Abigail Adams, wife of president John Adams, is perhaps the most well-known woman in early American history, and deservingly so.
Abigail radiated brilliance; she was a progressive visionary despite living in a male-dominated world. Intelligent, well-spoken, and considerably more composed than her famous husband, Abigail championed women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. She advocated for civil rights causes that were barely being discussed at this stage in world history. Further, throughout her husband’s distinguished career, she added the patience and reason that was often lacking in John’s political composition.
Before achieving notoriety, Abigail’s life began modestly. She was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts in 1744 to prominent parents, her father a minister and her mother a member of the well-known Quincy family. This dynamic was ideal for Abigail to receive an education equal to any man.
When John Adams met Abigail in 1762, he found a woman not only beautiful, but one able to challenge him intellectually. After a courtship lasting two years, they married. Their union soon produced five children, most notably John Quincy Adams, who would later become America’s sixth president.
Abigail supported her husband through his thriving law career, and when John delved into politics, she was there for him as well. Later, when John served as a foreign diplomat and then president to the young America republic, Abigail was the bedrock by his side.
During Abigail’s life, women could not vote, could not hold political office, and nor would they be able to do so until 100 years or so after her death. Yet this did not dissuade her from pushing to have her views heard. Having a nationally known political leader as a husband provided an excellent medium to convey her views, and she worked to maximize that benefit.
In the spring of 1776, while John was in Philadelphia debating the American cause for independence, Abigail wrote to her husband, calling on him to advocate for the rights of women:
“-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 favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands… We…will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation” (McCullough, 104).
Abigail also exhibited ardent support for ending slavery. She correctly recognized the illogicality of the Founders professing that every person is entitled to his or her natural rights when a significant segment of the population is kept from having theirs. She wrote to John in March 1776 on the subject:
“-I wish most sincerely there was not a slave in the province. It always seemed a most iniquitous scheme to me-[to] fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have” (McCullough, 104).
A look at Abigail’s life teaches us the importance of challenging social injustices to achieve what is right and just. While limited by the social norms surrounding women, Abigail did what she could in a time period dominated by men. Historians can only speculate on what might have transpired if she had been given the chance to run for political office. Yet it is clear Abigail possessed the fortitude and intellect to serve her country admirably. Even though today women are still not on even ground with men, Abigail is proof that women can shine through the social inequities present in society.
David McCullough, John Adams. Simon & Schuster. New York, NY. 2001.