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Abigail Adams is one of the most interesting and important female figures of the late 1700s, serving as First Lady with President John Adams. She shares the honor with Barbara Bush of being both wife and mother to two U.S. presidents, being the mother to President John Quincy Adams. Abigail, a highly self-educated woman, oversaw her family’s household during her husband’s presidency and raised their four children mostly on her own. She knew exactly what was going on in politics and she became an early advocate on several issues. But just in case you don’t know that much about the First Lady, we have more information so you can understand just how important Abigail was to American history.
Born into a distinguished family
Abigail was destined for greatness, even at an early age. Born on Nov. 22, 1744, as Abigail Smith, she grew up in the small town of Weymouth, Massachusetts, a village just 12 miles from the growing city of Boston. Her father, William Smith, was a minister of the First Congregational Church, but he also worked as a farmer. Her parents, both belonging to distinguished families, wanted their four children [three daughters and one son] to be well-educated.
Unfortunately, Abigail wasn’t able to receive a formal education due to her many sickly illnesses as a child. Instead, she had to be tutored and educated at home. Abigail read practically anything and everything that was at the home. She was later tutored by Richard Cranch, a transplant from England who would marry her sister, Mary. Abigail watched their love story blossom and grow, and she wondered if she would have a similar fate.
Meeting John Adams
Of course, she did. In 1759, 15-year-old Abigail met Cranch’s friend, a young lawyer named John Adams. The two fell in love, but they had a long engagement because Abigail’s mother didn’t approve of the relationship. Adams was a country lawyer, but she eventually agreed to the marriage and the couple was married on October 24, 1764, in her family’s home in Weymouth, Massachusetts. After the brief reception, the couple both mounted a single horse and rode off into the sunset [or so we hope] to a small cottage and farm in Braintree, Massachusetts Adams inherited from his father. The couple later moved to Boston, where Adams began his law practice.
Raising a family
The Adams didn’t wait long to start a family. Just nine months into their marriage, Abigail gave birth to their first child, Abigail [Nabby] Adams. Abigail would give birth to six children, but only four would live to adulthood: Nabby [1765-1813], John Quincy Adams [1767-1848], Grace Susanna [1768-70], Charles [1770-1800], Thomas Boylston [1772-1832], and Elizabeth [stillborn in 1777]. Abigail was responsible for raising the family while Adams was away on trips. She continually reminded her children of what they owed to the Adams traditions. Eventually, Adams moved the family to the Braintree family farm because he felt Boston was an unstable environment for raising children.
In 1774, tensions between the colonies and Great Britain threatened colonists. Adams traveled to Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress and he trusted Abigail to keep their children safe at home. The couple exchanged letters during this period, beginning what would become one of the most famous correspondences in history. While he was away, Abigail took responsibility for the family’s financial matters, but Adams never had to worry. His wife knew exactly what she was doing.
Becoming the First Lady
Following the American Revolutionary War, Adams served as the U.S. minister to France and then England. Abigail later joined her husband in Europe in 1784, where they remained abroad for five years until returning home in 1789 so Adams could be vice president to George Washington. During Adams’ appointment, Abigail divided her time equally between the U.S. capital (then New York City and later Philadelphia) and the family farm in Braintree.
But everything changed in 1796 when Washington announced his retirement. Adams was the leading candidate on the Federalist side and his good friend, former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, stepped up as his opponent. As we know, Adams won the election and was inaugurated as the second President of the United States on March 4, 1797. In 1800, the Adams family moved into the new presidential home in Washington, D.C., making Abigail the very first woman to live in the White House.
Rooting for independence
As First Lady, Abigail served as a strong voice on many political issues, including the growing tension between Federalist and anti-Federalist debates. She was passionate about independence, famously advocating that women should be equal to men—a risky statement in the late 1700s. She wrote to her husband, “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…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.”
At the time, Adams joked at her statement, expressing fear of the “Despotism of the Petticoat,” but Abigail didn’t give up. She fought for women and that’s what we remember her for today. Critics of the late 1700s said she was too outspoken and imperious, but her input was important. To this day, her unique experience and perspective of American politics from the eyes of a First Lady are still studied. It’s one of the many reasons why her legacy will always live on, no matter what.