In addition to being the wife of the first U.S. vice president and second U.S. president, Abigail Smith Adams was also the mother of the sixth U.S. president*. She was also the first First Lady to reside in the White House, moving into the unfinished mansion in 1800. Thankfully for historians, this remarkable woman recorded 1,200 letter exchanges with her husband John Adams throughout their marriage, likely making her one of the most documented women of her time.
The self-educated Abigail Smith was one of the most skilled writers of her time, teaching herself to communicate in both English and French. She was born in Massachusetts a descendent of several well-known New England families, and proved an excellent partner for a young lawyer named John Adams. In 1764, at the age of 19, she married him and moved to his home in Braintree, where she remained throughout the revolution. This is the same location she raised the surviving four of their six children.
America’s First Power Couple
Abigail diligently worked for women’s education, denounced sex discrimination, and challenged the top male minds of the day such as her husband, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. During her husband’s stints in federal office, Abigail lived in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, traveled to Europe, and became accustomed to running the family farms and businesses in John’s absences. Unlike the only First Lady before her, Martha Washington, Abigail played active roles in politics and policy.
However, Abigail is mostly recognized for a 1776 letter to her husband in which she appealed that he “Remember the Ladies.” In that letter she encouraged her husband and the male patriots of the Continental Congress, “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.”
Her husband’s respect for her was clear in his writing and decision-making. In fact, their union is often referred to as “America’s first power couple.” But her loyalty and involvement did not end with her marriage. She was also a staunch supporter of her son John Quincy’s political ambitions.
Singular in Life and Death
Before her death in 1818 (eight years before her husband’s), Abigail moved to Quincy, Massachusetts, and amassed a fortune in her own name, defying centuries of legislation that assigned a married woman’s property to her husband. As John Adams continued to work with Thomas Jefferson, Abigail, with her husband’s blessing, lived out her years writing about and fighting for the issues she was most passionate about.
Today, there are many books and Historical Society collections of her letters, providing one of the most insightful pictures of Revolutionary-Era public and private life. Her likeness was also minted on gold and bronze coins as part of the Presidential $1 Coin Program. There is also a present-day discussion in Washington DC about constructing an Adams Family Memorial.
Further Recommended Reading
- “Abigail Adams,” by Woody Holton (Here)
- The Letters of John and Abigail Adams (Here)
- “My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams” (Here)
- “Abigail Adams,” History Channel (Here)
*The only other woman in history to have a husband and son serve as president of the United States is Barbara Bush.