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ADAMS, ABIGAIL SMITH
(1744-1818)

Abigail Quincy Smith Adams

Born: November 11, 1744  - Weymouth, Massachusetts

Died: October 28, 1818 – Quincy, Massachusetts

Father: Rev. William Smith

Mother: Elizabeth Quincy Smith

Ancestry: English

Siblings: 2 sisters, Mary and Elizabeth; 1 brother, William

Physical Description: 5’ 1”, auburn hair, brown eyes, high Roman nose, flaring eyebrows that gave her a strong, determined look.  Gilbert Stuart, painting her portrait as First Lady, thought that she was handsome and that she must have been “a Venus” as a girl - - - John Adams agreed.  As she aged, she lost most of her teeth, giving her cheeks a sunken look.

Religion: Congregationalist

Education:  Abigail Adams, known for her wonderful letters and sharp intellect, did not have a formal education as was typical of women of her time.  Being sickly and housebound as a girl, Abigail was given permission to use her father’s extensive library.  As she grew older, Richard Cranch, her future brother-in-law, helped her with her studies.  It was through Cranch that she met John Adams, who was smitten with her almost from the start.  Her sharp mind and strong opinion often caused her conflict with her father, who once called her “saucy”.  She never stopped “learning” and her interest in politics began long before the White House and even preceded her marriage to John Adams.

Husband: John Adams (1735 – 1826)

Courtship and Marriage: They met when Abigail was fifteen.  Their courtship lasted for five years.  They wrote often, and she signed her letters, “Portia”.  He welcomed her insights.  They married in her father’s parlor on October 25, 1764 by her father.  The young couple moved into the house in Quincy, Massachusetts next to the one in which John was born.

Age at marriage: 19 years, 348 days

Personality: Sharp, shrewd, insightful, somewhat puritanical and even, on occasion, judgmental.  She had a strong sense of right and wrong, and had no patience with men’s views on “the weaker sex.”  We remember her letter to John Adams on March 31, 1776, “Remember the Ladies”.  She was firm in her friendships, and her greatest friend was her husband of fifty-four years.  She managed the farm during his long absences, which gave her an independence and a certainty in her own capabilities.  She delighted in the give and take of political discussions, but could become extremely partisan in her reactions.  She did not hesitate to speak her mind, but she learned the hard way that the general public could make its collective disapproval felt.  She is probably the most admired First Lady up to modern times.

Children:   1.        Abigail (Nabby) Amelia Adams Smith (1765 – 1813)

2.               John Quincy Adams (1767 – 1848)

3.               Susanna Adams (1768 – 1770)

4.               Charles Adams (1770 – 1800)

5.               Thomas Bolyston Adams (1772 – 1832)

Years Before the White House (1764 – 1797): Abigail Adams was typical of her time in her devotion to her husband, children and the farm.  But what makes her unique are the letters exchanged between her and her husbands, her sisters and her children, as well as a host of friends.  These letters allow us to meet a great lady of shrewd insights, powerful intellect and strong opinions.  When Adams left for Congress, Abigail was left to take care of the ever-growing family and run the farm.  John Adams long years in Philadelphia, the Court of France and Holland left Abigail lonely and pensive.  She wrote often and at great length.  She often defended him against a host of critics and soothed his wounded feelings.  In June of 1784, she and her daughter sailed for Europe and rejoined John and John Quincy in Paris.  Abigail found Paris dirty and immoral, and the people lazy.  She did enjoy friendships there, especially with Thomas Jefferson and his younger daughter, Maria.  London was little better, in Abigail’s opinion. During their time there (Adams was our first Ambassador there), Abigail was presented to King George III and Queen Charlotte.  Their three years there gave Abigail an insight into Court life that she later was able to impart to Lady Washington.  These insights were used in the creation of America’s first Presidential Court.  After their return to America in 1788, Abigail hoped to have “her man” to herself, but his elevation to the vice presidency forestalled that.  They lived first in New York and then later in Philadelphia.  Both John and Abigail believed in giving the Presidency and the new republic as much dignity and formality as possible in order to better deal with the Courts of Europe. Both were sharply criticized for it.  Abigail spent half her time in the capital and half on their new farm in Quincy, Massachusetts, as she would when she became First Lady.  All farm decisions and all financial matters were left up to Abigail.

First Lady:  Only the death of John Adams’ mother, Susanna Bolyston Adams, kept Abigail from attending her husband’s inauguration on March 4, 1797.  She joined him several months later, and the couple lived in the Turncliffe Hotel in Philadelphia.  While Abigail’s receptions were as formal and strict as Martha Washington’s, they were more lavish in décor and food.  She, like Lady Washington, often stood by a “throne-like” chair.  Her sharp mind and strong personality made it impossible for her to stay out of political discussions.  Her friendship with Thomas Jefferson, who was now Vice President, had soured, and she (rightly so) regarded him as a traitor to the administration.  Her sharp remarks helped to drive a wall between Adams and Jefferson.  Her vocal support of her husband during the XYZ Affair and her open hostility to France made her a target for criticism – so much so that she eventually learned to curtail her remarks even in her letters.  Those who sought her help with her husband for jobs recognized her political input.  She continued her influence, but learned to hide it from public view.  The year 1800 proved to be a year of change and sadness.  Not only did Adams lose the election, but also Abigail and John lost their charming and dissolute son, Charles, due to his alcoholism.  Also that year, the Adams moved into the unfinished White House, with Abigail arriving with her young granddaughter two weeks after John in November 1800.  She liked the house, admired its lines and balance, but found it cold and drafty.  She, being the practical New England woman she was, hung her laundry in the unfinished East Room.  The defeat of Adams in the election of 1800 and the betrayal of both Jefferson and Hamilton embittered both Adames.  They departed for home even before the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson.

Last Years:  Abigail never again left New England.  She spent her last years surrounded by children, grandchildren and, most importantly, her husband.  Aside from a few serious illnesses, the twilight years of Abigail Adams were mellow and warm.  She wrote her old enemy, Thomas Jefferson, to console him on the death of his daughter Maria in 1804, but the intrusion of political views ended that brief correspondence.  However, it was Abigail, unknown to John, who was instrumental in getting her husband to renew his correspondence with Thomas Jefferson.  The renewed correspondence between Jefferson and Adams lasted until their deaths in 1826.  The fine career of John Quincy Adams filled Abigail with joy.  The death of Nabby from cancer in 1813, however, caused Abigail great pain.  Her relationship with John Quincy’s wife Louisa was strained at best, and Abigail had little patience with Louisa’s “frail airs”.

Death: October 28, 1818 of typhoid fever.

Age at death: 73 years, 351 days

Burial: First Unitarian Church, Quincy, Massachusetts in a basement crypt with her husband, her son John Quincy and her daughter-in-law Louisa.

Legacy:  Her legacy is less that of a First Lady than as a living, breathing symbol of the American Revolution.  From her letters to the musical, 1776, we can still delight in her humor, her sharp wit, and her injunction “Remember the Ladies.”  She was unique.  She was Abigail Adams. 

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