to Abigail's, Phoebe sheltered a variety of men and women, black and white, whose circumstances were even more desperate than her own. Whereas Abigail's sister Elizabeth once described Phoebe as "oderiferous," Abigail on at least one occasion referred to her as her "Parent." In 1797, Adams took a courageous stand on behalf of a black servant boy who was being driven from the town school because of the color of his skin. Yet she was by no means a consistent enemy of racial prejudice. After attending a London performance of Othello, she admitted her "disgust and horrour" at seeing the "Sooty" title character "touch the Gentle Desdemona."
If on the one hand Adams has the unnerving capacity to remind us of people we ourselves have known, on the other hand we would do well to remember that much of the apparent familiarity of her world is only a façade. The danger of misunderstanding is especially great in the area of language. While anachronistic terms such as prog and ochlocracy pose obvious challenges, other words sow even more confusion by seeming familiar when they actually are not. In John Adams's first diary reference to Abigail Smith, the parson's daughter who was destined to be his bride, he described her as "not candid." To modern eyes it might appear that he was saying she was dishonest, but his actual meaning was exactly the opposite of that, for he found her too blunt. In the eighteenth century, to be "candid" was to focus on other people's strengths and overlook their faults. Apparently John considered Abigail insufficiently candid because she could not resist teasing him about some of his foibles.
Visitors to Abigail Adams's era can count on finding a multitude of familiar faces, but they must nonetheless proceed with caution, for her world is also full of surprises.
Copyright © 2009 by Abner Linwood Holton