Abigail Adams was an amazing woman. No—that compliment cuts in half her talents and her ardor. She was an amazing human being.
“Faced with the unfamiliar task of providing financially for her children while her husband was in Europe for four years, Abigail used her imagination and discovered talents she hadn’t realized she possessed to accomplish her goal,” Natalie S. Bober wrote in the “Foreword” to her 1995 biography of this heroine.
Bober noted that Adams “must be viewed as a woman of her times, and in her own context.”
“She spoke out strongly for education for women and for legal status equal to that of men, but she valued the domestic role as the greatest in her life,” Bober wrote. “For her, a woman who spoke with wisdom was not ‘inconsistent’ with one who ‘cheerfully’ attended to her household.”
In her constancy to her country and to her husband and children, Adams was one of the great figures in U.S. history. Even today, long after her death, she offers us a shining example of an ardent patriot, a loyal and loving companion in marriage, a devoted mother, and an educator.
She was born Abigail Smith, the daughter of a New England Congregationalist Minister William Smith and his wife Elizabeth.
But we know her today as Abigail Adams (1744–1818), the wife of John Adams and the first lady during his presidency, as well as the mother of John Quincy Adams, our sixth U.S. president.
And it was in her early life, in ways often hidden from herself, that she acquired the tools and gifts that would make her such a remarkable person.
‘Wild Colts Make the Best Horses’
So said the beloved grandmother of Abigail Adams.
Though raised by a mother deeply concerned with the proprieties of society, Abigail was a headstrong, independent child who often fought to go her own way. She worked alongside her father during lambing season, despite her mother’s belief that a woman’s place was in the home and not a barn. She enjoyed shelling the peas that she would later eat at a table serviced with silver and linen.
This penchant to follow her own path and hold strong opinions came to the fore during her courtship with young attorney John Adams. At one point, he sent Abigail a “Catalogue of your Faults,” which contained such criticisms as her lack of skill at cards, her failure to learn to sing, her poor posture when seated, and even her habit of sitting with her legs crossed.
Abigail answered these charges.
“I thank you for your Catalogue, but must confess I was so hardened as to read over most of my Faults with as much pleasure, as [another] person would have read over their perfections,” she wrote back humorously.
Getting Herself an Education
To her lifelong regret, Abigail never attended any formal school. In her later life, she attributed this neglect to the prejudices of her time against female education. However, to be fair to her parents, there were a few schools in Massachusetts that admitted females, and Abigail’s parents were worried about their daughter’s susceptibility to disease had she studied away from home.
Despite her misgivings, by today’s standards, we would regard Abigail as highly educated, assisted in her schooling by a number of others. When older, she credited her grandmother as one of her early great teachers, someone who possessed “the happy method of mixing instruction and amusement together.” Once when she implored her father to send her off to school, he reminded her that the family had access to three fine libraries: their own and those of her Grandfather Quincy and Uncle Isaac Smith. And in fact, Abigail plundered these libraries to deepen her knowledge of subjects such as literature, history, and politics.
A few tutors also played a hand in her education. One of these was Richard Cranch, an amateur theologian, lover of literature, and watch repairman. As Natalie Bober tells us in “Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution,” Cranch “was probably the first man (other than Parson Smith and young Isaac) to take Abigail’s passion for learning seriously. Abby adored him.”
In her teenage years, Abigail also broadened her education and writing skills by corresponding with friends about books and poems they had read. These young women deliberately conducted these exchanges of letters as a means of furthering their education, especially in regard to literature, as well as fostering the intimacies of friendship.
During this time, Abigail pushed herself to become a better writer. Faulting her lack of formal education and her unfamiliarity with the classics in their original Greek and Latin, she “worried about her handwriting, her spelling, and her ‘pointing’ [punctuation], and apologized to her friends for being ‘a very incorrect writer,'” according to Bober.
“She hoped she wouldn’t be thought stupid,” she wrote.
Despite her fretful concerns over her academic shortcomings and her letter writing, which was considered an art form in the 18th century, Abigail’s upbringing molded her into one of the most outstanding women in U.S. history.
The willfulness she exhibited as a girl evolved into the willpower that carried her through the long years of her husband’s absence from their home. While John was attending to politics in places such as Philadelphia and Europe, Abigail relied on her earlier education to run the farm, oversee their children’s upbringing and education, and barter goods to help make ends meet. She disliked performing these tasks alone, but she never flagged or faltered in her duties.
Abigail’s dismay over her education led her to become an early advocate for women’s rights in both education and in the political realm. She famously wrote to her beloved husband John to “remember the ladies” when he and others were creating the framework for the Revolution in the spring of 1776. Other letters urged him to grant rights to women both in marriage and in politics.
Her correspondence with her husband, with patriots such as Thomas Jefferson, and with family members and friends remains one of the hallmarks of our past. Historians have found in her letters thousands of details ranging from the days before the American Revolution to her time as first lady. Her prose is sharp and lively, raising a question: Would the lost education she so lamented have enhanced these letters or reduced their fervor and pith?
The adolescence of Abigail Adams—and for that matter, hundreds of other renowned Americans—offers some lessons for today’s parents, grandparents, and mentors of young people.
Abigail might easily have slipped into an entirely different life, a different destiny. Her mother was unhappy with John Adams’s courtship of her daughter, regarding him as “a struggling country lawyer whose lack of grace and polish, rude outbursts, and moody silences were not a fit match for her fragile but gifted middle daughter.” Abigail might have succumbed to her mother’s demands, but her determination to make John her husband—there’s that adolescent willpower coming to the fore—eventually changed Elizabeth’s mind.
Abigail’s early life offers this major reminder of human development: We acquire gifts as we mature that may someday give birth to unexpected bounties. The training and education Abigail received, some of which she regarded as stumbling blocks, actually worked to her advantage and made her a success in her later years.
The same criteria might apply to our own young people. By their play and education and even by their bitter disappointments, they may later find themselves, like Abigail, inadvertently equipped with the tools they need for triumph and success.
For More Information, See:
“Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution” by Natalie S. Bober (Simon Pulse, 1998, 272 pages)