“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.”
These lines come from a letter Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John Adams as he sat at the Continental Congress in 1776. Over the course of their lives, the couple exchanged over a thousand letters. Often, Abigail offered political advice to her husband.
Abigail Adams was an advocate for women’s rights, women’s education, and slavery abolition. She was the wife of John Adams and mother of John Quincy Adams, the second and sixth presidents of the United States, respectively. She is known for the extensive correspondence between herself and her husband and for being outspoken about political issues throughout her life.
Abigail Smith was born to a prominent family in 1744. Though she received no formal education, she was an avid reader and spent much of her time in the family library. She met John Adams at age 17 and married him two years later.
After marrying, the couple moved to Braintree, Massachusetts. John was often absent as he traveled as a lawyer and political revolutionary in the years surrounding the American Revolution. Abigail stayed behind, managed the family’s farm and business affairs, and educated their children. Though married women did not have many property rights, Abigail referred to the property as her own and took charge of investment decisions. While John was away, the two began the correspondence for which they are known. Historians believe they exchanged more than 1100 letters over their lifetimes.
Adams was outspoken about her political views and fiercely believed in women’s rights. In her most famous letter, she urged her husband to “Remember the Ladies” when drafting new laws at the Continental Congress. Though he replied jokingly, Abigail reiterated that women’s independence must be valued in the new country. Her letters also reveal her belief in education for women; in a 1778 letter, she wrote, “You need not be told how much female education is neglected, nor how fashionable it has been to ridicule female learning.” Additionally, both Abigail and John abhorred slavery. A 1774 letter from Abigail reads, “I wish most sincerely there was not a Slave in the province.”
When George Washington stepped down in 1796, Adams ran for president. When he defeated his opponent Thomas Jefferson in 1797, John wrote to Abigail, “I never wanted your Advice and assistance more in my life…”
Abigail was an involved and outspoken First Lady - so much so that at times critics referred to her as “Mrs. President.” She was an unofficial advisor to her husband, who asked for her counsel on several issues, political and otherwise. The two did not always agree: during the XYZ Affair, in which the new French executive body demanded bribes before speaking with U.S. officials, John favored a peaceful solution to the conflict while Abigail supported going to war with France. She did, however, support John’s signing of the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which weakened the rights of immigrants and penalized some anti-government speech. Abigail believed that people who had published falsehoods about John should be punished.
In 1800, the couple moved into the newly-built White House in the new capital of Washington D.C., making them the first First Family to live there. Only a few months later, though, John lost the presidential election to Jefferson. Right before the election, their son Charles died due to problems related to his alcoholism.
Abigail and Johns moved back to Massachusetts, where Abigail kept up a correspondence with several political leaders of the day, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Dolley Madison. She saw her son John Quincy Adams become Secretary of State in 1817 but died of typhoid fever before he became the sixth president of the U.S. in 1825. Decades after her death, Abigail’s letters were published by her grandson Charles Frances Adams.
Abigail Adams was an early advocate for women’s rights and education, as well as for slavery abolition. She spoke out about her beliefs and was an important advisor to her husband in all of his political positions, including during his term as president. Additionally, her detailed letters give historians an invaluable look at life during the Revolutionary period and help us understand our country’s early years today.