Abigail AdamsWikipediaThe study of human history is imbued with the idea of a hero: a person who has changed the world or meaningfully impacted it. Heroes have existed in every corner of the earth and in every time period. Abigail Adams was one of these extraordinary people. By the late 1700s, domesticity commanded the life of the average American woman. The country’s founders “took strides to eradicate social class hierarchy when they set the framework for the new United States, [but] they did not intend to address issues of racial or gender inequalities” (Harris). In other words, patriarchy was entrenched into American society from its constitutional roots. As is expected, the birth of a new country brought on onerous new responsibilities for the founding fathers, but also for the women by their side. Wife to John Adams, America’s second president, Abigail Adams showed no restraint when expressing her views on gender inequality and the growing federalist attitudes of the country. Whether through letters addressed to her husband detailing “the history of her age from a woman's perspective” (Gelles), or accounts of her contributions in local courts, Abigail Adams took every opportunity to assert her opinions on the legal matters of the nation. “Probably one of the most well-read women in eighteenth-century America” (NPS), she was educated on the classics of literature and science and understood the apparent divide between men and women in society. As the first lady of the United States, her primary goal was to improve access to property, education, and voting rights for the entire population. A precocious feminist, Abigail Adams changed the role of women in early America with her ambition, assertiveness, dedication, and willingness to voice her progressive opinions.
A true hero makes it their goal to help others and stops at nothing to achieve that goal. Abigail Adams’ assertiveness regarding property rights established her as such. By this period, the land that had once belonged to British oppressors now belonged to American citizens. It was arable and abundant; the race for territory was fierce. Although, such a race had limited competitors. Women, in this period, had no given rights to property by divorce, inheritance, or marriage. Only men were allowed to own land. An avid believer in the freedom of the soil, Adams knew that a woman’s property was “subject to the control and disposal of our partners, to whom the Laws have given a sovereign Authority” (qtd. In Holton). She was unwilling to accept this unfairness as a reality. Her complaints were matched by her actions as she began taking care of her family’s estate while John was away on business. She became the matriarch of her household forced to “struggle with wartime shortages and inflation; to run the farm with a minimum of help; to teach four children when formal education was interrupted” (Black). In all these tasks, she succeeded valiantly. “Even though women...were not allowed to own property at that time, she bought and sold property all the time” (Roberts), taking what scraps she was given and creating a working household. In fact, the “demands on her husband that kept him away from home” only boosted her “confidence that she was the equal of any man” (Kauffman). Abigail Adams didn’t believe that she deserved any fewer rights to property than a man because of her gender. In many of her letters to John, she referred to their estate as her own and detailed her financial affairs. These were not invitations for criticism but rather accounts of her decisions with the property. In their correspondence, it is evident that “John respected and valued Abigail Adams’ opinions and that he saw her as his intellectual equal” (Harris). The equality between the Adamses sprouted from Abigail Adams’ unwillingness to succumb to the standard of a docile housewife. Her goal as the second first lady of the United States was to give women more rights. She took the first step in this endeavor by asserting her authority over her and her husband’s property without fear of what would come from it. Risking tradition and law, Abigail Adams’s assertiveness when claiming property rights made her one of the most influential activists of her time and ours.
Heroes are assertive in accomplishing their goals, as well as ambitious in creating those goals. Financially perspicacious, Abigail Adams took care of most of the commercial ventures of her household. For instance, when John Adams was an envoy in France, he struggled with finding a way to send a portion of his salary back to his family. His wife had a practical solution. She proposed that he buy valuable manufactured goods “such as lace, cloth, and handkerchiefs from Europe” (Voa) and send them back to her. The goods would then be sold to New York merchants who had lost their profit during the American Revolution. Such a plan would allow her to purchase her basic necessities while making an additional profit. When one of these shipments was captured, Abigail Adams reported to her husband, “If one in 3 arrives, I should be a gainer” (qtd. In “Founders Online”). She was more business savvy than most of the men of her period--an astute businesswoman even before women were allowed in business. In truth “she ended up handling her husband’s money much better than he ever had, primarily because she was more open to risk” (Gelles). Her ambition was the key to her success. The post-victory glory of the American Revolution failed to conceal the mass economic recession that came from it. With the male population limited from the atrocities of war, the women were the ones who struggled with this recession. Adams made money for her household using her own educated view of the push and pull market economy through “importing European merchandise for resale; speculating in Vermont acreage; and buying government securities at a deep discount” (Holton). She did not fear the legal repercussions of her actions. Although she was one of the few women who were intelligent enough to understand economics, she was the only one who was ambitious enough to take her place in them. In 1816, dedicated to improving the business and property ventures of all future American women, Abigail Adams wrote a will for herself—an act of rebellion unheard of in such a patriarchal society. A woman’s possessions legally belonged to her husband and so the will itself amounted to very little, but it was still uncommon and improper for a woman to be so ambitious. The document's effects were premeditated and it was destroyed shortly after, but it is intriguing to see that “apart from a couple of token gifts to her two sons, all the people Adams chose to bequeath money to were women” (Holton). This not only broke unscrupulous tradition but also the law. Women did not have financial rights during this period. Abigail Adams’ ambition enabled her to continuously push the boundaries of women’s economic rights in the late 18th century.
A letter sent to Abigail AdamsWikipediaThough confidence and ambition are necessary traits, dedication is perhaps the most important quality of a hero. It is what drives them to continue to fight for their cause. Most famously known for saying “remember the ladies” (qtd. In “Founders Online”), in a letter to her husband in office, Abigail Adams was dedicated to expanding female influence on the American economy and political situation. Most of this was accomplished through her husband. “Some secretly thought she was brash and abrasive” (Harris), while others mocked her with the term, ‘Mrs. President’, but her tireless efforts were not in vain. She became a working first lady as “her husband's closest friend and advisor” (MCS). In fact, the Adamses exchanged “more than 1,100 letters on topics ranging from government and politics to women's rights” (Miller). In some instances, Abigail Adams became an informal member of her husband’s cabinet, joining him to live in the White House in Washington D.C. in 1800 and accompanying him to his diplomatic post in Paris in 1784. Her dedication to her cause was reflected by her hand in John Adams’ presidency. She changed the role of a wife by acting as an equal to her husband. As the president and his first lady, their relationship was constantly placed under a spotlight. Her actions and opinions were admired by an entire country of women. Abigail Adams encouraged John to see how the divisions between men and women in society were unjust and warned him “not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands” (qtd. In “Founders Online”). America’s early years were bolstered by the efforts of laborers and men willing to work to ensure the success of the entire country. Women in this period were considered biologically inferior because they had centuries less experience in the field. They were confined to the women’s sphere, consisting of “privacy, family, and morality while man’s sphere was the public world -– economic striving, political maneuvering, and social competition” (Warder). Such inequality was not accepted by Abigail Adams. Her desire to act triumphed. She stated that if they were not provided equal say, the women of the society would be “determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation” (qtd. In “Founders Online”). To the people of this period, the idea of a rebellion led by women was absurd. They were meant to be housewives and mothers, not political activists. This changing role of women would not have been possible without the relentless efforts of Abigail Adams. Never afraid of ignominy or censure, her dedication to female suffrage during the 1700s labeled her as one of the earliest feminists.
A portrait of Abigail AdamsWikipedia Abigail Adams took business and property into her own hands, but also willingly spoke out against a corrupt system. Her willingness to voice her own opinions showed her dedication to the cause. The only way to invoke change is to show people the importance of a specific perspective or opinion. Through her writing of a will, conduction of business, and property claims, Abigail Adams challenged the role of women in the United States, but also advocated rights for all American citizens. She understood that the “leaders of this country at its founding were mostly rich white men” and that they liked to keep “the money and privileges in the hands of said rich white men” (Theileen). This was unacceptable. Appointed to the Massachusetts Colony General Court in 1775, she expressed her view on abolitionism and quasi-politics as the first American first lady to serve in a political position. A feminist and an abolitionist, she was “Irate when she learned that the Declaration of Independence's 'most Manly Sentiments,' denouncing the slave trade, were, after great debate, heavily struck out of the final draft” (Coe). She made obvious her opinions on the topic in one of her letters to her husband, saying, "I wish most sincerely that there was not a slave in the province. It always seemed to me to fight ourselves for what we are robbing the Negroes of, who have as good a right to freedom as we have” (qtd. In NPS). Outwardly, the people of her period deplored Abigail's mindset, when in reality, the abolitionist movement had already manifested itself in the heart of the country. She was one of the few Americans who were willing to stand up for the rights of all citizens. This was a period when slaves were seen as private property instead of human beings. Adams wanted morality. She wanted everyone to have the same basic human rights and was unwilling to accept anything less. This sense of abolitionism she taught to her son, John Quincy Adams, who took on the Abolitionist's seat in congress in the years to come. Abigail Adams’ willingness to voice her progressive views on natural rights changed society’s view of such matters for centuries.
Abigail Adams was assertive, ambitious, dedicated and unwilling to be quieted. She was the second first lady of the United States, and her mission in office was to obtain more rights for women but also natural rights for all citizens of the country. Her impact is evident in every feminist who stands today and on the rest of the world. She can be found “on a ten-dollar gold coin in the First Spouse coin series by the United States Mint,” has a “special mention in the Boston Women's Heritage Trail” (Miller). A ‘John and Abigail Adams Scholarship’ is dedicated to her at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Abigail Adams advocated for women’s rights and pushed for legislative amendments to protect them. She wanted to ensure that women had the same education and economic and political rights as men. A first-hand advisor to her husband, an active merchant, a working mother, and America’s earliest feminist, Abigail Adams was and continues to be a hero.
Black, Allida. “Abigail Smith Adams.” The White House, The United States Government, https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/first-ladies/abigail-smith-adams/.
“Founders Online: Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March 1776.” The National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-01-02-0241.
Gelles, Edith B. Abigail Adams: A Writing Life. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Harris, Karen. “Abigail Adams: The Colonial Feminist.” History Daily, 6 Sept. 2018, https://historydaily.org/abigail-adams-the-colonial-feminist.
Holton, Woody. Abigail Adams. Free Press, 2010.
MCS. “John Adams, Architect of American Government.” Mass.gov, https://www.mass.gov/guides/john-adams-architect-of-american-government.
Miller, Elizabeth Bissell. “Abigail Adams.” George Washington's Mount Vernon,
NPS. “ Abigail Adams (1744.” The National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/adam/learn/historyculture/abigail-adams-1744-1818.htm.
Roberts, Cokie. Founding Mothers: the Women Who Raised Our Nation. HarperCollins, 2005.
Voa. “Abigail Adams: Feminist, Partner, First Lady.” VOA, VOA - Voice of America English News, 9 Jan. 2016, https://learningenglish.voanews.com/a/abigail-adams-feminist-partner-first-lady/3126412.html.
Warder, G. (2015). Women in nineteenth-century America, http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/edu/essay.html?id=18.
Thielen, Lois. “For the Founding Fathers, Only White Men Deserved Rights.” St. Cloud Times, St. Cloud Times, 1 July 2019, https://www.sctimes.com/story/opinion/2019/07/01/founding-fathers-only-white-men-deserved-rights/1620597001/.
“First Lady Biography: Abigail Adams.” Abigail Adams Biography :: National First Ladies' Library, www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=2.