• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Our Flawed Founders

Even as a young girl, he shows, Abigail was spirited and opinionated, preferring this dress to that, inserting quotations from Shakespeare or Dryden into her letters, dismissing her parents’ objections to John as a prospective husband with the nonchalant insistence that she had found her man and intended to have him. John fondly described his young bride as “saucy,” and she loved him for liking her that way. As her grandmother had put it, “Wild colts make good horses.”

Holton, correctly I think, describes Abigail as “proto-feminist.” Her “Remember the Ladies” letter, and then her will, strike at the core assumptions of patriarchy by insisting that consent rather than coercion should be the guiding principle in families as well as governments. But she regarded being a wife and mother as the defining features of her life, never advocated a political role for women as voters or officeholders, and educated her only daughter, Nabby, to lead a life wholly circumscribed within the domestic sphere. She seemed to understand that her own convictions about the rights of women were so far ahead of what society would allow that moral and political insistence on gender equality would only isolate her. She did not wish to become an American Mary Wollstonecraft.

She was at the same time the center of gravity within the Adams family, and extremely unhappy when John was gone for extended periods. During his long sojourn in Europe from 1779 to 1784, she became deeply depressed and allowed herself to be drawn into a highly flirtatious correspondence, loaded with sexual innuendo, with James Lovell, a well-placed member of the Continental Congress. She was an ardent opponent of slavery who left control of the family farm to a trusted African-American servant, but she was revulsed at seeing what appeared to be a black actor playing Othello embrace Desdemona.

Like John in the prerevolutionary years, she was an early advocate of American independence, but more operatic in her view of the conflict as a clash between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. The same melodramatic tendencies reappeared during John’s presidency, when she became an ultra-Federalist who enthusiastically endorsed the Alien and Sedition Acts as justifiable responses to Republican critics of her husband and his policies. A devoted mother, she couldn’t prevent her two youngest sons from becoming alcoholics; her daughter languished in a miserable marriage, and her attempts to appease Louisa Catherine Adams, John Quincy’s wife, came across as commands.

No wife of a president—the term First Lady did not appear until Dolley Madison—exercised an equivalent influence over domestic or foreign policy until Eleanor Roosevelt. Holton mentions this in passing, but I would give it greater weight. Abigail was generally regarded as John’s one-woman cabinet, a seasoned diplomat, the main source of balance in his volatile presidency. In 1801 an editorial in the Republican newspaper, the Aurora, described the recently defeated president as a pathetic figure who needed to be cast “like polluted water out at the back door,” and who should immediately leave for Quincy, “that Mrs. Adams may wash his befuddled brains clear.”

Holton sees Abigail’s drafting of her will as the culmination of the retirement years. In my judgment, the most interesting fact about the will was not its defiant character, but Abigail’s matter-of-fact way of declaring her economic independence. She presumed that John would have no objections—he did not—and she presumed she had a right to control her own property. Her will, then, was not a final act of rebellion in her own eyes, but rather a wholly natural capstone to a partnership based on psychological equality that lasted nearly sixty years. It was an appropriate note for Abigail to strike at the end of her life, and an elegant way for Holton to end his impressive retelling of her story.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print