Part two of two
“Remember the ladies,” Abigail Adams wrote in a letter to her husband during his service in the Continental Congress. And those words are how we now most often remember her: “Remember the ladies.”
And John did. He pined for her. His long public career—in the Continental Congress, as a minister in Europe, as vice president, as president—kept them apart for long stretches. They spent ten of their fifty-four years of marriage separated by war, by sea, by duty.
So they wrote—some 1200 letters in all. “My dearest friend,” he addressed her, and he meant it.
The lively correspondence between John and Abigail illuminates not only a great American love story but also a great political partnership. Among the company of great Founders, Abigail was the one forced to stay at home—by social convention and family duty—but she refused to be forgotten.
Biographer Joseph Ellis said Abigail’s political instincts “rivaled Madison’s legendary skills and whose knowledge of her husband’s emotional makeup surpassed all competitors. She had always been his ultimate confidante, the person he could trust with his self-doubts, vanities, and overflowing opinions.” There was, he said, an “almost tribal quality” to their collaboration; she came, over time, to serve as his “unofficial one-woman staff” and political confidante. She was the battery that kept her husband running. He kept a manic schedule, and although he did not write her as often as either of them would have liked, or as long (“I wish you would ever write me a letter half as long as I write you,” she one lamented) their correspondence served as his lifeline.
While he toiled in his duties far from home, Abigail kept those home fires burning. She raised four children and managed the family’s considerable farm—a task generally considered man’s work. She didn’t care. It needed to be done, and she was the woman to do it, and John approved heartily. “I think you shine as a stateswoman…as well as a farmeress,” he wrote to her in 1776.
In retrospect, Abigail presents an odd but quaint contradiction: she believed in expanded roles for women in society, yet she also believed a woman’s place was in the home, where she presided supreme.
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.
That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute; but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up—the harsh tide of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend.
In his playful response, her husband said he “could not help but laugh”:
We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bonds of government everywhere…[b]ut your letter was the first intimation that another tribe, more numerous and powerful than all the rest, were grown discontented.
This is rather too coarse a compliment, but you are so saucy, I won’t blot it out.
Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and, in practice, you know we are the subjects.
We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight.
Modern readers might mistakenly interpret his response as patronizing, particularly because she wrote in absolute earnestness, but such was the good-natured interplay between them that he could tease. He really did know who ruled the roost—and he was thankful she did.
In fact, throughout his career, he welcomed such advice from her. “Send more,” he told her during his vice-presidency. “There is more good thoughts, fine strokes, and mother wit in them than I hear [in the Senate] in the whole week.”
They never acclimated to their long separations. “No man even if he is sixty years of age ought to have more than three months at a time from his family,” she wrote to him during his presidency.
“Oh that I had a bosom to lean my head upon,” he responded. “But how dare you hint or lisp a word about ‘sixty years of age.’ If I were near I would soon convince you that I am not above forty.”
Abigail’s grandson, Charles Francis, U.S. minister to England during the American Civil War, published the correspondence between his grandparents on the occasion of the centennial. The correspondence captured “the sentiment that pervaded the dwellings of the entire people” during that Revolutionary time—but it was certainly Abigail’s voice far more than John’s that served as the Everyperson’s voice. In fact, an earlier collection of her letters published by Charles Francis in the 1840s resonated so well with people that it went into four editions.
By the approach of the bicentennial, at the height of the Women’s Rights Movement, Abigail gained renewed cache.
“Probably Abigail would have been astonished to find herself transformed into something of a celebrity one hundred fifty years after her death,” wrote Lynne Whitey in her 1981 biography Dearest Friend. “She knew that members of her family would go down in history, but she hardly believed that she herself would be one of them. Yet sure she would have approved of the reasons of her fame: the interest of a later age in the history of family and domestic life, as well as the history of politics; and above all, its interest in the emancipation of women and in the discovery of women in the past who spoke out on behalf of their sex.”
Abigail died of typhoid on October 28, 1818, two weeks shy of her 74th birthday. “Do not grieve, my friend, my dearest friend. I am ready to go,” she told her husband. “And John, it will not be long.”
The former president outlived his wife by another eight years, passing away quietly on the Fourth of July, 1826, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Outside the church where they’re entombed, a bronze statue of Abigail stands, her hand resting on her oldest son, John Quincy, still a boy. Across the street, a statue of John looks in her direction, separate but remembering.
A version of this essay originally appeared in 2012 at Scholars & Rogues.