Abigail Adams’s talent as a correspondent has won her a high place in American letters. Born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, she was descended from many well known New England families. Self-educated, she read widely and studied French. In 1764, at age nineteen, she married a young lawyer, John Adams, and moved to his home in Braintree, where she stayed through the Revolution. There she raised four children, Abigail, John Quincy, Charles, and Thomas Boylston. Another child died in infancy.
In the 1770s, John Adams became involved in revolutionary politics. He served as a delegate to the Continental Congresses and in other wartime posts. During his frequent absences, Abigail Adams ran the household and family farm, engaged in business enterprises, purchased land, and dealt with tenants. In 1784, she joined John in Europe, where he was the American minister to Great Britain. During his terms as vice president and president (1789-1801), she lived in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, and thereafter in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Abigail Adams may have found her calling as a correspondent during her courtship in the 1760s or, more likely, during her wartime separation from her husband. For over four decades, she wrote letters to him and to her children, relatives, and friends. As a writer she chose the form most natural to eighteenth-century women, for whom publication was rarely an option. Letter writing was not only a form of communication but a mode of self-definition and a way of relating to the larger society. An avid reader, Abigail devoured literature, history, and political philosophy. Despite her lack of training, phonetic spelling, and often faulty grammar, she perfected her style and excelled at her craft. “My pen is always freer than my tongue,” she wrote to John in 1775. “I have wrote many things to you that I suppose I never could have talked.”
Her letters provide a window on eighteenth-century life, private and public. They reveal Abigail’s roles as wife, parent, and friend; her domestic and social activities; her opinions and observations. They also convey her zeal for politics, her intense interest in national affairs, and her avid patriotism. “Our country is as it were a Secondary God, and the first and greatest parent,” she wrote to Mercy Warren in 1776. “It is to be perferred [sic] to parents, to wives, children, Friends and all things the Gods only excepted.” Her wartime correspondence with John Adams combined personal messages, local news, and political commentary. In March 1776, she vented a complaint about the legal subjection of married women. “I desire you would Remember the ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors,” she wrote in a jesting tone. “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.”
In her later years, Abigail remained a strong partisan of John Adams and a staunch supporter of her successful oldest son, John Quincy Adams, who was elected president in 1824. In 1840, her grandson, Charles Francis Adams, published 114 of her letters and edited for an 1876 volume the wartime correspondence between John and Abigail Adams.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.