By David Bruce Smith
This is the third part of a continuing series of blog posts with author David Bruce Smith about Abigail and John Adams. Historic Deerfield’s resident historians will pose questions to Smith, who is the author of Abigail & John, a nonfiction children’s book that offers readers the opportunity to view prominent scenes in American history through the remarkable lives of one of the country’s most beloved couples—the Adams’s. Exploring the historical significance of a partnership that spanned over five decades, the book details the love they shared for each other and the country. We hope this blog can be a helpful historical resource for learners of all ages.
1. Please discuss Abigail’s correspondence with John while trying to make ends meet during the war. How did she try to ensure their family’s financial security despite an uncertain financial future?
While the Colonies and King George III continued to clash, John Adams was dispatched to Philadelphia in 1774, for the First Continental Congress. Fifty-five representatives from 12 of the 13 colonies—including George Washington, Samuel Adams, and Patrick Henry—assembled there to devise a strategy for independence.
In the meantime, Abigail toiled at Peacefield, their farm in Quincy, Massachusetts. At slightly over 30 years old, Abigail managed an entire operation of formidable functions, with almost no help. The family was staunchly abolitionist until John Quincy catapulted to the presidency in 1825—and in a moral reversal—seasoned the White House with slaves.
While John was away—layering his law practice with luster, fighting for freedom, and polishing his political profile, Abigail tended to the chickens and livestock—in calamitous cold and hellish heat; milked the cows, labored in the fields; cared for her the four surviving children, and equipped them with an education of excellence.
Abigail also sorted out the family’s financial affairs, with guidance from her uncle, Cotton Tufts, who recommended investments “in debt instruments issued to finance the Revolutionary War.” Eventually, the bonds were redeemed at full-face value. Abigail’s acumen—and good fortune—provided enough familial wealth until John’s death. (Abigail Adams Wikipedia, p. 3)
Sometimes, the revolution inched up, close to their home. When the Battle of Lexington and Concord was fought 20 miles away, some of the soldiers who escaped hid in Abigail’s house, or trained in her yard, while she melted down utensils into musket balls for the Cause.
In another incident, cannon fire awakened her. She and John Quincy climbed a nearby summit, and watched, aghast, as Charlestown, Massachusetts burned during the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Abigail had been caring for the children of Dr. Joseph Warren, a family friend. He died in the skirmish.
There is little doubt that the couple’s long separations were taxing and tough, but they were not unusual—for the time—even though Abigail pined to her John in December of 1773: “How many snow banks [sic] divide thee and me”.
But the harder hurdle to maneuver was the creeping along of communications; letters were slow in coming; lost; or intercepted in wartime. Still, Abigail’s words conjured a combination of constant concern about her beloved husband that was homogenized with hilarious humor, and an appetite to apprise John of a home life he would hardly ever experience:
“Pray let me know how your Health is, and whether you have not had exceeding [sic] hot weather. The drought has been very severe. My poor Cows will certainly prefer a petition to you, setting for the their Greavences and informing you that they have been deprived…whereby they are become great Sufferers…They Humbly pray that you would consider them least hunger should break thro the Stone walls. Our little flock are well, and present their Duty to their Pappa…Nabby [daughter] has enclosed a letter to you—would be glad I would excuse the writing, because of a soar Thumb, which she has.
The tenderest regard evermore awaits you from your Most Affectionate.”
(Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 2 September 1774; Adams Family Papers).
2. What was the couple’s life like in England and France when John was deployed abroad?
In 1779, Adams was appointed to negotiate a peace with Britain that would officially end the Revolutionary War. He brought along his sons, John Quincy, and Charles.
After four years of arduous negotiations, the “Treaty of Paris” was signed by Adams, John Jay [diplomat; future second governor of New York, and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court]; Benjamin Franklin, and representatives from the Court of King George III.
When the work completed, John sent for Abigail and Nabby; after five years, apart, it was time to reunite the family.
In those days, transatlantic crossings were unusual and dangerous. The country’s stockpile of ships was skeletal, and most were only capable of cargo transport.
The journey was expected to take four to six weeks—depending on the weather; a cook was aboard, but passengers oversaw their own food. If milk was needed, a cow was brought—and so were oversized barrels of beer and ale; water and wine; flour and corn meal; sugar and lard.
Dozens of chickens were needed for eggs, until they were slaughtered at the end of the trip.
Abigail and Nabby packed their bedding, and knitting, sewing, cards, books, and games, for entertainment. Abigail also secured a surplus of soap and candles to outlast the journey, plus a potpourri of potions, powders, and preparations to stop seasickness–but none of them worked.
The lucky Adams’s had a servant girl who tidied their Best of the Worst accommodation; it was little more than a tiny cabin cordoned off from the crew by a hanging sheet anchored to a clothesline.
Their sanitation requirements were fulfilled by a wooden bucket; every day it was tied to a rope, submerged, retrieved, and doused with vinegar.
Abigail could not have predicted any phase of the odyssey because she had never traveled beyond Boston.
Five weeks later, the Adams women arrived in Paris. At first, Abigail was astonished by its size. Boston—considered a large American city–had a population of 16,000, but the French capital eclipsed it by many multiples—600,000—who circulated among captivating castles, glorious gardens, august architecture, and magnificent museums.
During their year-long stay, Abigail saw much of the world’s greatest art; attended theatre, opera, and concerts; socialized with Benjamin Franklin, and befriended Thomas Jefferson.
The future frugal First Lady did not realize initially that she would be living in luxury, as well: a 12- room house in nearby Anteuil—with an equivalent number of servants. Prickly about the pomp at first, Abigail eventually acclimated to her social ascent, grew fond of the French, cultivated the artistic treats that were novel to her, and admired the women’s exquisite fashions, which—for her—“would never be in the mode.”
In 1785 John was appointed Minister to Great Britain; after the family followed, Nabby married William Smith, her father’s amiable secretary, who turned out to be a lifelong disappointment, and a poor provider who bankrupted his family in a bum steer real estate investment.
Abigail, meanwhile, was unable to form any friendships with the people in England: stylish society shunned her, but garnering the guardianship of Thomas Jefferson’s youngest daughter, the motherless Polly, was far more satisfactory to her and the rest of the family.
Free, at last, of all public responsibilities, Abigail and John went back to Peacefield in 1788. Abigail started to enlarge and refurbish the house, while John prepared for his journey to New York.
He was about to become George Washington’s vice-president.
3. Did Abigail and John ever disagree about politics?
Arguments become less “audible” through the ages, but surely the practically perfect partnership of Abigail and John Adams had occasional bouts of bickering.
Abigail—the stronger spouse—was principled, passionate, progressive—and pushy. She was a proponent of independence, and insisted it be applied equally to women and men.
While John was at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, haggling over the Declaration-of-Independence-To-Be, she wrote him from Braintree:
“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 favourable to them than your ancestors
…Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular 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.” (Abigail Adams History.Com, p. 2).
John absorbed—and seriously considered Abigail’s advice–but he also knew it was an inopportune time to pitch women’s rights to a gaggle of men who were tone-deaf to the savagery of slavery.
Although Abigail must have been disappointed, Adams tried to assure her that smarter, cooler, and more enlightened brains of the future would surely flatten the disparities between the sexes.
Little did Abigail know: “Remembering the Ladies” wafted the sentiment of suffrage across the land—and it rang.
Twenty-two years later, Abigail’s heavy-handed, protective personality generated a political presidential policy generated a political firestorm–, and maybe—a marital moment of misery.
After years of tension with France, failed diplomacy junkets to Paris, and a country-wide rise in resentment against the French, Congress was angling to corkscrew Adams into granting the government more leeway in determining the punishments of suspicious persons and foreigners; a hastily passed Naturalization Act raised the residency requirements for citizenship eligibility from five to 14 years; Vice President Jefferson was against the legislation, but President Washington—retired at Mount Vernon–endorsed it.
On June 25, 1798, Adams signed the Alien Act, which “gave him the power to deport any alien living in the U.S. with ties to U.S. wartime enemies…”, but he dilly-dallied over whether to sign the Sedition Act into law. During his period of pause, Jefferson and his Republicans slandered the president, and mocked his policies, while the cabinet torqued up the pressure to corral him into conformity. Abigail feared for John’s life, believed all his opponents were “criminal and vile” and pressed– her husband—hard–into relinquishing his resistance.
The Sedition Act was passed on July 14th –the ninth anniversary of the French Revolution. It “gave Adams tremendous power to define treasonable activity…including any false, scandalous and malicious writing…”—which encompassed publishers of newspapers, pamphlets, and other printed matter.
Meanwhile, the incendiary Jefferson—always on the hunt for a political advantage—accused his former friend of abusing his presidential powers and stripping the people of their right to free speech. America pivoted against their president, picked Jefferson in the next election, and Adams’s career was over.
4. What was Abigail’s relationship with Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, and how did it change the relationship between Jefferson and Abigail and John?
After their 1784 arrival in Paris, Abigail and John soaked up their new society, and started to socialize with their neighbor, Thomas Jefferson. He was a frequent guest in the Adams’s commodious home; that hospitality was generously reciprocated.
Abigail wrote to her sister, Mary Cranch, excitedly, ”Mr. Jefferson with one or two Americans visits us in the Social friendly way…On Thursday I dine with him at his house, on Sunday he is to dine here, on Monday, we all dine with the Marquis, and on Thursday we dine with the Sweedish Ambassador. Jefferson [is] one of the choice ones of the earth. (Adams Family Correspondence; May 8, 1785).
Abigail and Jefferson had various in-common interests such as ornamental gardens, an appreciation of the beautiful music from the songbirds—and their children: Martha Jefferson, John Quincy, and Nabby were friends with a rising camaraderie.
The families were content, until their stasis was jarred by John’s diplomatic transfer to the Court of St. James in London. The crestfallen Abigail wrote her uncle, Cotton Tufts: “I shall regret…the loss of Mr. Jefferson’s Society”. (ibid., April 26, 1785).
A year later, Jefferson returned to England, after having tricked his youngest daughter—Polly– into boarding a ship that was traveling to Europe. He asked if Abigail “could take over her care, until he got there.”
“My friends write me that they will send my little daughter to me by a Vessel which sails in May for England. I have taken the liberty to tell them that you will be so good as to take her under your wing till I can have notice to send for her…”
(Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams, December 21, 1786; Transcription available at Founders Online).
Abigail agreed; six months later, she happily reported to Jefferson that his little girl was “the favorite creature in the house.” (ibid., July 6, 1787).
The nine-year-old was attached to the Adams’s as well. Abigail delicately suggested to Jefferson that “he should have come to Polly himself,” and—recommended—against throwing her into a Parisian convent.
Soon, the guardianship ended, the diplomatic tour was over, and Abigail and John went home to Peacefield in 1788; the following year John was elected George Washington’s Vice President, and Thomas Jefferson was appointed Secretary of State.
During the next decade, the carefully cultivated closeness between Adams and Jefferson unraveled. Jefferson was uncomfortable in the vice-presidency: their political views were mismatched, and he still resented Adams for defeating him in the presidential election of 1796. But this election cycle, Jefferson was positioned to choreograph a smear campaign that would clip the odds of an Adams victory.
In the early hours of Inauguration Day, Abigail and John departed for Quincy; they had decided to exile Jefferson from their lives, but then Polly died in 1804, and Abigail felt compelled to send Jefferson a note about the little girl an entire family had loved. Jefferson acknowledged receipt of Abigail’s condolences, but he trespassed her tenderness with his criticism of John.
Always the loyal and loving wife, Abigail and Jefferson traded a few more testy letters, but the three-sided anger stayed stoked until Benjamin Rush, a Founding Father, and a mutual friend of Adams and Jefferson, intervened—and brokered a truce.