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Abigail Adams

Wife of the Second US President

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Portrait of a youthful Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams as a Young Woman

Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images
Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams

Courtesy Library of Congress

Wife of the second President of the United States, Abigail Adams is an example of one kind of life lived by women in colonial, Revolutionary and early post-Revolutionary America. While she's perhaps best known simply as an early First Lady (before the term was used) and mother of another President, and perhaps known for the stance she took for women's rights in letters to her husband, she should also be known as a competent farm manager and financial manager.

Abigail Adams Facts:

Known for: First Lady, mother of John Quincy Adams, farm manager, letter writer
Dates: November 22 (11 old style), 1744 - October 28, 1818; married October 25, 1764
Also known as: Abigail Smith Adams

Abigail Adams Biography:

Born Abigail Smith, the future First Lady was the daughter of a minister, William Smith, and his wife Elizabeth Quincy.  The family had long roots in Puritan America, and were part of the Congregational church.  Her father was part of the liberal wing within the church, an Arminian, distanced from Calvinist Congregational roots in predestination and questioning the truth of the traditional doctrine of the Trinity.

Educated at home, because there were few schools for girls and because she was often ill as a child, Abigail Adams learned quickly and read widely. She also learned to write, and quite early began writing to family and friends.

Abigail met John Adams in 1759 when he visited her father's parsonage in Weymouth, Massachusetts.  They carried out their courtship in letters as "Diana" and "Lysander."  They married in 1764, and moved first to Braintree and later to Boston.  Abigail bore five children, and one died in early childhood.

Abigail's marriage to John Adams was warm and loving -- and also intellectually lively, to judge from their letters.

After almost a decade of rather quiet family life, John became involved in the Continental Congress. In 1774, John attended the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, while Abigail remained in Massachusetts, raising the family. During his long absences over the next 10 years, Abigail managed the family and the farm and corresponded not only with her husband but with many family members and friends, including Mercy Otis Warren and Judith Sargent Murray. She served as the primary educator of the children, including the future sixth U.S. president, John Quincy Adams.

John served in Europe as a diplomatic representative from 1778, and as a representative of the new nation, continued in that capacity. Abigail Adams joined him in 1784, first for a year in Paris then three in London. They returned to America in 1788.

John Adams served as Vice President of the United States from 1789-1797 and then as President 1797-1801. Abigail spent some of her time at home, managing the family financial affairs, and part of her time in the federal capital, in Philadelphia most of those years and, very briefly, in the new White House in Washington, D.C. (November 1800 - March 1801). Her letters show that she was a strong supporter of his Federalist positions.

After John retired from public life at the end of his presidency, the couple lived quietly in Braintree, Massachusetts.  Her letters also show that she was consulted by her son, John Quincy Adams. She was proud of him, and worried about her sons Thomas and Charles and her daughter's husband, who were not so successful.  She took hard her daughter's death in 1813.  

Abigail Adams died in 1818 after contracting typhus, seven years before her son, John Quincy Adams, became the sixth president of the U.S., but long enough to see him become Secretary of State in James Monroe's administration.

It is mostly through her letters that we know much about the life and personality of this intelligent and perceptive woman of colonial America and the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary period.  A collection of the letters was published in 1840 by her grandson, and more have followed.

Among her positions expressed in the letters was a deep suspicion of slavery and racism, support for women's rights including married women's property rights and the right to education, and full acknowledgement by her death that she had become, religiously, a unitarian.

Places: Massachusetts, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., United States

Organizations/Religion: Congregational, Unitarian

Related Resources:

Bibliography:
  • Akers, Charles W. Abigail Adams: An American Woman. Library of American Biography Series. 1999. (Compare Prices)
  • Bober, Natalie S. Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution. 1998. Young adult book. (Compare Prices)
  • Cappon, Lester J. (editor). The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams. 1988. (Compare Prices)
  • Gelles, Edith B. Portia: The World of Abigail Adams. 1995 edition. (Compare Prices)
  • Levin, Phyllis Lee. Abigail Adams: A Biography. 2001.
  • Nagel, Paul C. The Adams Women: Abigail and Louisa Adams, Their Sisters and Daughters. 1999 reprint. (Compare Prices)
  • Nagel, Paul C. Descent from Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family. 1999 reprint. (Compare Prices)
  • Withey, Lynne. Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams. 2001.
  • Bibliography

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