Up until now, much more was known about the second president of the United States than his wife, but in his new biography, Abigail Adams, prizewinning historian Woody Holton gives readers an up-close and personal look at the woman behind John Adams. From what Holton’s research shows, however, it is debatable whether Abigail would approve of being known as “the woman behind the man”. Abigail remained conservative in her views concerning a woman’s duties within the home but espoused many feminist views. She believed that women should follow certain social protocol and always support their husbands’ endeavors. She believed that child rearing and housekeeping were mainly women’s duties. But she also believed that women’s voices were suppressed, and sought to open doors that would change the lives of women during her lifetime and in the future.
Having studied an extensive variety of archived documents, including the Adams Family Correspondence housed at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Woody Holton delivers an elegant account of American history from 1744 to 1818 and the life of a fascinating, intelligent and historically overlooked first lady. In Abigail Adams, he paints a coquettish yet spunky portrait of Abigail as a young woman. A free spirit with a strong mind, she never stopped lamenting over the lack of equanimity between the sexes when it came to education. Well known for advocating women’s rights, she implored her husband to “Remember the Ladies” as he was drawing up new laws after the British evacuation of Boston in 1776. She opined that women should be involved in politics and allowed to hold public office. And in spite of the laws of coverture which made women the legal property of their husbands, she expressed the need for “a legal check on husbands who used their wives with cruel and indignity” referring to women who were abused by their husbands which, she made clear, did not include herself.
In fact, Abigail and John Adams enjoyed a romantic courtship and loving marriage. He considered her “unladylike” upon meeting her, but eventually found her wit “saucy”, appreciating the challenge of her forward manner and intelligence. Abigail often referred to their relationship as a “threefold cord” meaning they were linked together as lovers, friends and obliged by humanity to be “affected with the distresses and Myserys of our fellow creatures”. They were – and remained – a perfectly matched couple, her one complaint being the long separations they endured due to John’s professional responsibilities. Many of their letters to each other have survived in which John called her “Diana” after the moon goddess. In turn, she referred to him as her “Lysander”, the Spartan general who defeated the Athenians in 405 B.C. He began his letters “Miss Adorable” and she addressed him as “My Friend”. In the 18th century, “friend” had a different connotation than it has today and was considered a much more intimate term.
“Friend” is not the only term which has evolved in meaning over the past few centuries, and Holton’s explanations of words like “franked”, “candid” and “sensibility” add to the understanding of 18th century life as culled from the vast store of letters at his disposal. Even more valuable is the rich political landscape he draws which encompasses the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and the birth of the Declaration of Independence. He expertly traces Abigail’s self-insertion into the political arena, revealing how her beliefs were sometimes at odds with those of her husband and son John Quincy, the sixth president of the United States. She held little but contempt for Benjamin Franklin, who once tried to sabotage her husband, and felt nearly the same about Thomas Jefferson until a late-life reconciliation.
For all her other pursuits, Adams’s children and extended family were a priority. She never stopped asserting her maternal influence as far as it would reach, including across the ocean when necessary, and was usually the one called upon by relatives in need. Holton writes of family achievements, celebrations, disagreements and disappointments. Amid the wealth and pleasures enjoyed by the Adams family were great failures and pain. Pregnancy, epidemic, tuberculosis and cancer were not, of course, exclusive to the time but unique in the ways they were managed, and Abigail Adams remained a matriarchal pillar of strength during difficult times.
She also had a knack for reading the securities market and fomenting profit. Not only did she talk her husband into investing in depreciated government securities in spite of his preference to invest in land, but she quietly invested her own “pin money” in securities just before their value increased. Added to the money she made selling imported goods during the war, her “money which I call mine” amounted to a sizable fortune by the time of her death. Perhaps in defiance of laws that precluded married women from accumulating their own wealth and owning property, she bequeathed her fortune to her female descendants with but two exceptions. Her sons John Quincy and Thomas (to whom she had previously given some land) each received “a tankard and a share in the Weymouth toll bridge.” Unnoticed by previous biographers, Adams’s disproportionate bequests favoring the women in her family were bold and unusual for the time. Yet, it was her own financial wizardry that kept her husband rich and out of debt throughout his life, proving that women were capable of maintaining control over their economic situations – and deserved the right to do so. Her contributions to family, country and the advancement of women have been somewhat under appreciated. With his extraordinary new biography, Abigail Adams, Woody Holton finally gives her a proper place in American history. Highly recommended.
Abigail Adams by Woody Holton
Free Press, November 3, 2009
Woody Holton is associate professor of history at the University of Richmond in Virginia and the recipient of a coveted Guggenheim fellowship for Abigail Adams. His first book, Forced Founders, received the prestigious Merle Curti Award for social history from the Organization of American Historians; His second book, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution was a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize and the National Book Award, and was long-listed for the Cundill Prize.