Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters

Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters

by Diane Jacobs
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Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters by Diane Jacobs

For readers of the historical works of Robert K. Massie, David McCulough, and Alison Weir comes the first biography on the life of Abigail Adams and her sisters.
“Never sisters loved each other better than we.”—Abigail Adams in a letter to her sister Mary, June 1776
Much has been written about the enduring marriage of President John Adams and his wife, Abigail. But few know of the equally strong bond Abigail shared with her sisters, Mary Cranch and Elizabeth Shaw Peabody, accomplished women in their own right. Now acclaimed biographer Diane Jacobs reveals their moving story, which unfolds against the stunning backdrop of America in its transformative colonial years.
Abigail, Mary, and Elizabeth Smith grew up in Weymouth, Massachusetts, the close-knit daughters of a minister and his wife. When the sisters moved away from one another, they relied on near-constant letters—from what John Adams called their “elegant pen”—to buoy them through pregnancies, illnesses, grief, political upheaval, and, for Abigail, life in the White House. Infusing her writing with rich historical perspective and detail, Jacobs offers fascinating insight into these progressive women’s lives: oldest sister Mary, who became de facto mayor of her small village; youngest sister Betsy, an aspiring writer who, along with her husband, founded the second coeducational school in the United States; and middle child Abigail, who years before becoming First Lady ran the family farm while her husband served in the Continental Congress, first in Philadelphia, and was then sent to France and England, where she joined him at last.
This engaging narrative traces the sisters’ lives from their childhood sibling rivalries to their eyewitness roles during the American Revolution and their adulthood as outspoken wives and mothers. They were women ahead of their time who believed in intellectual and educational equality between the sexes. Drawing from newly discovered correspondence, never-before-published diaries, and archival research, Dear Abigail is a fascinating front-row seat to history—and to the lives of three exceptional women who were influential during a time when our nation’s democracy was just taking hold.

Advance praise for Dear Abigail
“In a beautifully wrought narrative, Diane Jacobs has brought the high-spirited, hyperarticulate Smith sisters, and the early years of the American republic, to rich, luminous life. . . . A stunning, sensitive work of history.”—Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Cleopatra
“Jacobs is a superb storyteller. In this sweeping narrative about family and friendship during the American Revolution, Abigail Adams emerges as one of the great political heroines of the eighteenth century. I fell in love with her all over again.”—Amanda Foreman, New York Times bestselling author of A World on Fire
“Beauty, brains, and breeding—Elizabeth, Abigail, and Mary had them all. This absorbing history shows how these close-knit and well-educated daughters of colonial America become women of influence in the newly begotten United States. Jacobs’s feel for the period is confident; so is her appreciation of the nuances of character.”—Daniel Mark Epstein, author of The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345549846
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/25/2014
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 307,189
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

Diane Jacobs is the author of Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges, But We Need the Eggs: The Magic of Woody Allen, and Hollywood Renaissance: The New Generation of Filmmakers and Their Works. She has a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA from Columbia University. Jacobs has taught at Dartmouth College, the Columbia University School of the Arts, and the NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies, and has contributed to such publications as The New York Times and The Village Voice. She lives in New York City.

From the Hardcover edition.

Read an Excerpt




“Never sisters loved each other better than we”


One hot July evening in 1766, 22-year-old Abigail, the wife of rising young lawyer John Adams, stayed up late to write her 25-year-old sister Mary Cranch how much she missed her. Both were living in the outskirts of Boston—Abigail in Braintree and Mary in Salem, but there were twenty-five miles of bad roads and a river between them. Each had teething infants, reams of housework, and husbands setting out to make their marks in the world.

Still, Abigail was determined to get to Salem before the end of the summer. “I have been Scheeming of it this fortnight,” she told her sister. But then John was assailed by one law case after another. She couldn’t see herself clear until the lower court adjourned, “and then I hope there will not any more Mountains arise to hinder me. Mole hills I always Expect to find, but them I can easily surmount.”1

Mary had told Abigail she woke up at four to cook and clean, mother her baby daughter, and scurry Richard, her brilliant but impractical spouse, off to work. Abigail joked that she and John dozed until eight at least, enjoying the breeze off the Atlantic and indulging “my inclination to Laziness.”

Both Mary and Abigail were deeply in love with their husbands, yet lonely for each other and for their teenage sister, Elizabeth, who was still living with their parents a few miles from Braintree in Weymouth. “Sister Betsy, poor Girl her heart is with you, but when her Body will be, is uncertain, “Abigail lamented to Mary, for their worrying mother always found some excuse—Betsy’s cough, the sultry New England weather—to keep her home. So the sisters clung to one another by writing.2

They wrote with homemade quill pens and ink produced from their own recipes on Massachusetts bond from the new paper mill in Milton. Composing in moments stolen from spinning or churning butter, or while everyone else was sleeping, with candle wax dripping on their prose, they lamented all the errors they made. Mary had no need to explain that she wrote in great haste: her spotty ink and wild scrawl announced her endless workload. “Burn this letter!” she and Abigail frequently enjoined each other. Betsy made no such request.

Yet, even Betsy, who kept her pen sharp and took pride in her fine cursive, rarely wrote in a tranquil moment. “My brains are all roiled,” she characteristically fretted at the end of one letter.

What’s more, the colonial postal system, years behind Great Britain’s, was so notoriously unreliable that, through no fault of her own, Abigail had just gotten back a letter she wrote Mary a week earlier “like a bad penny.” The nearest post office was in Cambridge, so if no neighbor carried it directly, another week might pass before Abigail found a Harvard-bound neighbor willing to send the letter back off.

Still, it was all worthwhile since reading a letter from Mary brought “new spring” to Abigail’s nerves and “a brisker circulation to my Blood,” creating “a kind of pleasing pain.” “I feel so glad that I can scarcely help feeling sorry,” she now wrote, and while she conceded this reaction might seem strange, it was perfectly normal when people were connected as deeply as Mary and herself. “Never Sisters Loved each other better than we, I believe I can truly say,” she declared.3

“I daily count the days between this and the time I may probably see you,” Mary agreed; though, being the eldest, it did not behoove her to effuse as much as her middle sister, and while assuring Betsy, the baby, that she longed for a visit, Mary felt impelled to remind her that their parents’ needs came first.4 Honoring those above you and commanding those beneath made life run smoothly: besides, it was God’s will.

It would have been obvious to anyone who met them that Abigail, Mary, and Betsy were sisters. Though Mary was darker and taller and Betsy was the slimmest, all were small and slender with oval faces; narrow, decisive mouths; smooth noses; shining brown hair; and clear skin. Their bright dark eyes conveyed authority and a marked intelligence, and they all shared their mother’s energetic, self-confident air and passion for doing good, but were surprisingly delicate—they were the first to catch colds and the last to recover. When she was very young, Abigail had been paralyzed for two weeks with rheumatic fever,5 and her childbirths had been far more treacherous than Mary’s. It was a battle with death for her to produce a child.6 Betsy, frailest of them all, wilted in the heat and was so weak after one childhood illness that the doctor ordered her not to read, write, work, or even think. It was lucky the “ill humours” attacked her body rather than her mood or she’d be impossible to live with, Abigail observed.7

These sisters had been inseparable since their Weymouth childhood. Weymouth—where their father, William Smith, had been minister of the First Congregational Church since 1734—was a crooked, twelve-mile ride away from Boston. It was a typical New England village, smelling of the yellow blossoms of locust trees in the spring and bayberry bushes in the autumn, sweltering in summer and so cold on a winter night that ink could freeze in your pen. Wild ducks flew overhead, and the wind carried fish scents from the ocean. The town had a population of just over a thousand; its dwellings were wood versions of the brick houses the Puritans had left behind in England, and they ran up and down old Indian trails.

The sisters were born in an age of inspiration and conflict, with the Great Awakening stirring evangelical conversions in the Puritan churches and the Enlightenment championing rational thinking in the libraries of Harvard and Yale. It was the era of Voltaire and Rousseau, Locke and Hume, reason and feeling. Such questions as what constitutes a social contract preoccupied the great minds of the time.

In New England, women’s fight for social involvement had died a century before with the banning of Anne Hutchinson’s weekly meetings in 1637. Where Hutchinson had borne sixteen children and co-founded the colony of Rhode Island, mothers of the mid-eighteenth century generally sought power only in the private sphere. Out of necessity or conviction, they colluded in their own economic and physical dependence. Most mothers set an example of subservience for their daughters and left public discourse to their husbands and sons.

In 1754—the year Mary turned thirteen—the French and Indian War broke out, extending the worldwide Seven Year War to the colonies. Here it became a contest between England and France for American wealth. Most of the Indian tribes allied with the French hoping to thwart the aggressive spread of the British, while colonists from Maine to Georgia identified wholeheartedly with their English kin. American militias rushed to assist the British forces. In the 1750s, young George Washington made a name for himself vanquishing Indians attacking early pioneers.

Around the dinner table at their father’s parsonage, the Smith sisters listened silently as the wisest men in Weymouth analyzed battles in Ohio or Pennsylvania or Louisiana. Out the window crashed the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Across it lay their King and culture. The girls craved British books and British dresses, British concerts and parties and plays. Weymouth, Betsy quipped, was distinguished only “for its inactivity.”8 But its wild, hilly farmland and lofty oak trees also moved her, for she was full of delicate feeling—or, as her epoch phrased it, sensibility.

Females ran in the family. The girls’ mother, Elizabeth Quincy Smith, was—like Betsy—the youngest of three close sisters. When Elizabeth Quincy married William Smith on October 16, 1740, she moved across the pond from Braintree to Weymouth, where she gave birth to her first child, Mary, on December 9, 1741. Next came Abigail on November 11, 1744, and last Elizabeth on April 7, 1750. Between Abigail and Elizabeth, in 1746, William Smith was born, assuring them a male heir. In terms of salvation, though, men and women were on the same footing. All four siblings, baptized in their father’s parish, set off on the uncertain road to eternal life.9

But in the hierarchy of New England, where your family name determined where you sat in church10 and the order in which you graduated in your class at Harvard, the children of William and Elizabeth Smith were already assured a distinguished place. On their father’s side of the family lay a line of successful businessmen going back to Thomas Smith, who sailed from England and opened a butcher shop ten miles from Weymouth in the village of Charleston in 1663. His son, the sisters’ grandfather, became a wealthy merchant farmer, while their maternal forebearers—Quincys and Nortons—were landed gentry, pastors, and statesmen. On an old parchment, their adored grandmother Quincy traced a family tree back to an ancestor who had fought with William the Conqueror at Hastings and another who had signed the Magna Carta beside King John.

In 1633, the first American Quincy, Edward, had arrived in Massachusetts Bay with a band of defiant English Puritans, who called themselves Congregationalists. These men and women rejected England’s state religion, Anglicanism, for its ostentation but accepted its emphasis on the inequality of the educated and the ignorant, the wealthy and the poor. Order, they believed, demanded that one man answer to another. There would be no grandiose Bishops or Lords in Puritan America, but also no pretense of egalitarianism; the humble would doff their hats to privilege—just like at home.

Edward Quincy arrived in America as a gentleman with six servants and enhanced his fortune farming the hilly land he named Mount Wollaston in Braintree, which elected him to the first Massachusetts court. Edward’s grandson, John Quincy, the girls’ grandfather, all but ran Braintree, serving as Colonel in the Army, Speaker in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and moderator for every town meeting in the precinct for years. A local Indian tribe even chose him as their guardian, praising his fair-mindedness. John Adams complained in his diary that Colonel John Quincy never said anything good about anyone, but admitted he “did not often speak evil” either. He did accumulate the largest library outside of Boston and was as devout as his grandfather Edward. The church remained the most powerful agent in New England life, though over the past half century, religion in New England had changed.

Gone, for instance, was the founders’ law, which defined anyone who was not a Puritan as a heretic, subject to having an ear lopped off if he practiced his wayward faith. By Colonel John Quincy’s time—he lived from 1689 until 1767—Anglicans and Quakers could not only worship as they liked but exert power in town meetings. These local governments were true democracies for their era. Name and fortune for once were irrelevant. Every property-owning male carried the same weight.

Congregationalism, meanwhile, had radically polarized. On the one hand, the so-called “Old Lights” continued to cherish emotional reticence; on the other, the “New Lights” began fanning self-display. Faith, which for the former was inborn or gently encouraged, came for the latter as ecstatic revelation. Writhing was an inevitable consequence as was—in Abigail’s words—“foaming.”11

Reverend Smith managed to appease both camps, though he himself was an Old Light, believing, like John Locke, in the superiority of reason to feeling, and refusing to dwell on man’s sins. Abigail spoke for her father when she said, “Gloom is no part of my Religion.”12 Nor was it easy for him to hide his scorn for the Born Again “awakenings” that charismatic evangelicals like the British George Whitefield and the American Jonathan Edwards were fomenting in New England in the middle of the eighteenth century. Reverend Smith voted against the New Lights in clerical meetings, but would not speak against them at the pulpit. As he saw it, remaining impartial made him popular and therefore useful. Usefulness was the most crucial virtue a Congregationalist could possess.

Besides, he loved philosophy and had an aversion to petty gossip—talk about things, not people, he advised his daughters. He prized forgiveness. On the wall of his main parlor hung a Biblical painting of the brothers Esau and Jacob, embracing after a lifetime of envy and hate. Parson Smith subscribed to foreign papers like the literary Spectator and Tatler and was a shrewd reader of human nature, with a sometimes lurid humor, according to his friends.13 Loss troubled him. Houses struck by lightning and fire were the sort of events he recorded in his diary. Yet he had faith in human endeavor. In August of 1751, only four months after his church burned to the ground, he had already begun raising another. Here he preached a month later, with his family listening from the best pew.14

One evening Reverend Smith amused company by speculating that printing was invented by luck when some careless boy whittled his name onto a tree bark.15 But nothing of importance was left to chance in his home. Self-control and self-improvement carried the day.

Typically, ministers paid for their great prestige with a low standard of living. Salaries were meager and often—as in William Smith’s case—based on the price of crops in a given year. Reverend Smith’s diary is filled with jottings about minute rises in the costs of wheat or rye, for he was careful about money and determined to get his fair share. Like most ministers, he also farmed to augment his salary. As little girls, the sisters fell asleep beneath the eaves in their wainscoted second-floor bedroom to the trembling of cow bells. They awoke to the sight of three lofty hills, the sound of woodpeckers drilling nests into the spring trees, and a view of fruit orchards and grazing sheep.16

But the Smiths did not rely solely on William Smith’s preaching and farming. Thanks to their wealthy relatives, the minister and his wife could afford a silver rather than the standard wood tankard for their dining board and a light, one-horse carriage for two with a calash or hood. They had an upstairs library and paid over a hundred pounds to add a barn-size L-extension to their two-floor wooden home. The house had a slanted roof and sat on the corner of North and East Streets. Windows were taxed, so it was a mark of wealth that they had four, all flooding sunlight into the large formal parlor. Here each of the girls had composed her first letter on a lap desk—and here Betsy now wrote longingly to her married sisters in what John Adams called her “elegant pen.”17

Unless, of course, she was visiting the Adamses in their smaller house near their First Congregational Church, in Braintree. Here Betsy and Abigail would “talk[] and wish[] for” Mary while gazing outdoors at the upward swing of Penn’s Hill.18 Light and perspective mattered deeply to all of the sisters; so even frugal Mary had thrown caution to the wind when she moved to Salem. Mary’s house, which Abigail now had her heart set on visiting, had not only brightness but a splendid view of the wharfs and the sea.

The home the girls grew up in had more than a good lookout. “You must remember that very few children have had such advantage as you have and that where much has been done by way of culture good from it is expected,” Elizabeth Quincy Smith wrote her son, Billy, when he left home to work in his teens.19 Billy had been taught Greek and Latin by the finest tutors and plied with new books imported from London. He had the chance to go to Harvard and cared so little for knowledge that he turned it down. Mary loved Billy, more, she believed, than brothers ever loved sisters,20 but was vexed by his indifference to education when she and her sisters were so avid to learn.

And whereas in England daughters were often educated by their fathers—and the early feminist Mary Astell had gone so far as to advocate college for girls!—in the New World females had half the literacy rate of their brothers21 and were taught—by their mothers—only reading, religion, and basic math. Dancing and music classes were considered too frivolous in the Smith household, though William Smith’s library was open to everyone, and their mother was advanced in promoting reason rather than dogma. “I have always endevour’d to persuade you to act from principle,” Elizabeth Smith explained to Billy in a letter that described her method with all four children. “As soon as you were capable of reasoning you [were] treated like a reasonable creature—when any thing was demanded of you the reason was given.”22

Elizabeth taught charity to her daughters by example, as when she turned down stylish imports and hired indigent neighbors to spin the family clothes, or when she risked her own health to visit sick neighbors. She prayed with her children at night and in the morning and sat with them through two church services on Sunday not only because she was pious, but because she was convinced that fear of God warded off sin.23 Industry was also a powerful agent for good. She taught her girls the arduous process of mixing grease and ashes to make a barrel of soap on a spring day and how to trap a goose in a stocking so they wouldn’t get their fingers bitten off plucking its feathers for their quill pens. From an early age, Mary, Abigail, and Betsy joined their mother in the autumn ritual of making candles by spinning hemp into wicks and dipping them in kettles filled with water and tallow hung on trammels over the kitchen fire. Though her life was hard enough, Elizabeth Quincy Smith felt lucky by comparison to other Weymouth families and told her children they were too.24

The girls’ mother was a model of thrift, and her warning that it was better to save every apple paring than to waste spoke especially to Mary, who was the most cautious of the three.25 Mary was also the most easily comforted, always feeling better as soon as she had “open’d my heart” to someone.26 All three girls were disgusted by females who squandered time or money, for this offended not just God but the sort of man they hoped to wed.

Elizabeth Smith was full of contradictions—so relentless about chaperoning her daughters’ fiancés that Abigail suspected she had never been in love herself, but so skillful and kind that Betsy yearned for her nursing for the rest of her life whenever she got sick.27 The community perceived her as the ideal minister’s wife, adept at settling quarrels and avoiding feuds.28 Yet, while she held a high standard of excellence, her desires were modest. She wanted to shine in the world as it was, and she did.

Mary, with her pleasing ways, seemed the most like her mother, though inwardly she seethed at the neglect of her mind. “Method was wanting in our studies and we had no one to point us to it,” she reminded Abigail when they were both out of the parsonage. “. . . Our parents felt the necessity of keeping us from scenes of dissipation and frivolity and left the rest to nature.”29

Still, on the outside at least, Mary was the dutiful firstborn, while Abigail was openly rebellious and wild. “You will either make a very bad or a very good woman,” a family friend told her: obviously suspecting the first.30 In her teens Abigail committed the sacrilege of opposing her mother’s authority, or, as she saw it, made clear she resented how her mother denied her most innocent requests.

As a child, Abigail was often sent away for long visits to her grandmother Quincy, whom she sometimes thought she loved more than her own mother because she did not invidiously compare her to Mary or rebuke her more than once for a crime. Besides, Grandmother Quincy could be wicked herself—whispering to Abigail that it was “a mercy to the world” some people they knew were “kept poor” or they would be even haughtier than they were already,31 and regaling her with spicy anecdotes from the local newspapers, such as the story of the wife who poured red wine in her husband’s pipe.32

And then there was Betsy, who was just as high-spirited as Abigail and even less free to express herself. She could not run off to her grandmother’s because she was the youngest and—unlike her also unmarried and far less industrious brother—always had duties to perform at home. Where Billy wasted his chances to learn, she grasped every free moment to read, and not just enthusiastically, but with a cultivated taste that would have ranged wider, she was sure, if one duty or another wasn’t always calling her from her father’s books. The final insult came during Mary’s and Abigail’s brief visits when—rather than at last having time to enjoy herself—Betsy was given the further burden of amusing their little girls. “I am almost crazed with the natural Blessings of Matrimony,” she wrote her cousin Isaac during one such visit. Then she herself got sick, and four months passed before she had the strength to read, which would not be so terrible for this cousin, who was off at Harvard and could “spend whole years in the delightful employment of improving [your] mental powers. Shortness of the time enhances its value and makes the loss greivous to me,” she reported with her normal dramatic flair.33

Table of Contents

Illustration Credits xi

Author's Note xiii

Family Tree xiv

Chapter I "Never sisters loved each other better than we" 3

Chapter II "Oppression is enough to make a wise people Mad" 26

Chapter III "Sister Delegate" 50

Chapter IV "Something great is daily expected" 70

Chapter V "A Solemn Scene of Joy" 94

Chapter VI "The heart which is susceptable to all the finer sensations is ever subject to the deepest wounds." 119

Chapter VII "The steel and the Magnet" 139

Chapter VIII "How many how various how complicated my Sensations!" 167

Chapter IX "A joy in which our reason plays no part is but a sorrow." 197

Chapter X "The die is cast" 225

Chapter XII "The disunited State of america" 254

Chapter XII "With much joy and pleasure" 280

Chapter XIII "The most insignificant office that ever the Invention of Man contrived" 306

Chapter XIV "Too painful to think upon" 336

Chapter XV "Second to no man but Washington" 359

Chapter XVI "Yours are mine and mine are yours" 367

Chapter XVII "One of Sister Cranchs Letters is worth half a dozen others" 392

Chapter XVIII "As always I hope for the best" 414

Epilogue 427

Acknowledgments 435

Selected Bibliography 439

Notes 443

Index 479

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Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Extremely well written and historically accurate. It was well researched. The lives of these ladies show how important the American women were to our history. Highly recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very informative and enjoyable! Nice companion book to David McCullough's "John Adams". Information for donebyme: Alternate Unofficial Names: Charles Towne, Charleston, Charlestown Heights, Charlton, Mishawum.
donebyme More than 1 year ago
In this book, Diane Jacobs repeatedly refers to Charlestown, MA as "Charleston". I am surprised that such an error was not noticed and corrected. As a Boston native, and a "student" of the Revolutionary War and especially Abigail Adam, I find this unfortunate. I am enjoying the book, always eager to read a new book about the life of Abigail Adams. I have to say that it takes away from my experience each time Charlestown is referenced as "Charleston." At first I thought that maybe that was the spelling that must have been used in the correspondences cited in the book so she left it as is, but it is also used in non-correspondence based passages. Just to be sure, I did many GOOGLE and BING searches on the history of Charlestown, MA and found no reference to is as "Charleston". In fact, in 1629, engineer Thomas Graves was given the job to map out the town and the new town was given the name, Charlestown, after the adjacent river and the reigning King, Charles l. It was originally separate from the City of Boston and it was the first capital of Massachusetts. If something as important as the misspelling of one of the most historic places in US history is wrong, it makes me wonder what other facts in the book are incorrect. There may be a valid reason for the miss-spelling, but I have not been able to find it.