John Adams was one of the founding fathers as well as our second president. What is less well known is the extraordinary relationship he had with his wife, Abigail.
The two first met when Abigail was fifteen and John was twenty-five and a practicing lawyer from Braintree, Massachusetts. Abigail’s first impressions of the young man were less than complimentary. She wrote in her diary he was “Not fond, not frank, not candid”. However, from this unremarkable beginning, a relationship grew that would stand the test of time and tide. Something happened to change Abigail’s opinion on the young lawyer, but we are not privy to what. Soon he was addressing her in letters as “Miss Adorable” and saying “By the same token that the bearer hereof [JA] satt up with you last night, I hereby order you to give him, as many kisses, and as many Hours of your company after nine o’clock as he pleases to demand, and charge them to my account.” A description that later generations found too scandalous to print.
We have an insider’s view into their relationship from the massive amount of letters the two interchanged during their courtship as well as into their marriage. They spent most of their married life apart as Abigail stayed on the farm in Braintree with the children, and John traveled from Boston to Philadelphia to Europe in support of the colonies and later the new nation. There are over a thousand letters between the two, and they show not only the extraordinary relationship between them but the influence Abigail had on John’s decisions. Although, Abigail did not have a formal education she was quite well read, and John treated her as his intellectual equal. It made sense, a woman he trusted to run his home and raise his children in his absence, would have the intellectual capacity to be his sounding board for the knotty political problems he was facing. Through it all the remained devoted to one another, addressing each other as “My Dearest Friend.”
While John was in Philadelphia in the Continental Congress, Abigail wrote to him urging him to “remember the ladies”. This was a revolutionary sentiment even in the middle of a revolution. She wrote, “I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them 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.” . Most scholars believe Abigail was not advocating women’s suffrage. However, Abigail was no stranger to “man’s work” as she was left alone to run the house and farm while
John was gone. It was not a role she liked, but felt it was her patriotic duty to support her husband as he fought for the country. Because of this she was an advocate for women’s education and made sure her daughters were well educated.
Abigail supported John through the travails of his vice presidency and presidency and mourned his falling out with former friend, Thomas Jefferson. She was a bit more outspoken in her criticism of Jefferson than Adams. Jefferson had condoned the “lowest and vilest Slander” written about her husband by James Callender during the election of 1800, which was one of the bitterest the country had ever seen. Abigail accurately predicted the outcome of the election, and prophesied that Callender would turn on the hand that fed him. She was right as Callender was the one who broke the story about Jefferson’s affair with his slave, Sally Hemmings. She bemoaned the state of the new country saying, “The Spirit of party has overpowerd the Spirit of Patriotism.”
After his defeat in the 1800 election, John retired from politics. He wrote one his last letters to Abigail saying, “I am very glad you consented to come on… It is fit and proper that you and I should retire together and not one before the other.” Their partnership continued while their extraordinary correspondence ended. They were finally together.
Sources available on request