For a First Lady so famous, it’s amazing that during her husband’s one term in office that she was on the scene for less than two of his four years as President. The fact is, however, that Abigail Adams, wife of second President John Adams, spent a total of eighteen months with him in the two presidential mansions they occupied during his incumbency (the first being in the temporary capital of Philadelphia and then the present-day White House in Washington, D.C.)
She had her reasons.
Married at twenty, mother of four, self-educated in philosophy, government, ancient history, and literature, she had also long been managing “Peacefield,” the family farm in Quincy, Massachusetts, bought and sold real estate, made market investments and was sometimes bedridden by one of those late 18th century recurring fevers which people often died from in a matter of just a few hours.
She had another very good reason to stay away from the capital city and a public existence as “Lady Adams,” as she was unofficially titled.
And it wasn’t a matter of being exposed to the intricate trickery of her husband’s vicious political opponents at presidential receptions and dinners, the bitter political in-fighting among allies and the “envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness” common to the men who filled all three branches of government.
She knew herself all too well. Abigail Adams just wouldn’t shut herself up. And she knew what that likely would result in.
On this day, in 1797, Abigail Adams was at home in Quincy when she wrote to her husband John Adams, the Vice President who had been elected President and would be inaugurated on March 4.
As was typical of their correspondence, she crammed it full of razor-sharp judgments on the politicians fighting for power, most of whom she knew personally.
Her caution about their old friend Thomas Jefferson had grown to mistrust by this point, he having come in second in the presidential election campaign against her husband and, in the old system, was thus declared the new Vice President.
She heard a rumor that Jefferson’s close friend James Madison had been appointed as Minister to France by outgoing President George Washington (false rumor) and said she thought Madison was a man of integrity when it came to his principals. It was just that he had lousy principals.
And then, she caught herself, reading what she’d written – and remembered that her husband’s new job would mean she would soon be the President’s Lady.
Her every word, be it written or spoken, would be examined, criticized, ridiculed and used against the new Administration. Even the first First Lady, Martha Washington had been, as Abigail Adams wrote, “abused for her drawing-rooms [her entertaining]” in the National Gazette newspaper and she was never even known for speaking or writing of political figures or for acting as a political adviser to the President.
“My pen runs riot,” Abigail Adams fearfully concluded the letter to her husband. “I forget that it must grow cautious and prudent. I fear I shall make a dull business when such restrictions are laid upon it.”
Not long after Adams had been elected, Mrs. Adams even compared the prospect of becoming First Lady to being “fastened up hand and foot and tongue to be shot at as our Quincy lads do at the poor geese and turkies.”
She elaborated further, in another letter at the time: “I have been so used to freedom of sentiment that I know not how to place so many guards about me, as will be indispensable, to look at every word before I utter it, and to impose a silence upon myself, when I long to talk.”
“I expect to be vilified and abused,” Mrs. Adams admitted in still another letter. “when I come into this situation…”
When her friend and fellow feminist Mercy Otis Warren wrote to Abigail Adams congratulating her on being thrust into “this elevated position” as the most politically prominent woman in the United States, the new First Lady responded on the day her husband became president that, “I shall esteem myself peculiarly fortunate, if, at the close of my public life, I can retire esteemed, beloved and equally respected with my predecessor.”
But Abigail Adams was no Martha Washington. She couldn’t help herself from writing in letters and saying in public exactly what she thought. When she looked directly at Alexander Hamilton while speaking to him, for example, she didn’t just grimace or roll her eyes. She declared that she had just “looked into the eyes of the devil himself.”
And, as her four years as the nation’s second First Lady proved, all of her worst fears came true.
Viewing herself less a national hostess and more a partisan den mother, Abigail Adams made no attempt to hide her contempt for the Anti-Federalists loyal to Jefferson who looked for any chance to publicly attack the Federalist followers of Adams.
Almost immediately, the President’s Lady became a popular target of attack.
The sarcastic Anti-Federalist Albert Gallatin widely spread the story about a friend who “heard her majesty as she was asking the names of different members of Congress and then pointed out which were ‘our people.’”
Abigail Adams gave as good as she got, sarcastically calling him “the sly, the artful, the insidious Gallatin…”
Gallatin shot back, dubbing her “Mrs. President, not of the United States but a faction.”
However sharp, the nickname was accurate. It would stick with Abigail Adams for the rest of history.
Wounded as she was, the remark did not make Abigail Adams recede in public. Quite the opposite.
In Philadelphia, she did not attempt to submissively go about her business as a private citizen, which Martha Washington had tried to do.
Instead, Abigail Adams identified herself as a public figure. She was big on titles. She liked being known as “The President’s Lady” or “Lady Adams.”
She was flattered in welcoming a Native American Indian chief who had come to meet the President but felt his “duty was but in part fulfilled until he had also visited his mother.”
She gave permission to a light infantry volunteer regiment to organize under the name of the “Lady Adams Rangers.”
And when she was heading home, north to Massachusetts, she stopped to inspect a New Jersey federal army encampment and even reviewed the troops, reporting a bit sheepishly to the President that, “I acted as your proxy.”
Since she spent so much time at home, here is a brief glimpse inside both her childhood home and the one which she loved most, in Quincy Massachusetts (now a National park Service historic site which can be visited in the warm weather months):
Upon her return to Philadelphia, however, it could therefore hardly have been a surprise to her that slipping out one night to the Chestnut Street Theater to hear a new and stirring march written to honor President Adams while “in-cog,” would be unsuccessful.
Even by the dim of flaming floodlights, the editor of the Aurora, an especially vicious anti-Adams newspaper immediately recognized Mrs. President and gleefully reported how “the old lady” was over-wrought and ridiculously wept at this rare showing of support for her husband.
Apart from her husband and sons, it was often only in letters to her sisters, daughter and daughters-in-law or over a meal with them that Abigail Adams came to feel she could express her opinion on male political figures.
Yet women often frustrated her: so few were as interested or knowledgeable about politics as she was herself.
Being in Philadelphia and having her remarks overheard by Anti-Federalists and vilified in the pro-Jefferson press, however, might actually have been easier on her than when she was away from the capital and writing letters to the President.
In the spirit of true democracy, even the private letters exchanged between the presidential couple could be purloined and intercepted by political enemies in the chain of the postal system. It wasn’t long before one of President’s Lady’s stolen letters to the President was being waved about and quoted at a local town hall meeting.
Abigail Adams was livid:
“I could not believe that any gentleman would have so little delicacy or so small a sense of propriety as to have written a vague opinion and that of a lady, to be read in a publick assembly as an authority. That man must have lost his senses….It will serve as a lesson to be to be upon my guard.”
Although she did add the confession that, “I cannot say that I did not utter the expression…but little did I think of having my name quoted.”
Towards the end of the Adams Administration, there were even Anti-Federalist newspaper editorials which, in attacking President Adams for his choice of some foreign appointees said it was evidence that his more politically astute wife was clearly not in the capital at the time of his decision, but home in Quincy because, “the President would not dare to make a nomination without her approbation [approval].”
By that point, Abigail Adams had become an unrelenting advocate for her husband’s Alien and Sedition Acts as a legal means of imprisoning those who criticized both the President and his wife in public print.
When Thomas Jefferson finally managed to defeat John Adams in his attempt to win a second term, Abigail Adams was already so over it all.
“Sick, sick, sick of public life,” she’d written some time earlier.
In a November 13, 1800 letter to her son, she reflected: “The consequence to us, personally, is, that we retire from public life. For myself…I have few regrets. At my age, and with my bodily infirmities, I shall be happier at Quincy. Neither my habits, nor my education, or inclinations have led me to an expensive style of living, so that on that score I have little to mourn over. If I did not rise with dignity, I can at least fall with ease, which is the more difficult task…I feel not any resentment against those who are coming into power…”
Following her brief four-month residence in the present-day White House as the first First Lady to occupy it, Abigail Adams lived for another seventeen years; she died six years before her son John Quincy Adams was elected President in 1824.
She is usually remembered for her famous “remember the ladies” letter to her husband at the time the Declaration of Independence was being drafted and not any of those she wrote some twenty years later, as Lady Adams, or the one written 215 years ago this day, in 1797.
Abigail Adams is never listed among the most popular of First Ladies, or the best-dressed or the most gracious hostess.
She does, however, deserve credit for insisting that, usually after a lifetime of sacrifice and political partnership, the spouses of the Presidents are bona fide public figures, worthy of recognition and respect for the unconstitutional force that they almost always prove to be in one form or another.
Or, as Hillary Clinton remarked to me on several occasions, “I’ve not said and done what I have to win popularity contests.”
- The Very First Inaugural Ball: Hot for Her, Not for Him (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Tangled Web: The Most Linked to Pages on the Internet (seomoz.org)
- President Adams’ Alligator (childrensbooksheal.com)
- The Ninth Daughter by Barbara Hamilton (4rxt.wordpress.com)
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