Abigail Smith Adams, wife of President John Adams, was born his social superior. She was the daughter of the Rev. William Smith, a Congregationalist minister of Weymouth, and her grandfather was also a minister. Her mother inherited the blue blood of the Quincy family. John Adams came to the marriage as the son of a farmer with limited means who was also trained as an attorney. Abigail Smith married John Adams on October 26, 1764, when she was twenty years old. They set up housekeeping on his farm in Braintree because the income from his law profession did not provide fully for them
Abigail had limited education for two specific reasons. Opportunities for girls to be educated were restricted in those days, and her delicate health prevented her being sent from home to gain even the common schooling available. Even though Massachusetts had a reputation for encouraging education, it was usually the sons of the family who received every advantage. The girls were expected to help their mother in the manual household labor and to help their brothers. Women usually had no career opportunities outside the walls of their home. Abigail was basically self-educated because she read widely and wrote many letters.
Abigail did not have much faith in her abilities beyond being a good wife to John and a mother to his children, but she was considered to be a woman who had great and far-reaching influence for good in her day. Her letters are filled with life and feeling. She lived in an era of great historical events and was acquainted with many of the people who were making history, but her own life was not filled with great events. She was never required to perform heroic deeds for the cause of liberty, but she lived her life in such a way that she would have done so in her characteristic quiet and gracious dignity. She was the same person in the little farm house at Braintree as in the gilded drawing rooms of the courts in France and England or the unfinished parlors of the White House.
The first ten years of her marriage were filled with the mundane chores of the wife of a farmer. She spun and wove, knitted stockings, took care of the farm, and wrote frequent letters to friends and family. Four sons and a daughter were born during those years.
In 1774 John was chosen as one of the delegates from Massachusetts to meet with other delegates in Philadelphia for two months. He returned to Philadelphia when Congress met again in May 1775. While John was meeting in Congress, Abigail was busy caring for her children, managing the farm, frugally keeping house, opening her home to the homeless, giving to the poor from her meager supplies, and staying busily occupied. In this same time period she began to study books to learn the French language. Her house was used as a sort of hospital. She was violently ill, and her youngest son nearly died. During this same period of time, her mother passed away. Even though she was lonely for her husband and had to listen to the British firing on Boston, she willingly supported her husband in his duties away from home.
John came home occasionally for a few weeks at a time but was often gone. When he was appointed as an ambassador to France, he thought he could take his wife and children with him, but he could not. The British fleet wanted to capture John Adams because he was a man with a price on his head. He traveled to France on a small and not very fast vessel in February with only eleven-year-old John Quincy Adams. John came home from France after being absent for eighteen months for a breathing spell before being sent to Great Britain to negotiate a peace.
It was especially hard on Abigail when John went to France. She found relief by writing: “My habitation, how desolate it looks! My table, I sit down to it, but cannot swallow my food. Oh! Why was I born with so much of sensibility, and why possessing it have I so often been called on to struggle with it? Were I sure you would not be gone, I could not withstand the temptation of coming to you, though my heart would suffer over again the cruel torture of separation.” By the spring of 1781, she could stand the separation no longer: “I feel unable to sustain even the idea that it will be half that period ere we meet again. Could we live to the age of antediluvians, we might better support this separation, but with threescore years circumscribing the life of man, how painful is the idea that of that short space only a few years of social happiness are our allotted portion!”
Abigail cared for her aged father until he passed away and was buried beside her mother. Early in 1784, Abigail and her daughter sailed for England. It was Abigail’s first ocean voyage, and she was too sea sick to write for the first sixteen days. She reached London on July 23 and was met by her husband and by her son John Quincy whom she had not seen for six years. The family moved to Paris and lived near Dr. Benjamin Franklin for a year before going back to London where John was appointed Minister to that country and Abigail was the first female representative from the United States at the Court of Great Britain.
John and Abigail stayed in Great Britain for three years before returning home in the summer of 1788. The following year the American government was organized under the Constitution, and John was elected Vice President. They established their home in New York for a year before the seat of government was moved to Philadelphia.
In June 1800 the Federal government was moved to Washington, D.C., where the Adams family was the first to live in the partially finished White House. The first New Year’s reception at the White House was held in January 1801. Abigail lived in the White House for about four months before she returned to Quincy because of ill health. There she remained until she passed away on October 26, 1818, at age seventy-five. She retained her faculties to the last, and her declining years were marked with her characteristic cheerfulness and dignity. Eight years later, John was laid to rest beside her in Quincy.
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