Greetings from this side of the page and mic.
The woman that we discuss in this episode lived a life of devotion and sacrifice during an exciting, yet turbulent, period of American History. By all accounts she was an intelligent wife, mother, patriot, home fire-tender, Second Lady, First Lady and oh, yes, mother of the sixth president of the United States. As if that were not enough, she was a self-educated, letter writing machine!
Abigail Smith was born in November 1, 1744, the second of four children to William and Elizabeth Quincy Smith in Weymouth, MA. Her father was a Congregationalist minister and her mother’s family was rooted in politics- Abigail’s grandfather held the position of Speaker for Massachusetts for 40 years. Abigail’s life was lived out during the formative, and historically thrilling, early years of the United States.
It’s easy to get lost in all the Quincys, Smiths and Johns in her life, we’ll admit that. But wade through them because this remarkably resilient and faith driven woman lived a rather difficult life of sacrifice as she strove for the greater good. Even if all you know at this point is that she was the wife of one of the early presidents, and something about “remember the ladies!”- you should put on your thinking caps. This woman was an intellectual powerhouse! PLUS, her marriage was one based in a very real romance, intellectual stimulation and mutual respect. We all can learn a lot from her.
It’s almost impossible to understand this woman without understanding her husband and the times that they lived. Their puritan colonial backgrounds, the revolutionary and federal periods- we only have time to touch on them, but even a basic understanding of them will give you a better understanding of the challenges that faced Abigail.
And none of her life can fully be understood without the aid of the letters. The Letters. Abigail is famous for them, and many have survived to this day to give us great insight into her life. Yay! Letter writing! What a lost art, don’t you think?
While they knew each other since childhood (they were 3rd cousins) John and Abigail’s courtship began when he was a fledgling lawyer, and she a teenager. We talked about the courtship and touched on letters between them that show a very sweet, flirty romance.
Their three year courtship culminated in a marriage performed by her father when Abigail was 20, and John, 28. The verse (that we didn’t have in front of us) that Minister Smith chose for the ceremony was: Matthew 11:18 (KJV) “For John came neither eating nor drinking and they say “he hath a devil.”
Insert head scratch here.
Well, we aren’t theologians so we won’t even attempt that one. But we are wives and mothers! We took some time to talk about the challenges that Abigail faced raising four children while John was at work. Law work. Looking for law work. Colonial times. Revolutionary war. Birth of a nation. Sacrifice for the greater good and all that.
All totaled, Abigail had 6 pregnancies and their first child Abigail (Nabby) was born within the first year of their marriage. Following her in an evenly spaced, rapid succession – John Quincy, Susanna, Charles, Thomas Boyleston and a stillborn, Elizabeth. Susanna would die early in life, heartache at any time in history.
Meanwhile, outside their front door, the Adams family was watching history unfold. John really got into the mix when the Stamp Act of 1765 was instituted. We spent a little bit of time talking about the implications of this, as well as the Tea Act, and how they impacted not only John’s career, but family as well.
And Abigail? She was left home, to raise the children and crops, handle the finances, handle every task involved in keeping the home and farm while John headed off to do his duty for their country. She viewed her work the same, duty for her country, but that didn’t make it easy.
So when the going got tough, the tough wrote letters. At the point when John was working with the Continental Congress on The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution, Abigail sent off the series of letters she is most famous for:
“I long to hear that you have declared an independency,” She wrote to John in March of 1776,” 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 to your ancestors. Do not put such limited power into the hands of the husbands.”
And he laughs at her. Well, sort of. But you will have to go read the letters for yourself to decide what the outcome of that conversation was. And we thought that this was such an important part of her legacy, that we have a special mini-cast devoted to it coming soon.
Back to the absence parts- which we talked about in detail- John and John Quincy (just a tween at the time) set off for the longest stretch in the total 17 years that the family has been living this Daddy Is Gone Working lifestyle. They head off to France, The Netherlands, and England for five years.
Five years. With a short trip back, but mostly gone.
Wow. Think back five years, and think about not having your support system with you. We did. Yikes!
Finally, Abigail and Nabby head off to France and England to be together- somewhat- as a family. Abigail was then with her husband, but she is also in a land that acts, looks and speaks nothing like her puritanical colonial life. Of course we talked about the difference in the clothes! Anyway, She rises to the situation, and learns a great deal in Europe as the wife of the first Ambassador to Great Britain following the separation from the United States.
Finally, they head back to The States. They set to building a new home, Peacefield, outside of Boston. But then John gets another gig: the first Vice President of the United States.
A few years later, he is the second POTUS. Sweet.
Abigail is the First Lady (although it’s not called that, yet). She deals with some tabloid issues and is the first the to live in the White House. But, it’s not quite completed. Is this woman ever going to be able to settle down with her man in their completed home?
Yes, she is. John retires when he fails to get reelected, the position going to his frenemy, Thomas Jefferson Abigail and John head back to Peacefield dreaming of a relaxed retirement with their family around them.
Except at this point the kids are grown. We took some time to talk about their lives:
Nabby has not actually chosen a spouse wisely when she married John’s former secretary, Colonial William Stephens Smith. She stays with him, but it’s not a happy marriage. She dies young, at 48, of breast cancer.
John Quincy – who was tossed into politics at a very young age- is building his political resume and gone quite a bit. Abigail will not live to see him assume office as the sixth President.
Charles lives a really sad life, not making much of it, and drinks himself to death at 30, leaving a wife and two children.
Thomas Boyleston, arguably the most neglected as far as having a father figure in his life, has a spotty history in law, drinks a bit too much and eventually moves his seven children and wife to live with his father upon his mother’s death.
For the last 17 years of her life, Abigail and John lived at Peacefield. She died of typhoid fever at age 74 having been married to John for 54 years.
But wait! She lives on! Her letters! Her legacy as a founding mother for women’s rights! She lives on!
Time Travel With The History Chicks
We can not lie: understanding more of Abigail Adams and the life she led will take you a very long time. Her life is so intertwined not only with that of her husband, but also the times. Puritan. Colonial. Revolutionary. Federalist. And her legacy intertwines her with even more: feminist, First Ladies… it’s a long list.
But if you would like to know more, and get started, here are some suggested books:
If you like your research more visual, hustle on down to the library (or wherever you get your DVDs) and watch the 2008 HBO John Adams miniseries. Just like we can’t talk about Abigail without talking about John…yeah, visa versa. Just a warning, though, this is NOT for the little kids, there are some very disturbing images- hey, it was a disturbing time and they kept it real.
We never did unearth a specific subculture for Abigail. Sorry to disappoint. However, depending on what appeals to you the most, you should have no trouble finding a women’s rights organization, Revolutionary War re-enactors or enthusiasts group. Here is a blog that you might enjoy: http://www.pinstripepress.net/PPBlog/
Also head on over to History.com…really they have it all (well, they don’t have historically based chick chat- so head back when you are done). And check this one out: PBS did an American Experience – John and Abigail Adams. They have a seriously great area about the couple—timelines, maps, more links…really, it’s PBS and the History Channel. We bow in the reflection of their awesomeness.
And we know how to bow properly having watched the HBO miniseries. And how to tar and feather *shudder*.
If you are in a vacation planning mode, head to Boston. ( Seriously, if you have never been, and love American history, you HAVE to go to Boston and the surrounding area!) Take some time to visit the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy (and we tell you how to pronounce it like a local). http://www.nps.gov/adam/index.htm If you can’t make it there, just tour around that site! You will learn so much about Abigail and her family!
Abigail Adams: Patriot, Mom, Wife, visionary, and seriously amazing letter writer. We could all learn a lot from this woman. We did.
With fondness and respect,
The History Chicks
As always, music for our podcast comes courtesy of Music Alley. Visit them at music.mevio.com.