Navigation – Plan du site
Colloques | 2014
Matrice coloniale du genre et les femmes dans la construction nationale
Linda Garbaye

Women and Politics in North America: The Experience of Abigail Adams

[08/04/2014]

Résumés

Cette communication met en évidence les ambiguïtés du rôle des femmes dans la société américaine à la fin du 18e siècle, à travers la correspondance d’Abigail Adams, épouse du second Président des Etats-Unis d’Amérique John Adams. Au 18e siècle, les colonies britanniques d’Amérique du Nord firent l’expérience de bouleversements sociopolitiques profonds. Parmi eux, on note l’impact de la rhétorique des Lumières sur les droits individuels. Cependant, le rôle et le statut des femmes en Amérique du Nord ne changèrent pas véritablement dans cette période. Le statut social et légal des femmes mariées resta très limité, notamment en raison du principe juridique de coverture dans la Common Law anglaise, et ce, malgré des idées nouvelles soulignant l’importance de la contribution des femmes dans la propagation de la vertu civique et républicaine (qui fut plus tard appelée Republican Motherhood par les historiens). En dépit de cette réalité, certaines femmes exprimèrent publiquement des opinions politiques, soit dans la sphère publique, que ce soit ou non sous couvert d’anonymat, ou dans la sphère privée. Dans sa correspondance avec son mari et son entourage proche, Abigail Adams exprimait non seulement des idées politiques, mais certaines d’entre elles, comme les droits des femmes, étaient en avance sur son époque.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1 Even though, according to Richard B. Morris, private law in 17th-century New England was more favor (...)
  • 2 Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic, Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America, Chapel Hill: (...)

1The end of the 18th century was a period of great changes for North Americans, with the impact of Enlightenment ideas and the American War of Independence. Nevertheless, despite these evolutions and changes of historic magnitude, the social and political role of American women remained generally unchanged in that period. The status of American women was restricted partly because the British colonies of North America, and later the young American nation, inherited the English Common Law doctrine of “coverture” which subordinated married women to their family’s male members, at all levels, legal, political and economic.1 Despite these legal, political and social obstacles, some women, mostly intellectuals from the educated elite, played a significant role in American society. Today, historians like Linda Kerber define the notion of “Republican Motherhood” by an association of female virtues, within the private sphere, and of national moral and civic virtues, at the time of the American War of Independence. Women were thus encouraged to raise their children in both civic and moral values. This linkage between republicanism and motherhood is paradoxical,2 and highlights the ambivalence of women’s role in 18th-century America, since they were given a significant role, in the private sphere, but were not considered as public actors of American society.

2This paper focuses on the role played by Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, the first Vice-President and second President of the United States. She was not at the origin of a movement to improve the situation of American women, nor was she the author of a pamphlet denouncing women’s inferior social and legal status – as was for instance the case of rare 18th-century European exceptions such as Mary Wollstonecraft or Olympe de Gouges. But her correspondence nevertheless revealed her progressive ideas regarding women and African Americans, which she often expressed in intense terms.

Abigail Adams’s social, political and religious backgrounds

  • 3 Edith B. Gelles, Abigail Adams, a Writing Life, New York and London: Routledge, 2002, p. 19.
  • 4 Edith B. Gelles, ‘First Thoughts’: Life and Letters of Abigail Adams, New York: Twayne Publishers, (...)

3Mrs. Adams came from a puritan and elite family of New England.3 She was born on November 22, 1744 in Weymouth, Massachusetts. Her father, William Smith, was the First Congregational Church minister of this locality, and her mother, Elizabeth Quincy, had important Puritan ancestors – Samuel Sheppard and Richard Norton.4 Elizabeth Quincy’s father, John Quincy, was a political leader and a landowner. Abigail Adams was the second of a family of four.

  • 5 Charles W. Akers, Abigail Adams, an American Woman, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1980, p. 8.
  • 6 Edith B. Gelles, ‘First Thoughts’, op. cit., p. 19.
  • 7 Charles W. Akers, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 8-10.
  • 8 Edith B. Gelles, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 19-20.
  • 9 Ibid., p. 27, and Lynne Withey, Dearest Friend, A Life of Abigail Adams, New York and London: The F (...)

4Mrs. Adams never went to school, which, she explained, was the result of her poor health.5 She mentioned she had rheumatic fever during her childhood and as an adult.6 Her father’s library was a small one; there she consulted sermons books, as well as The Spectator. She learned to read and write at home, with the help of her family, as well as with her sister’s husband, Richard Cranch. Thanks to him, Abigail Adams had access to the poetry of William Shakespeare.7 In addition to the Bible, which was common reading in 18th-century New England, Abigail Adams also read the local press. Her writing skills were rather correct despite spelling or punctuation mistakes, due to the slow and late education she received.8 Like her correspondents, such as Mercy Warren or her own husband, Abigail Adams’s ideas were inspired by Whig writings of the beginning and of the mid-18th century, as well as by more general classical writings such as the ones of the European philosophers of the Enlightenment.9

  • 10 Historian Woody Holton stresses the fact that Abigail Adams was a brilliant financial manager. Wood (...)
  • 11 Edith B. Gelles, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 22.
  • 12 Ibid, p. 16.
  • 13 Charles W. Akers, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 15.
  • 14 Woody Holton, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 103.
  • 15 Edith B. Gelles, Portia: The World of Abigail Adams, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992, p. 47.
  • 16 Woody Holton, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 75.
  • 17 Edith B. Gelles, ‘First Thoughts’, op. cit., p. 139.

5She married John Adams on October 25, 1764; they had five children together. Like many women in Massachusetts at that time, she was concerned with both domestic affairs10 and activities surrounding the presence of British troops in Massachusetts.11 Historians usually consider John and Abigail Adams as a couple of partners. She discussed politics with him, and gave him some advice occasionally. Moreover, Mrs. Adams incited her contemporaries to eliminate the title ‘master’, which echoed relationships between masters and slaves in the revolutionary period, and to replace it with the one of ‘friend’. This is why John and Abigail Adams used the terms “dearest friend,” to refer to each other in their correspondence.12 Nevertheless, in spite of their mutual trust, love and respect, their marriage may not have been a “union of equals”.13 They each had their specific social role, since Mrs. Adams was mostly there to support her husband’s political activities that became a priority in the family. John Adams once wrote that “to repeal our Masculine systems would compleatly subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat,”14 which can raise concerns about John Adams’s belief in power-sharing in a married couple. Moreover, Abigail Adams chose the name “Portia” (Porcia) as a pen name in her correspondence in the 1770s; this symbolizes an ideal of withdrawal, patience and suffering inspired from the historical figure of Brutus’s wife in Rome;15 she also used this pseudonym, particularly in 1775, when she realized that her correspondence could be intercepted by various enemies of her husband;16 more generally, in her epistolary relationship, she was cautious enough not to include secret information.17

  • 18 Abigail Adams to John Adams, May 9, 1776, Adams Family Correspondence, I, 404, in Kerber, Linda, Wo (...)
  • 19 Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, June 3, 1776 [online], Adams Family Papers: An Electronic (...)
  • 20 Charles W. Akers, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 115.
  • 21 Edith B. Gelles, Portia, op. cit., p. 14.
  • 22 Edith B. Gelles, ‘First Thoughts’, op. cit., p. 17.

6Abigail Adams was a conventional and a private woman in the early 1770s. Compared to her friend Mercy Warren who published her writings, first anonymously and then under her own name, Abigail Adams expressed her ideas privately only. Both women were patriots and lived in families of political leaders. Abigail Adams’s husband was the second President of the United States of America from 1796 to 1800, and her son was to become a President of the United States later. She played a public role in rare cases only – and always to contribute to her husband’s political activities – and she left all political prerogatives to men. She wrote to her husband in 1776: “To be an adept in the art of government is a prerogative to which your Sex lay almost an exclusive claim.”18 On another occasion, a month later, she wrote “I can serve my partner, my family and myself, and injoy the Satisfaction of your serving your country.”19 Any change for American women, according to Abigail Adams, took place within the limits of marriage, religion and republicanism.20 Raised in an important religious background, she considered religion as both including and transcending everything,21 including politics.22

  • 23 Charles W. Akers, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 116.
  • 24 Lyman H. Butterfield et al. (eds.), Adams Family Correspondence, Cambridge, Mass., 1963, vol. II, p (...)
  • 25 Stewart Mitchell (ed.), New Letters of Abigail Adams 1788-1801, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1947, (...)
  • 26 Abigail Adams to Elizabeth Peabody, July 19, 1799, Shaw Papers, box. 1, in Mary B. Norton, 190 and (...)

7She acknowledged the improvements of her time and its impact on women’s lives: “Tho’ as females we have no voice in Legislation, yet is our happiness so blended and interwoven with those who have, that we have every reason to rejoice in the improvement of science and the advancement of civilization which has proved so favorable to our sex, and has lead mankind to consider us in a much more respectable light than we deserve.”23 One should note the evolution throughout the years of Abigail Adams’s change of expression. In February 1778 she explained her “satisfaction in the Consciousness of having discharged my duty to the publick,” implying thus that she had a public responsibility different from her domestic duties.24 And even though she stressed women’s political expression in the private sphere,25 she nevertheless wrote on the equality between both sexes in 1799: “I will never consent to have our Sex considered in an inferior point of light. Let each planet shine in their own orbit, God and nature designed it so. If man is Lord, woman is Lordess – that is what I contend for, and if a woman does not hold the Reigns of Government, I see no reason for her not judging how they are conducted.”26

  • 27 She wrote to her sister Mary Cranch that her ideas in her letters were spontaneous; she referred to (...)
  • 28 Edith B. Gelles, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 4.

8One important means of communication for Abigail Adams was writing letters. Many of these, hundreds of them, were sent to her husband when he was away, as well as to her sisters,27 to people from the Massachusetts and national elites, and sometimes to important female figures like historian Catherine Macaulay, or the writer, poet and playwright Mercy Warren. She often showed a spirit of independence in her letters. Nevertheless one should insist again on the fact that these letters remained private, which was considered appropriate for women. 18th-century American society was highly socially regulated, to the extent that works published by women were not particularly well regarded, and were quite exceptional. Even though she was more than interested in public and political affairs, she refused to publish her letters as suggested to her during her lifetime; in the end, her letters were published only after her death.28

Abigail Adams’s political and social ideas

9Mrs. Adams expressed progressive ideas on issues regarding women and African Americans. It is mostly on these ideas that historians generally insist. Nevertheless, there are other issues on which she expressed herself, and which were generally not viewed as progressive, such as the restrictions on the freedom of the press in 1798 (Alien and Sedition Acts).

“Remember the Ladies” letter

10The most often quoted phrase by historians is perhaps Abigail Adams’s “Remember the Ladies”, a phrase she wrote in a letter to her husband on March 31, 1776, at a time when John Adams was a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1775, and a member of the committee in charge of drafting the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

  • 29 Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31 – April 5 1776 [online], Adams Family Papers: An (...)

I long to hear that you have declared an independency – 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 favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have not voice, or Representation. That your sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend. Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in imitation of the Supreme Being make use of that power only for our happiness.29

  • 30 Charles W. Akers, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 99.
  • 31 Edith B. Gelles, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 15.
  • 32 Ibid, p. 16. John Adams once referred to his wife as a “Disciple of Wolstonecraft” in a letter writ (...)

11Abigail Adams focused her remarks on the subject of marriage and incited her husband and, through him, congressmen, to include protective legislation for women.30 Historians agree that these claims expressed by a woman in 18th-America are unprecedented.31 In the words of Edith Gelles, “It has become so popular because nothing else like it exists by an early American woman. It is equivalent in its historic resonance to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Both statements argue that women too should benefit from the democratic revolutions of the late eighteenth century.”32

  • 33 Edith B. Gelles, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 16.
  • 34 Woody Holton, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 99.

12In the existing literature on gender and the early American Republic, there are various interpretations of Mrs. Adams’s ideas due to the vagueness of some of her sentences. 18th-century women were unprotected by the law, and Abigail Adams therefore asked congressmen not to forget women, and to restrict the unlimited power of men over women, contrary to past legislation on this subject.33 As for her plea to Congressmen to “put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity,” Abigail Adams may have been referring to alcoholism and physical abuse. She was personally confronted with these problems because her middle son, Charles, and her brother were alcoholic.34

  • 35 Ibid., p. 100.
  • 36 Ibid. Cf. Elaine Crane, “Political Dialogue and the Spring of Abigail’s Discontent,” William and Ma (...)
  • 37 Woody Holton, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 100.
  • 38 Edith B. Gelles, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 15.
  • 39 Edith B. Gelles, ‘First Thoughts’, op. cit., p. 17.
  • 40 Edith B. Gelles, Portia, op. cit., p. 48.
  • 41 Ibid., p. 48.

13The expression “your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical” is a radical one, particularly in 18th-American society. But it is preceded by a classical republican phrase: “all Men would by tyrants if they could,” which was used in general terms by John Adams in the 1760s in an essay that remained unpublished. This leads historian Woody Holton to write that “Abigail knew her husband would be flattered, not furious, to see his own words used against him.”35 For Elaine Crane, Abigail Adams cited other authors but without mentioning their names in quotations.36 “[…] we are determined to foment a rebellion” is, according to some historians, written with the intention of bringing humor to her claims. She may have wanted to refer to a “farcical”37 threat, in her use of the term “rebellion”, while putting forward the idea that women did not benefit from political self-government, even though the lack of political representation was already a key conflict between American insurgents and the British authorities. She thus put forward a contradiction between the rhetoric on liberty and the reality in the United States concerning women and African-Americans. She may have thought that her claim was radical, and that Congressmen would have ridiculed her and this may have led her to link the activities in favor of the revolutionary cause with claims in favor of women’s rights.38 She did not bring up this idea in a central way; it was presented without transition and not at the start of her letter, but buried in a paragraph on local politics in Boston. Some historians consider that her letter’s proposal was moderate, and that it aimed at protecting women;39 she did not seem to debate male prerogatives and authority but she is, at the same time, a woman living in a revolutionary period in which issues of justice were often present. For Edith Gelles: “Abigail argued for the protection of women from abuse. It was not a demand for political or social equality; it was a plea for humane treatment. […]”,40 and Abigail Adams’s request for legal change to protect women clearly shows her concern for issues of justice. Her attempt to obtain legal provisions, with the objective of achieving justice in the relations between men and women, “was a daring step”.41 In his reply to his wife’s letter, John Adams wrote “I cannot but laugh”.

  • 42 Woody Holton, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 102.

We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. […] But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented. […] After stirring up the Tories, Landjobbers, Trimmers, Bigots, Canadians, Indians, Negroes, Hanoverians, Hessians, Russians, Irish Roman Catholicks, [and] Scotch Renegadoes, […] [It was now the turn of white women] to demand new Priviledges and threaten to Rebell.42

  • 43 Edith B. Gelles, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 16-17.
  • 44 “Not amused by his response, Abigail never raised this issue with John again.” Ibid., p. 18.

14John Adams was thus unlikely to present issues such as women’s “rights” to his legislative counterparts. He considered that his work was exclusively dedicated to the unity of the colonies, which was incompatible with making changes on controversial subjects at that period. Thus, the couple may have joked about her suggestion to change the situation of women in America. “Both of them understood the futility of raising an issue that violated the historical and ethical embeddedness of women’s subordination in the culture of their time. […] Her mild proposal suggested merely a compassionate masculine stance. […] The limitation of Abigail’s solution reflected her times and religious orientation.”43 Nevertheless, the interpretation regarding Abigail Adams’s reaction to her husband’s reply to her letter can vary.44

15Thus to sum up this brief historiographical presentation, the expression “Remember the Ladies” is mostly interpreted as a wish of Abigail Adams to put an end to the legal and economic subordination of women, and thus to the end of “coverture.” She hoped to have an influence on the state of things by writing to her husband, who was in the position of changing the law. Nevertheless, as will be mentioned further on below, one must not exclude Abigail Adams’s political concerns in her letters.

  • 45 John Adams to James Sullivan, May 26, 1776, in The Works of John Adams, ed. Charles Francis Adams, (...)

16Even though John Adams’s answer rejected her wife’s ideas, he nevertheless wrote a letter45 to James Sullivan, a Massachusetts lawyer and politician, in Philadelphia, on May 26, 1776. In this document, John Adams was preoccupied with the question of suffrage extension to people other than white propertied males. According to him, this would have opened a Pandora’s Box.

It is certain, in theory, that the only moral foundation of government is the consent of the people. But to what an extent shall we carry this principle? […] if you give to every man who has not property, a vote, will you not make a fine encouraging profrailty of the human heart, that very few men who have no property, have any judgment of their own? […] The same reasoning with will induce you to admit all men who have no property, to vote, with those who have, for those laws which affect the person, will that you ought to admit women and children; for, generally speaking, women and children have as good judgments, and as independent minds, as those men who are wholly destitute of property […] it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters; there will be no end to it. New claims will arise; women will demand a vote […].

17When John Adams dismissed his wife’s petition, she complained this failure to Mercy Warren and later completely gave up the issue, particularly when she did not get the support she expected from Mrs. Warren, or at least there is no evidence that she agreed with Abigail Adams on this point.

The issue of slavery

  • 46 Woody Holton, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 101.
  • 47 Ibid., p. 102, and Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31 – April 5 1776 [online], Adams (...)
  • 48 Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, September 22, 1774, Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Arc (...)

18Referring to the differences between the distribution of property in New England and Virginia, Abigail Adams claimed that the southern gentry considered themselves as “Lords” compared to their “vassals”. The choice of terms is deliberate, and “vassals” is also used by Mrs. Adams to denounce the English Common Law that provided women with an inferior status.46 Even though Mrs. Adams was fiercely opposed to slavery and denounced it, her family’s background was no stranger to the presence and the use of slaves, since her own father had owned slaves up until 1776. Later, the family’s slaves were freed. But she highlighted differences between the extent of slavery in New England and in the South. “I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Equally Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs. Of this I am certain that it is not founded upon that generous and Christian principle of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us.”47 Nevertheless, the letter was officially addressed to one person only: her husband. “I wish more sincerely there was not a Slave in the province. It always appeared 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. […]”48 Like her husband, Abigail Adams despised slavery, considering it a threat to American democracy. She thus criticized Virginians who could not love liberty since they deprive the liberty of others. Moreover, she later intervened to provide school education to her free black servant, despite the disagreement of one of her neighbors.

  • 49 Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, February 13, 1797, Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Arch (...)

After about a week, Neighbour Faxon came in one Evening and requested to speak to me. His Errant was to inform me that if James went to School, it would break up the School for the other Lads refused to go. Pray Mr. Faxon has the Boy misbehaved? If he has let the Master turn him out of school. O no, there was no complaint of that kind, but they did not chuse to go to School with a Black Boy. […] This Mr. Faxon is attacking the principle of Liberty and equality upon the only Ground upon which it ought to be supported, an equality of Rights. The Boy is a Freeman as much as any of the young Men, and merely because his Face is Black, is he to be denied instruction? […] Is this the Christian principle of doing to others, as we would have others do to us?49

Partisan politics

  • 50 In one of her letters (July 5, 1780), she wrote to her husband : « What a politician you have made (...)
  • 51 Betty Boyd Caroli, First Ladies, From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama, NY: Oxford UP, 2010, p. (...)
  • 52 But she is named ‘Lady Adams’ unofficially.
  • 53 Henry Adams, The Life of Albert Gallatin, Philadelphia PA, J.B. Lippincott, 1879, 185 and Betty Boy (...)
  • 54 Ibid., p. 9.

19In 1797, when her husband John Adams became President of the United States of America, Abigail Adams was accused, mostly by his political opponents and the opposition press, of having too much political influence on him.50 Page Smith refers to her as a “minister without portfolio,”51 and Mrs. Adams was even named “Mrs. President” by the political opponents of the Adams couple, instead of Lady Adams. Some politicians, mainly of the Anti-Federalist camp, denounced Abigail Adams’s intrusion in partisan politics between Republicans and Federalists. This was particularly the case of Albert Gallatin who once wrote to his wife that “a friend had been at ‘the court’ [the Adams house] and had heard her majesty [Abigail Adams] as she was asking the names of different members of Congress and then pointing out which were ‘our people’. […] She is Mrs. President52 not of the United States… but of a faction. It is not right.”53 Afterwards, Abigail Adams warned a Massachusetts congressman, in sarcastic terms, about what she regarded as the dangerous characteristics of Albert Gallatin: “sly, artfull… insidious…[leading a party of men who had so openly favored France that] the French have boasted of having more influence in the United States than our own government.”54

  • 55 Letter of Abigail Adams to John Adams, June 17, 1782, in Linda Kerber, Toward an Intellectual Histo (...)
  • 56 Charles W. Akers, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 126-127.
  • 57 Edith B. Gelles, ‘First Thoughts’, op. cit., p. 140, 143.

20Abigail Adams insisted on women’s (neutral) patriotism in the 1780s. “Patriotism in the female Sex is the most disinterested of all virtues. Excluded from honours and from offices, we cannot attach ourselves to the State of Government from having held a place of Eminence. [...] Deprived of a voice in Legislation, obliged to submit to those Laws which are imposed upon us, is it not sufficient to make us indifferent to the publick Welfare?”55 Despite her insistence on female patriotism, the anti-Federalist press and politicians denounced her influence on her husband’s presidential appointments, as noted above. Worried by the potential danger of French revolutionaries in the young American nation, and by the criticisms against her husband’s policies, she supported both press censorship (the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts) and an increase of the American military. As a religious woman, she also feared that the French Revolution could gradually steer the young American nation toward atheism, whereas Christianity was to her a strong basis of the American Republic.56 The presidential couple considered their political opponents – among them Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin Bache - as Francophiles whereas Mr. and Mrs. Adams thought that the United States could not establish links of friendship with the French government; Abigail Adams even named them the “Jacobins”.57

  • 58 Page Smith, John Adams II, 1784-1826 [online], New York: Doubleday and Company Inc., 1962, p. 947, (...)
  • 59 Edith B. Gelles, ‘First Thoughts’, op. cit., p. 151-152.

21In addition to Albert Gallatin’s reaction of antipathy against Abigail Adams, there were a number of caricatures against the Adams couple. An English ballad, recounting the life of an elderly and married couple, “Darby and Joan”, who are attached to each other but are old-fashioned, was used to criticize Mr. and Mrs. Adams. Abigail Adams was affected when she found out about this in the press.58 What is more, the couple was also accused of nepotism: Abigail Adams’s nephew, William Smith Shaw, became John Adams’s secretary; William Cranch, another nephew of Mrs. Adams, was a judicial appointee in John Adams’s administration; and William Stephen Smith worked in the offices of his father-in-law’s administration (i.e. John Adams’s).59

  • 60 Edith B. Gelles, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 29.
  • 61 Abigail Adams to Mary Cranch, November 15, 1797 in Stewart Mitchell (ed)., The New Letters of Abiga (...)
  • 62 Linda Kerber, Toward an Intellectual History of Women, op. cit., p. 82. Abigail Adams to John Adams (...)

22As for the issue of women’s voting rights, some historians are mistaken when they claim that Abigail Adams was unaware of female suffrage, or underestimate her interest in the issue of women’s suffrage,60 because not only was she aware of the experience of female suffrage in New Jersey, but she also claimed that if she had been allowed to vote in Massachusetts, she would have exercised this right. Concerning an election that took place in her sister’s – Mary Cranch - parish, Abigail Adams wrote : “Tell [your friend that] if our State constitution [in Massachusetts] had been equally liberal with that of New Jersey and had admitted the females to vote, I should certainly have exercised it on his behalf.”61 She mentioned Reverend Kilbon Whitman, her preferred candidate for the assistant pastor position in Quincy, but Mr. Whitman was chosen by the Quincy town-meeting, composed of male voters only. Moreover, Abigail Adams knew that the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution did not grant voting rights to women, but she nevertheless participated in the counting of votes in the Massachusetts elections the same year. She wrote to her husband “If I cannot be a voter upon this occasion, I will be a writer of votes. I can do something in that way but fear I shall have the mortification of a defeat.”62

The importance of education

  • 63 Charles W. Akers, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 116.
  • 64 Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 14 August 1776, Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive (...)
  • 65 At that time, by 1800, the majority of white women could read, Rosemarie Zagarri, Revolutionary Bac (...)
  • 66 “Abigail Adams to John Thaxter, 15 February 1778”, in L. H. Butterfield (ed.), Adams Family Corresp (...)

23Mrs. Adams thought that the ideas of the Enlightenment contributed to a more positive image of women.63 Abigail Adams, like other elite women of her time, advocated an equal education for women. Education was an important issue for her, as indicated in her letter to her husband in 1776. “I most sincerely wish that some more liberal plan might be laid and executed for the Benefit of the rising Generation, and that our new constitution may be distinguished for Learning and Virtue. If we mean to have Heroes, Statesmen and Philosophers, we should have learned women.” 64 In other words, she wanted women’s education to be included in the legislation, in order to achieve equality between men and women in this field. Her husband agreed with her ideas: “Your Sentiments on the Importance of Education in Women are exactly agreeable to my own.” Believing in an equal capacity of intellect between men and women and the women’s desire to learn and educate their children appropriately,65 Abigail Adams wrote in 1778: “It is really mortifying Sir, when a woman possessd of a common share of understanding considers the difference of Education between the male and female Sex, even in those families where Education is attended too. Every assistance and advantage which can be procured is afforded to the sons, whilst the daughters are totally neglected in point of Literature.”66

  • 67 Catherine Allgor refers to the unofficial role of Dolley Madison and of Louisa Catherine Adams, who (...)

24Abigail Adams’s correspondence gives us an insight into her understanding of historical events that took place at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. On the subject of women’s “rights”, her letters related to legal, civil and political elements – married women’s lack of property rights, the necessity to protect women legally against abusive husbands, the lack of women’s political representation, etc. She did want to change things to improve the situation of women, and that of African-Americans who were then subordinated to white men. She was conscious of the major political changes around her, and she wanted to show that she was a patriot in her own way.67 But her ideas were expressed privately solely, at a period when women’s exchanges of ideas took place in private meetings and letters. Thus, she is an example of how some 18th-American women advocated in favor of equality and justice, according to the revolutionary principles, even though they often did so privately. Later women activists – in the 19th and the 20th centuries – referred to the ideas and expressions of their predecessors.

25Undoubtedly, one must take into account 18th-American society and the very restricted role and status of women to understand some of Abigail Adams’s ideas. Some of her ideas were ahead of her time, and, at the same time, if one compares the way she chose to express them to that of other 18th-century women, such as Mercy Warren, Mary Wollstonecraft, or Olympe de Gouges, they had less impact.

Haut de page

Bibliographie

Adams, Charles, (ed.), Letters of John Adams Addressed to his Wife, vol. II, Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1841.

Adams, Henry, The Life of Albert Gallatin, Philadelphia (PA): J.B. Lippincott, 1879.

Akers, Charles W., Abigail Adams, An American Woman, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1980.

Allgor, Catherine, Parlor Politics, in Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government, Charlottesville (VA): University of Virginia Press, 2002.

Butterfield, L., (ed.), Adams Family Correspondence, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Caroli, Betty, First Ladies, From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama, New York: Oxford UP, 2010.

Gelles, Edith, Portia, the World of Abigail Adams, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992.

Gelles, Edith B., ‘First Thoughts’: Life and Letters of Abigail Adams, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998.

Gelles, Edith, Abigail Adams, A Writing Life, NY & London: Routledge, 2002.

Holton, Woody, Abigail Adams, New York: Free Press, 2009.

Kerber, Linda, Women of the Republic, Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Kerber, Linda, Toward an Intellectual History of Women, Essays, North Carolina: UNC Press Books, 1997.

Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, Adams Family Papers Project: An Electronic Archive, <www.masshistory.org/digitaladams>.

Mitchell, Stewart, (ed.), The New Letters of Abigail Adams, 1788-1801, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1947.

Morris, Richard, Studies in the History of American Law, Philadelphia: J. Mitchell Co., 1959, 285.

Norton, Mary B., Liberty’s Daughters, the Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800, New York, Cornell UP, 1996.

Page, Smith, John Adams II, 1784-1826, New York: Doubleday and Company Inc., 1962.

Withey, Lynne, Dearest Friend, A Life of Abigail Adams, New York and London: The Free Press, 1981.

Zagarri, Rosemarie, Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Haut de page

Notes

1 Even though, according to Richard B. Morris, private law in 17th-century New England was more favorable to colonial and wealthy women’s rights than common law, for instance through the recognition of contract before marriage to protect women from a potential failure of their husband’s business. Richard B. Morris, Studies in the History of American Law, Philadelphia: J. Mitchell Co., 1959, p. 135.

2 Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic, Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980, p. 269, 288.

3 Edith B. Gelles, Abigail Adams, a Writing Life, New York and London: Routledge, 2002, p. 19.

4 Edith B. Gelles, ‘First Thoughts’: Life and Letters of Abigail Adams, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998, p. 19.

5 Charles W. Akers, Abigail Adams, an American Woman, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1980, p. 8.

6 Edith B. Gelles, ‘First Thoughts’, op. cit., p. 19.

7 Charles W. Akers, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 8-10.

8 Edith B. Gelles, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 19-20.

9 Ibid., p. 27, and Lynne Withey, Dearest Friend, A Life of Abigail Adams, New York and London: The Free Press, 1981, p. 47.

10 Historian Woody Holton stresses the fact that Abigail Adams was a brilliant financial manager. Woody Holton, Abigail Adams, New York: Free Press, 2009.

11 Edith B. Gelles, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 22.

12 Ibid, p. 16.

13 Charles W. Akers, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 15.

14 Woody Holton, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 103.

15 Edith B. Gelles, Portia: The World of Abigail Adams, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992, p. 47.

16 Woody Holton, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 75.

17 Edith B. Gelles, ‘First Thoughts’, op. cit., p. 139.

18 Abigail Adams to John Adams, May 9, 1776, Adams Family Correspondence, I, 404, in Kerber, Linda, Women of the Republic, Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980, p. 269 note 1.

19 Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, June 3, 1776 [online], Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive, Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, consulted on March 4 2013, <http://www.masshistory.org/digitaladams>

20 Charles W. Akers, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 115.

21 Edith B. Gelles, Portia, op. cit., p. 14.

22 Edith B. Gelles, ‘First Thoughts’, op. cit., p. 17.

23 Charles W. Akers, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 116.

24 Lyman H. Butterfield et al. (eds.), Adams Family Correspondence, Cambridge, Mass., 1963, vol. II, p. 4, 390.

25 Stewart Mitchell (ed.), New Letters of Abigail Adams 1788-1801, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1947, p. 96, in Mary B. Norton, Liberty’s Daughters, The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800, New York, Cornell UP, 1996, p. 354 note 67.

26 Abigail Adams to Elizabeth Peabody, July 19, 1799, Shaw Papers, box. 1, in Mary B. Norton, 190 and 353 note 65 and in Charles W. Akers, 42.

27 She wrote to her sister Mary Cranch that her ideas in her letters were spontaneous; she referred to them as “first thoughts”, in Edith B. Gelles (1998), 16.

28 Edith B. Gelles, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 4.

29 Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31 – April 5 1776 [online], Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, consulted on March 4, 2013, <http://www.masshistory.org/digitaladams>

30 Charles W. Akers, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 99.

31 Edith B. Gelles, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 15.

32 Ibid, p. 16. John Adams once referred to his wife as a “Disciple of Wolstonecraft” in a letter written on January 22, 1794. Charles Francis Adams, Letters of John Adams Addressed to his Wife, edited by his grandson, vol. II, Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, MDCCCXLI, 1841, 138-139. Abigail Adams indeed appreciated some of Wollstonecraft’s ideas such as necessary equal opportunities for women, but she disliked some of the author’s radical political opinions expressed in a previous book on the French Revolution. Charles W. Akers, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 116.

33 Edith B. Gelles, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 16.

34 Woody Holton, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 99.

35 Ibid., p. 100.

36 Ibid. Cf. Elaine Crane, “Political Dialogue and the Spring of Abigail’s Discontent,” William and Mary Quarterly, October 1999, vol. 56, N°4, p. 745-774.

37 Woody Holton, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 100.

38 Edith B. Gelles, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 15.

39 Edith B. Gelles, ‘First Thoughts’, op. cit., p. 17.

40 Edith B. Gelles, Portia, op. cit., p. 48.

41 Ibid., p. 48.

42 Woody Holton, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 102.

43 Edith B. Gelles, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 16-17.

44 “Not amused by his response, Abigail never raised this issue with John again.” Ibid., p. 18.

45 John Adams to James Sullivan, May 26, 1776, in The Works of John Adams, ed. Charles Francis Adams, Boston: Little, Browne and Co., 1856, 9: 375-379, in Linda Kerber, Toward an Intellectual History of Women, op. cit., p. 37.

46 Woody Holton, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 101.

47 Ibid., p. 102, and Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31 – April 5 1776 [online], Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive, Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, consulted on March 4, 2013, <http://www.masshistory.org/digitaladams>

48 Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, September 22, 1774, Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive.

49 Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, February 13, 1797, Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive.

50 In one of her letters (July 5, 1780), she wrote to her husband : « What a politician you have made me », in Linda Kerber, Toward an Intellectual History of Women, op. cit., p. 82.

51 Betty Boyd Caroli, First Ladies, From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama, NY: Oxford UP, 2010, p. 9.

52 But she is named ‘Lady Adams’ unofficially.

53 Henry Adams, The Life of Albert Gallatin, Philadelphia PA, J.B. Lippincott, 1879, 185 and Betty Boyd Caroli, First Ladies, op. cit., p. 8.

54 Ibid., p. 9.

55 Letter of Abigail Adams to John Adams, June 17, 1782, in Linda Kerber, Toward an Intellectual History of Women, op. cit., p. 35.

56 Charles W. Akers, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 126-127.

57 Edith B. Gelles, ‘First Thoughts’, op. cit., p. 140, 143.

58 Page Smith, John Adams II, 1784-1826 [online], New York: Doubleday and Company Inc., 1962, p. 947, consulted on March 6, 2013, <archive.org/stream/johnadams>, cited also in Betty Boyd Caroli, First Ladies, op. cit., p. 9.

59 Edith B. Gelles, ‘First Thoughts’, op. cit., p. 151-152.

60 Edith B. Gelles, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 29.

61 Abigail Adams to Mary Cranch, November 15, 1797 in Stewart Mitchell (ed)., The New Letters of Abigail Adams, 1788-1801, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1947, p. 112, cited in Rosemarie Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007, 33.

62 Linda Kerber, Toward an Intellectual History of Women, op. cit., p. 82. Abigail Adams to John Adams, July 5, 1780, L.H. Butterfield et al. (eds.), The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784, Cambridge, Mass., 1975, p. 264.

63 Charles W. Akers, Abigail Adams, op. cit., p. 116.

64 Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 14 August 1776, Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive.

65 At that time, by 1800, the majority of white women could read, Rosemarie Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash, op. cit., p. 52.

66 “Abigail Adams to John Thaxter, 15 February 1778”, in L. H. Butterfield (ed.), Adams Family Correspondence, June 1776 – March 1778, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963, p. 391.

67 Catherine Allgor refers to the unofficial role of Dolley Madison and of Louisa Catherine Adams, whose efforts to legitimize the new American government’s place of residence to the eyes of European powers were considerable. Catherine Allgor, Parlor Politics, in Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government, Charlottesville (VA): University of Virginia Press, 2002.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Linda Garbaye, « Women and Politics in North America: The Experience of Abigail Adams », Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Colloques, mis en ligne le 08 avril 2014, consulté le 16 juin 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/nuevomundo/66603 ; DOI : 10.4000/nuevomundo.66603

Haut de page

Auteur

Linda Garbaye

Blaise Pascal University, Clermont-Ferrand

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Nuevo mundo mundos nuevos est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page