First Lady Project

First Lady Project
FL 2: Abigail Smith Adams (John Adams)
Abigail Adams is probably best remembered for urging husband John Adams to
“Remember the Ladies.” Abigail made that remark in 1776, at a time when John was
working on the Declaration of Independence. Specifically, she lobbied her attorney
husband to,
“be more generous and favourable to [the Ladies] 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 Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will
not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or
Representation . . .”
Although John disagreed with Abigail on such matters, he nevertheless saw her as
lifetime partner and confidant. Abigail’s enduring support, advice, and insightful
political observations prompted John to call her his “dearest Partner” and “best, dearest,
worthiest, wisest friend in this World.” On top of that, he noted, Abigail shone “as a
Shining as a “Stateswoman” was one thing; becoming “Lady Adams” was quite
another. Although she had had experience with protocol as an ambassador’s wife and had
assisted “Lady Washington” with official social functions as the vice president’s wife,
Abigail Smith Adams fretted about becoming “Lady Adams.” She steeled herself for a
role she believed “require[d] courage and firmness, wisdom and temperance, patience
and forebearance.” She prepared herself for the visibility associated with such “an
elevated position,” the expected “vilification” and “abuse” of her family, and the need for
some degree of self-censorship. Mrs. Adams of Quincy, Massachusetts might speak as
she chose, but she believed that “Lady Adams” needed to be more careful.
Despite her self-imposed limits, Abigail continued to lobby for improvements in
female education and battled the assumed inferiority of women. Writing that she would
never consent to having those of “her sex” considered inferior, she advocated letting
“each planet shine in their own orbit.” But her earlier strident calls for husband John to
“Remember the Ladies” abated somewhat over time. Abigail noted that the
“Government of States and Kingdoms, tho God knows badly enough managed...should
be solely administered by the Lords.”
She was vigorously supportive of one “Lord” in particular. Abigail combated
criticism of her husband’s administration by urging newspapers to print her letters and
articles, taking care to hide her identity when she felt necessary. Criticism of John’s
policies and administration continued to disturb Abigail, and she encouraged the
president to sign a law making sedition illegal. Many within the administration, as well as
without, acknowledged Abigail’s influence over the president; critics even referred to her
as “Mrs. President.” Although “Mr. President” valued his wife’s political judgment and
views, her suggestions did not translate into immediate action. Following the notorious
XYZ Affair, for example, Abigail favored war with France; her husband demurred.
Although politically attuned to the issues of the day, Abigail Adams did not
neglect her social responsibilities. Like her predecessor, she assisted the needy, handled
requests for patronage, and held receptions which, by 1800, took place in the new
presidential mansion in Washington, D.C. According to Abigail, the new house left a
great deal to be desired. She made the most if by hanging her laundry in the cavernous
East Room. Another source of discontent was the presence in the mansion of slaves as
servants. Unlike Martha Washington, Abigail Adams opposed slavery and had favored its
abolition in the early 1770s. While sympathetic to the slaves and the hardships slaves
they endured, “Lady Adams” was less compassionate toward the young nation’s
immigrant population. She feared the effects of a pervasive French influence on fashion
as well as on politics. Her suspicion of foreigners extended even to her British-born
daughter-in-law, Louisa Catherine Adams.
Although Abigail Adams had been a reluctant presidential spouse, she enjoyed
acting as John’s occasional “proxy” and embraced the power inherent in her role. When
her husband lost his bid for re-election in 1800 to Thomas Jefferson and the DemocraticRepublicans, Abigail’s fears were both personal and political. Not only did she fear for
the country’s future, she also lamented her own loss of power: “I can truly and from my
heart say, “she recorded, “that the most mortifying circumstance attendant upon my
retirement from public Life is, that my power of doing good to my fellow creatures is
curtailed and diminished, but tho’ the means is wanting, the will and the wish remain.”
Abigail Adams would become a role model for all subsequent First Ladies. When
future presidential spouses described themselves as their husbands’ political partners,
freely advising them on matters of state, they were taking cues from the second woman to
occupy that position. Although politically active, Abigail Adams fulfilled her duties as
hostess, reinforcing the notion that such responsibilities were intrinsic to the role of
presidential spouse. And like her, there would be other First Ladies who mourned their
husbands’ election losses, knowing, as Abigail Adams did, that it was their loss as well.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza, First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their
Power, 1789-1961 (New York: Quill), 1990.
Gould, Lewis, L., ed., American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy (New York:
Routledge), 2001.
Levin, Phyllis Lee, Abigail Adams: A Biography (New York: Ballantine Books), 1987.
Parsons, Lynn Hudson, “Abigail Smith Adams,” in Lewis L. Gould, ed., American First
Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy (New York: Routledge), 2001, pp. 11-19.
Watson, Robert P., First Ladies of the United States: A Biographical Dictionary
(Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers), 2001.