A Reference Resource
Abigail Adams is probably best remembered for urging her husband, John Adams, to "Remember the Ladies." At a time when John was working on the Declaration of Independence, Abigail specifically lobbied her husband to,
"be more generous and favorable to [the Ladies] 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 . . ."
Although John disagreed with Abigail on such matters, he nevertheless saw her as a lifetime partner and confidante. Abigail's enduring support, advice, and insightful political observations prompted John to call her his "dearest Partner" and "best, dearest, worthiest, wisest friend in this World." On top of that, he noted, Abigail shone "as a Stateswoman."
Shining as a "Stateswoman" was one thing, but Abigail Adams did not look forward to becoming the First Lady. While the presidency would be a "flattering and Glorious Reward" for her ambitious husband, she confessed that her "ambition leads me not to Rome." She would have preferred to remain at Peacefield, the family's small farm in Quincy, near Boston, managing its affairs. Her hesitancy did not come from inexperience in the limelight. Raised the daughter of the Congregational minister in a small town just outside of Boston, she was accustomed to visits to the family home by important local figures as well as by dignitaries from throughout the colony. Moreover, her husband had been the leading lawyer in Boston prior to the War of Independence and after 1774 had served in the Continental Congress. As a result, she had met the elite of Boston and numerous revolutionary activists, congressmen, and officers in the Continental army, including Samuel Adams and George Washington. In addition, she was experienced with protocol as an ambassador's wife, as her husband was the United States minister to the Court of St. James in London between 1785 and 1788; had assisted Martha Washington with official social functions; and had performed her own responsibilities as the vice president's wife.
Despite this background, Abigail preferred to remain at home. She had friends and family, including a sister, in or near Quincy, and she worried about the health of the farm at Peacefield -- the Adamses' nest egg for their retirement years -- should she not be present to manage it. Nevertheless, she accepted her role as First Lady, all the while fretting over whether she was up to the demands of the job. She steeled herself for a role she believed "require[d] courage and firmness, wisdom and temperance, patience and forbearance." She prepared herself for the visibility associated with such "an elevated position," the expected "vilification" and "abuse" of her family, and the need for some degree of self-censorship. Mrs. Adams of Quincy, Massachusetts, might speak as she chose, but she believed that "Lady Adams" needed to be more careful.
These self-imposed limits notwithstanding, Abigail continued to lobby for improvements in female education and battled the assumed inferiority of women. Writing that she would never consent to having those of "her sex" considered inferior, she advocated letting "each planet shine in their own orbit." But her earlier strident calls for husband John to "Remember the Ladies" abated somewhat over time. Abigail noted that the "Government of States and Kingdoms, tho' God knows badly enough managed . . . should be solely administered by the Lords."
She was vigorously supportive of one "Lord" in particular. Although Abigail suffered from painful and debilitating rheumatoid arthritis by 1797, she traveled each year from Massachusetts to Philadelphia -- and in 1800 to Washington -- to be with her husband in the capital. There she faced an arduous schedule. She arose at dawn and tended her family until late morning. From 11:00 until mid-afternoon, she received the public, presiding at public ceremonies, entertaining visitors, and often repaying those visits. On some days, she met with as many as sixty callers. From time to time, she presided at public ceremonies, and on approximately one evening each week, she hosted a large dinner whose guests typically included congressmen, diplomats, and important citizens. Each day she managed a large household of servants whom she imported from Quincy.
Even before her husband took office, she dreaded the partisan criticism that would become his lot. She had predicted that from "envy, pride and malevolence," the President's foes would "shoot their envenomed arrows" at him. She did not have long to wait. Within ninety days of taking office, the Republican Party press opened up on him with attacks that she believed were motivated by the "true spirit of Satan." She encouraged friends and relatives to answer the assaults and defend the President, and on occasion, she planted stories in Boston's newspapers, discreetly sending home letters and articles she hoped to have published. She was especially embittered that opponents charged nepotism in the appointment of her son, John Quincy, to a diplomatic post in Europe. The First Lady also chafed when the Federalist Party, her husband's faction, celebrated Washington's birthday every February but ignored President Adams's birthday in October.
Many within the administration, as well as without, believed that the First Lady influenced the President. Critics even referred to her as "Mrs. President." The President regularly consulted his wife, and she appears to have influenced his choice of some appointees. She also functioned as a literary critic, reading and critiquing some of his important speeches. However, while Adams valued his wife's political judgment and views, he was far too independent to accept her suggestions unthinkingly. For instance, although she strongly endorsed the Alien and Sedition Acts, welcoming jail terms and fines for those who printed "base and unfounded calumny" about her husband, no evidence exists that her views led President Adams to sign the bills into law. Furthermore, following the notorious XYZ Affair, Abigail favored war with France, but her husband demurred and sought a peaceful settlement.
At the same time, Abigail Adams did not neglect her social responsibilities. Like her predecessor, she assisted the needy, handled requests for patronage, and held receptions that, by 1800, took place in the new presidential mansion in Washington, D.C. According to Abigail, the President's House, as it was called then, left a great deal to be desired. It was too large -- far larger, she complained, than her church in Quincy -- and impossible to heat. She made the most of it by hanging her laundry in the cavernous East Room. Another source of discontent was the presence in the mansion of slaves as servants. Unlike Martha Washington, Abigail Adams opposed slavery and had favored its abolition in the early 1770s. While sympathetic to the slaves and the hardships they endured, "Lady Adams" was less compassionate toward the young nation's immigrant population. She feared the effects of a pervasive French influence on fashion as well as on politics. Her suspicion of foreigners extended even to her British-born daughter-in-law, Louisa Catherine Adams.
These were difficult years for the First Lady. In July 1798, she fell desperately ill with what her daughter described as a "bilious fever," but what some scholars think may have been a physical collapse brought on by stress. Her physicians despaired for her life for weeks. Two years later, in the autumn of 1800, her son Charles, only thirty years old, died of the ravages of alcoholism.
Despite her initial reluctance to see her husband assume the presidency, the First Lady made no apparent attempt to persuade him to retire at the end of his term. She followed the campaign closely during the election of 1800, and in private, repeatedly assailed Alexander Hamilton who, although a Federalist, worked to defeat Adams. Early on, she said she had "read his heart in his wicked eyes" and the "very devil is in there." She labeled him both a "Caesar" and "a second Bonaparte." Abigail also embraced the Federalists' campaign rhetoric that branded Jefferson an atheist and fervently hoped that he would not win the election. However, when the results of the electoral college vote revealed that her husband had been denied a second term, she was not distraught. The outcome was "best both for your father and me," she told a son. She looked forward to returning with her husband to Quincy and to retirement and fervently believed that the "short remainder of my days will be the happiest of my life. I consider my retirement as a favor."
Regrets, however, mingled with her happiness. The First Lady not only feared for the country's future, she lamented her own loss of power: "I can truly and from my heart say," she recorded, "that the most mortifying circumstance attendant upon my retirement from public Life is, that my power of doing good to my fellow creatures is curtailed and diminished, but tho' the means is wanting, the will and the wish remain."
Abigail Adams would become a role model for all subsequent First Ladies. When future presidential spouses described themselves as their husbands' political partners, freely advising them on matters of state, they were taking cues from the second woman to occupy that position. Although politically active, Abigail Adams fulfilled her duties as hostess, reinforcing the notion that such responsibilities were intrinsic to the role of presidential spouse. And like her, there would be other First Ladies who mourned their husbands' election losses, knowing, as Abigail Adams did, that it was their loss as well.