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THE WHITE HOUSEACTORS AND OBSERVERS
NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2002 The White House Historical Association
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Abigail Adams as First Lady
EDITH B. GELLES
With great reluctance Abigail Adams boarded her coach on November 2, 1800, to begin her long journey from Quincy, Massachusetts, to the new capital city on the banks of the Potomac River. "You will forgive me, my dear Sister, that I spared both you and myself the pain of a formal leave, and that I left you without bidding you an adieu," she later wrote to her ailing sister Mary Cranch. "I never was so divided between duty and affection, the desire I had to remain with you, and the necessity I was under to commence a long and tedious journey at this late season of the year." She continued to express the dilemma that had become a thematic undertone in her many years of letter writing. "My Heart was rent with the distrest situation.... I could not be with you as I wished." Abigail had begun her journey to the new capital city, as she called it, during the least felicitous season for travel and upon a route that had hardly been staked out.
For many years Abigail had used the metaphor of travel to describe the disconnection she experienced between duty and affection, between the life that she preferred to live at home in Quincy among her family and friends and the life she was duty-bound to perform as a public figure. "My Journeywas as pleasant as my thoughts upon what was past and my anticipations of what was to come would permit it to be," she had written, and she borrowed a biblical phrase, "splendid misery," to describe the perceived irony in her situation. "To the great Physician both of body and soul I committed you and yours, and sit out with an anxious mind and heavy Heart," she continued in her letter to Mary, checking her complaints and cheering herself by invoking the religion that sustained her in bad times and in good. She further described the weather-"rainy, but promises to clear up"-and noted that the president, her husband, John Adams, had set out from Philadelphia for Washington on the same day that she had departed from Quincy.
Abigail traveled a route that had become familiar throughout her years in New York, the first capital city, and then in Philadelphia, as John Adams's career had catapulted him first to the vice presidency and most recently to the top office of the land. Now, in the late fall of 1800, John Adams was grappling with his declining political fortunes, as the behind-the-scene machinations of the previous six months had spelled out his forthcoming defeat for a second term. Ever a party to her husband's political struggles, Abigail followed the prescriptions of duty, fighting against the deepest fiber of her own desires, to be by his side in inaugurating the new presidential "castle" in the infant city that was growing out of the marshlands of the Potomac.
In New York City, Abigail passed several grievous days by the bedside of her middle son, Charles, dying, she understood, from the effects of his alcoholism: "At New York I found my poor unhappy son, for so I must still call him, laid upon a Bed of sickness, destitute of a home. The kindness of a friend afforded him an assylum. A distressing cough, an affection of the liver and a dropsy will soon terminate a Life, which might have been made valuable to himself and others.... his Physician says, he is past recovery." Continuing her journey, Abigail stayed with her third son, Thomas, now set up in business in Philadelphia, before proceeding into the literally unknown route to Washington.
The conditions of travel did not improve, nor did the weather. After leaving Baltimore at dawn, hoping to make the thirty-six-mile journey to an inn at the outskirts of the new Federal City, her retinue became lost in the woods. "You find nothing but a Forest & woods on the way, for 16 or 18 miles not a village. Here and there a thatched cottage without a single pane of glass," she wrote, ever recording her travelogues to the folks at home to whom such a journey was an unfathomable distance, as we might view travel to some distant planet. She had been invited, she explained, to spend the night with acquaintances along the way, but resisted the imposition. "I who have never been accustomed to quarter myself and servants upon private houses, could not think of it, particularly as I expected the chariot & five more Horses with two servants to meet me." After two long hours of wandering aimlessly through the forest, "holding down and breaking bows of trees which we could not pass," they met a prominent farmer of the area, who guided them back to the path. Within the next hour, the same farmer caught up with her, and she happily accepted from his family private hospitality of the sort that she had formerly resisted. And, she reassured her sister, "I need not add that they are all true federal Characters," affirming her host's political correctness.
Abigail's reception at Washington was no less felicitous. John Adams met her party and escorted her into the city. "As I expected to find it a new country, with Houses scattered over a space often miles, and trees & stumps in plenty with, a castle of a House-so I found it," she remarked, affirming that her expectations had been met. Nor was she disappointed: "The Presidents House is in a beautiful situation in front of which is the Potomac with a view of Alexandria. The country around is romantic but a wild, a wilderness at present." But to her daughter she confided that two issues plagued her. One was bells: in a house so spread out-it would require thirty servants to care for this operation-there were no bells, no way to make contact from one end or floor to another. But more distressing, she wrote, was the lack of wood. "No arrangement has been made ... to supply newcomers with fuel." Of promises there had been many. Their steward, John Briesler, had, by begging and borrowing, managed to acquire nine cords of wood, but most of that had been used to dry the plaster newly applied to the walls. It was the same throughout the city, Abigail explained. "Congress poured in, but shiver, shiver."
"You must keep all this to yourself, and, when asked how I like it, say that I write you the situation is beautiful, which is true." Always the diplomat, Abigail was mindful, as well, of the viciousness of the press, ever willing to pick up any morsel of bad news to derogate the president. But she confided to her daughter that "the house is made habitable, but there is not a single apartment finished.... We have not the least fence, yard, or other convenience, without, and the great unfinished audience-room I make a drying-room of, to hang up the clothes in. The principal stairs are not up, and will not be this winter." She went on to describe inconvenience heaped upon inconvenience and concluded, chauvinistically, that in twelve years of planning and building, New Englanders would have completed the job.
Nevertheless, and despite the inadequacy of the house and its furnishings, Abigail was obliged to entertain. "The ladies are impatient for a drawing room; I have no looking-glasses ... nor a twentieth part lamps enough to light it. Many things were stolen, many more broken, by the removal; amongst the number, my tea china is more than half missing." The first lady's role allowed no slack for impediments. "You can scarce believe that here in this wilderness city, I should find my time so occupied as it is. My visitors, some of them, come three and four miles. The return of one of them is the work of one day; most of the ladies reside in Georgetown," a village she gave no high marks-"the very dirtiest Hole I ever saw for a place of any trade ... a quagmire after every rain." Abigail's litany of miseries went on and on-the distances of the markets; the inconvenience that her clothes and furnishings from Quincy, shipped by water, had not arrived; the worry that little Susan, Charles's daughter whom she had brought with her from New York, had "hooping cough, and always the chill and the dampness." All of this splendid misery, however, took place as the backdrop to the real, the meaningful drama of her life that inexorably persisted on two fronts: the seething political fortunes that unraveled as the young and inexperienced nation faced its first, most contested political rivalry for the presidency; and the tragedy that John Adams later called "the greatest grief of my heart and the deepest affliction of my Life," the death of Charles Adams at the age of thirty-two. To understand all of this, we must pause in our story to look backward in time.
Abigail Adams was the most significant, the most influential, the most important first lady until well into the twentieth century. She gave definition to the role; she came to stand for its nobility; she highlighted its potential. This is true for several reasons. To begin, Abigail Adams was the first occupant of that role who gave independent shape to its parameters. Before her, Martha Washington, a dignified and charming first lady, was totally overshadowed by the towering figure of her husband-as were most members of his administration. Second, Abigail left a paper trail: she wrote letters from which we know quite intimately the dimensions of her participation in the administration of her husband. Third-and to put it plainly-she had and used power.
The role of first lady is not defined in the Constitution or in any of the laws of the land, and it never has been. The office derives from what the political theorist Carole Pateman calls "the sexual contract." Governments are formed by social contracts made among men, Pateman argues. Men came together and formed a nation and established its guidelines, but nowhere along the line did they make room for the participation of women as citizens. The roles women have exercised for most of history came not from the social contracts, founded among men, but from the marriage contract. Because she was married to the president of the United States, Abigail Adams became first lady-a term, incidentally, that did not come into use until after the mid-nineteenth century. She became a public servant of the state, albeit an unofficial one, because she was Mrs. Adams. That she used that role and how she expanded that role to its very limits were unique to her character, to the character of John Adams, and to the times in which she served.
Abigail did not show up willingly in Philadelphia in April 1791, several weeks after John's inauguration as president, which she skipped. Left to her own devices, she would have remained at home in Quincy, taking care of her manifold responsibilities to family and farm until the fall; and John had concurred with that plan-until he discovered what it meant to sit in the highest office of the new nation. Then, with unremitting urgency, he sent letter after plaintive letter to Abigail, imploring her to join him. "I pray you to come on immediately. I will not live in this State of Separation. Leave the Place to Jonathan & Polly, to Mears-to my Brother-to anybody or nobody. I care nothing about it-But you I must and will have." He pressed his case every few days. "You must come and leave the Place to the mercy of the Winds." And again, "I must now repeat this with heat and earnestness. I can do nothing without you.... I must entreat you to loose not a moment time in preparing to come." John had discovered the loneliness of the presidency.
But this was not all. When they were together-and even apart through correspondence-Abigail was his confidante, probably his only lifelong confidante. The role of confidante is specialized; it is rare; it involves a voluntary bond; it is intimate; it has several components. A confidante is a person to whom one can bare one's soul without fear of awful judgment. She is a person who will keep your secrets. A confidante is someone you can trust to be on your side in adversity as well as good times. She is someone with whom you can try out ideas, be creative, even fail, and still trust to be available when you want to try again. She is the person who stands with you when others about you appear suspect, pernicious, mendacious, devious, meretricious, corrupt. In Abigail, John Adams had a confidante. But beside that, Abigail was smart, she was erudite, she was a keen observer of politics, and she generally agreed with John Adams.
And that takes us to politics in the new republic, which, from the Adamses' point of view, quickly assumed suspect, pernicious, mendacious, devious, meretricious, and corrupt proportions. John Adams, early in his administration, was confronted with problems that had not been predicted or chosen by himself or his administration. The most immediate issues that faced him as president turned on foreign policy. If George Washington had left office warning the nation not to get involved in European affairs, John Adams soon found himself beset by Europe's troubles. The French Revolution and then the Napoleonic Wars threatened to spill into the Western Hemisphere, making it unclear who in Europe was a friend and who was an enemy, and Americans were divided in their loyalties. Shipping was disrupted; seamen were impressed. Invasions were speculated from the North, from the South, from the West. Aliens became suspect. And to complement this full deck of troubles, the media had begun to exercise their power as the fourth estate, becoming, as one early American historian has termed it, the "most violent and vituperative" press in our history.
The crises and the traumas of Adams's administration have been amply recorded. In brief, to his credit, John Adams settled his most gargantuan dilemmas diplomatically; he maintained the dignity of his government and staved off war, but he did so at great cost within his administration. His vice president, Thomas Jefferson, a French partisan at the very least, quickly packed his bags and returned to Monticello. Others were less kind. They remained in situ and worked behind the scenes to undermine the efforts of the president. By the last year of his administration, Adams could trust no cabinet member, few congressmen, even from his own state, and few of his own diplomatic appointees. He maintained his policies, and he served his government with integrity, if not tact, with stubborn consistency and political firmness. The one person who traveled this lonely path with him was Abigail. She was the one person with whom he could speak, with whom he could try ideas, with whom he could confess his indecisiveness and his insecurities. Like no other person, she understood, and she could respond with understanding and with wisdom and with political astuteness. We know this because she wrote highly sensitive information in her letters to her sister, to her son John Quincy, minister at Berlin, to Thomas, and to some few others.
Excerpted from THE WHITE HOUSE Copyright © 2002 by The White House Historical Association
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