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Abigail Adams was a tiny woman, little more than five feet tall, with dark hair, piercing dark eyes, and a forceful personality that belied her size. Quiet and reserved as a child, she nonetheless displayed a brilliant mind and fierce determination even then. As she matured, these qualities broke through her quiet exterior and she became voluble and outspoken, never afraid to assert her opinions whether in the company of friends, family, or heads of state.
To the modem observer, she is maddeningly contradictory. on the one hand, she was a fiery revolutionary, denouncing British tyranny in blistering rhetoric. She refused to be intimidated by the specter of British attack, even as she could hear the cannon and see the smoke of nearby battles; she raised four children, managed a farm, and conquered her intense feelings of loneliness and depression while her husband spent years away from her serving in the Continental Congress and negotiating with European powers. Her husband, John, called her a "heroine" for her courage, and indeed she was. Yet after the war she turned into a reactionary; she denounced all opposition to the new federal government as dangerous, blamed all political dissent on "foreign influence," and advocated the suppression of freedom of the press.
She was just as contradictory in other ways too. She argued for improved legal rights and education for women long before they became popular issues; but she always believed that a woman's place was in the home and, as she got older, became more and more obsessed with "delicacy" and moral purity in women. She professed to hate politics, and yet obviously thrived in her role as a politician's wife. Even in her relationships with her family, she displayed contradictory behavior. She tried to control the lives of everyone around her but instilled in her children a spirit of independence that made them resist though not always successfully her overwhelming influence. They often showed signs of resenting her interference in their lives, but they were also deeply attached to her. Despite her sometimes overbearing personality, she was a loving and generous woman. Her concern for her family and friends knew no bounds, and they, in turn, loved her unreservedly.
One may try to explain away the contradictions in Abigail's life by pointing out that she was essentially conservative, that as a feminist she was limited by the constraints of her times, that her professed distaste for politics was mostly talk. There is some truth in all these statements, but they are hardly sufficient to explain Abigail's complex personality. How does one explain a conservative who advocated independence for America and equality for women?
Abigail herself would not have appreciated having anyone try to force a pattern of consistency on her life. She was the first to admit that she was temperamental and changeable; she also believed that anyone with an independent mind would not ever try to be consistent. And she was nothing if not independent.
On some things, however, she never wavered. She was, throughout her life, temperamentally and philosophically conservative, despite her outspoken advocacy of the American Revolution. In general, she feared revolution; she valued stability, believed that family and religion were the essential props of social order, and considered inequality a social necessity. But at the same time she abhorred injustice whether it was British control of the American colonies, women's subjection to their husbands, the enslavement of black people, or the antiquated laws that kept European peasants from owning their own land. These were all injustices, in her mind, that could be ended without threatening the underlying social order.
The American colonies rebelled against England, she believed, because their continued subjection to British rule was neither just nor necessary. The formation of a new American government seemed to her a perfect opportunity for ending women's inferior legal status and for abolishing slavery. But she saw no reason to change basic social relationships or to introduce "democracy." People who did advocate such changes, she believed, were guilty of undermining the government and betraying the ideals of the Revolution.
She approached the issue of women's rights from a similar perspective. She believed that women were the intellectual equals of men and had a right to an education; she hinted that they also had the right to vote. She talked about the "tyranny" of men and compared women's condition to "Egyptian bondage." Yet she also believed that women by nature were fundamentally different from men and were best suited to be housewives and mothers. To her way of thinking, there was nothing inconsistent about those views. Women had a clearly defined role caring for their homes and families, just as men had their role as breadwinners. Families needed both to survive, and families were the cornerstone of society. Better education and legal independence would do nothing to change this situation; indeed, education would only make women better wives and mothers.
But, as clear as these points seemed to Abigail, the issues she raised about women's rights did potentially undermine their traditional role, a dilemma that she herself could never quite escape. Although she never actually stepped outside her role as wife and mother, she carried it to its limits. She managed all the family property and investments including buying land, planning additions to houses and farm buildings, hiring and firing laborers, contracting with tenants, and supervising farm work. Most of these things were accomplished without John's advice and in many cases without his knowledge. She often disagreed with him on the best way to invest their money, and she generally got her way. She also served as John's unofficial, unpaid, but most influential political adviser.
Abigail often felt uneasy about the extent to which she stepped out of women's traditional sphere. She constantly asked for John's advice about farm matters, usually without any response except his assurances that she managed brilliantly without his help. She admired women who achieved success in fields generally reserved for men, but she expected them to sacrifice some of their femininity as a result. Even more significant, she admired women who were more conventionally feminine than she was. She worried, for example, that she would not live up to Martha Washington's example as First Lady, although by all accounts Abigail was a far more interesting person. She admired in her own daughter those qualities that were most unlike herself: her quiet, demure manner, her selflessness, her delicate beauty. Late in life, when she compared two of her granddaughters who were entering their teens, she praised the one who was feminine and self-effacing while criticizing the other, who was stubborn and contentious, even though she admitted that the second girl was much more like herself as a child.
Abigail's ambivalence about her position as a woman affected her attitudes about politics too. On the one hand, she always said that she wished John would give up politics so they could return to their quiet rural life; but she clearly loved political debate and the sense of importance that went with being a public figure. John expressed the same conflicting feelings, as he struggled with his ambition for public recognition and his belief that such ambition must be checked.
For Abigail, however, the conflict was more complex. As a woman, she could not be accused of ambition; it was simply not a female quality. But in fact she was ambitious, almost without knowing it, and she acted out her ambition in the only way that an eighteenth-century woman could: through her husband. In that sense she enjoyed basking in John's reflected glory. But she also valued a traditional home and family life, which was largely denied to her because of John's political career.
This ambivalence about politics can be understood only in light of her commitment to her family. Abigail was most strongly opposed to John's involvement in politics during the Revolutionary years, when he was away from home for long periods of time. His absences not only disrupted their family life but also excluded her completely from his work. in later years, when they were together and she shared in his work, she complained much less about his attachment to politics. She continued to regret the disruption to her family long absences from their children and from friends and relatives at home but as long as she and John were together and she felt herself a part of his political career, rather than excluded from it, she did not regret his decisions to remain in politics. The gratification of being involved in public affairs, however indirectly, made up for the personal sacrifices she made.
Abigail Adams was, in many ways, a prisoner of the times in which she lived, and her views on women's role in society and on politics reflect that fact. She believed that women should have better education and more independence than the attitudes of the time permitted, and she managed to achieve both through her own determination. But she also accepted the social standards that confined women to the home. She enjoyed her role as wife and mother; she was passionately devoted to her husband and children. Sometimes, however, her devotion to her family and her sense of independence came into conflict. She tried to believe the prevailing notion that women were naturally suited to function in the restricted sphere of the home rather than in the world outside. She often prefaced her comments on politics with an apology for meddling in men's business. But the fact remained that she enjoyed being part of the "busy world," as she liked to call it, and did everything she could to keep herself squarely in the midst of it.
Abigail was largely self-taught, a fact that shows in her writings. Her handwriting is bold and distinctive but in no way resembles the regular, clear script of an educated man of the eighteenth century. Her spelling is unorthodox, her capitalization random, and her punctuation almost nonexistent. She herself was well aware of these facts and attributed them to her lack of formal education. When her son Thomas teasingly criticized her punctuation, she called him a "sausy Lad" but admitted that he had cause for his criticism. "As to points and comma's," she remarked, "I was not taught them in my youth, and I always intend my meaning shall be so obvious as that my readers shall know where they ought to stop." Unfortunately, her meaning is not always clear, and in direct quotes from her correspondance I have occasionally changed commas to periods in order to make more sense of her sentences. I have also capitalized the first words of sentences where she did not, but left all other capitalization and spelling unchanged.
I would like to thank the staffs of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, the Boston Public Library, the Library of Congress, and the Essex Institute for assistance in using the papers of Abigail Adams in their collections and for permission to quote from them. Several institutions provided photographs and granted permission to publish them: The Massachusetts Historical Society, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the New York State Historical Association, the Library of Congress, the Adams National Historic Site, the British Museum, the Art Collections of Arizona State University, the Boston Atheneum, and the National Gallery. I am particularly grateful to Mrs. Lewis Greenleaf of Nantucket for permission to publish a photograph of a portrait in her private collection.
Many friends and relatives offered advice and encouragement during the writing and rewriting of this book. Robert Middlekauff gave generously of his time in reading and commenting on earlier versions of the manuscript. My husband, Michael Hindus, not only read every draft, but also followed me around the countryside in search of scenes from Abigail's life, always with good advice and good cheer.
And, finally, Catherine Scholten exercised her considerable historical judgment and editorial talent to help transform a rambling manuscript into a book. Tragically, she died before she could see the results of her efforts, or complete her own important work. Her premature death has deprived me of one of my best critics and one of my closest friends.
Copyright © 1981 by The Free Press