The Effects of Abigail Adams' Letters on the Women's Rights

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The text is a personal letter written by Abigail Adams to her husband John Adams, the brilliant lawyer, first vice-president and second president of the United States of America dated March 31, 1776, on their farm of Braintree, Massachusetts. It forms part of a prolific series of collected letters that the couple exchanged from the beginning of their long and close relationship. Ellis estimates the extraordinary correspondence of the couple on more than twelve hundred letters (ix), a union that began when ‘Abigail, in fact, was still a girl, not quite fifteen years old to John’s twenty-four” (Ellis 4) and lasted almost six decades. Thanks to one of their descendants, this correspondence brought to life an immensely valuable historical chronicle of the time Abigail and John Adams lived, a crucial phase that corresponds both with the pre- and post-revolutionary periods of American history.

The author of the letter, Abigail Adams, represents the first “first lady” and one of the most relevant and well-known first ladies in US history, due both to her prolific and witty letters and to her strong imprint on her husband’s decisions. No wonder her opinions and influence on her husband bestowed on her the nickname of “Mrs. President”. “Rather than Lady Adams, she was dubbed “Mrs. President”” (Caroli 8). Born in Weymouth, Massachusetts in 1744, she was raised in a happy and secure home where she was educated by her mother, Elizabeth Quincy Smith, who came from the Quincy’s, a prestigious colonial family that arrived in the thirteen colonies in the XVII century. Abigail’s father, the Reverend William Smith, was a Harvard-educated minister, the same institution where John Adams studied law before entering politics. “Abigail proved herself equal in every task. She capably educated her children, ran the farm and household, and helped manage John’s business” (Discovery Education). Their eldest son John Quincy Adams became also president, occupying the sixth presidency of the US, even if her mother was not able to see it during her life.

To understand the motivation of the letter, it is convenient to situate the writing in the context of its political and historical period. Tensions between English rule and the colonists had escalated in the previous years, arriving at a situation of war in 1775. The discontent on both parts of the conflict started when the English government, in order to solve the economic expenses derived from a very expensive war against France -The French and Indian War (1754–1763)-, decided to institute a series of Acts of Taxation within the American colonies, such as the Sugar Act (1764) or the Stamp Act (1765), among others. “The British victory in the Seven Years’ War had been costly in human and financial terms” (Coliano). This taxation imposed by the English government on the colonists and the events in Boston Massacre (1770), “a street fight that occurred on March 5, 1770, between a ‘patriot’ mob, throwing snowballs, stones, and sticks, and a squad of British soldiers” (Independence Hall Assoc.), pushed a part of the colonists to opt for mobs that finally ended up in a war for the independence of the American colonies. In a context of massive conflict between Loyalists and Patriots -the American War of Independence (1775-1783) had already begun-, at the time where Abigail’s letter was written, John Adams was in Philadelphia with other colonial leaders in the Second Continental Congress, where “it was agreed that a Continental Army would be created” (Independence Hall Assoc.). Therefore, this Second Congress was another step towards American colonies’ independence, in which such crucial matters as Code of laws and Constitution for a new nation were about to be decided. Abigail Adams, very aware of politics and the social reality of the time, decided to openly express her opinion about the social situation of women, asking for women’s recognition and inclusion in the context of the new laws that were on the point of thriving in the new Constitution of a free, independent and upcoming new US country. She was taking most of the opportunity to ask for a new legal context for women. Finally, “on July 4 Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence” (Boyer 20).

Abigail’s purpose is, then, doubled. On the one hand, through her letter, she is simply looking to communicate with her husband, to find a way to share with him her daily life; they are physically separated and have a family and a farm in common to run, a life together. On the other hand, she has the intention to ask for women’s attention and a better role for them in the context of a new Nation. Consequently, the text could be clearly divided into two main parts, not only delimited in time (the letter was written in two different moments as Abigail describes in the second part of the letter “Not having an opportunity of sending this (…)”), but also referring to the different messages they reveal. The first part starts with a sort of complaint from Abigail against her husband. “I wish you would ever write me a Letter half as long as I write you”. But immediately she turned to political and current affairs, mentioning facts like the defence of the Patriots in Virginia against English troops. She is aware of the revolutionary affairs and speaks and gives her opinion openly to her husband through her words. Then, Abigail compares two important and opposed figures, British both in their origins: George Washington, the most important general and military strategist in the victory against the British troops in the war of Independence, and lately first and second president of the US, with the Earl of Dunmore, famous for the Dunmore’s proclamation (December 1775), a loyalist British noble who established a polemical measure that promised freedom to slaves in exchange for their military support against the Patriots, an initiative that in the end would bring numerous problems and Martial law. The author also refers to slavery, a cause that motivated Abigail Adams, as well as other causes like bringing formal education for women. “She opposed slavery and supported women’s education” (Michals). “The American Revolution had a profound effect on the institution of slavery. It gave enslaved African Americans unprecedented opportunities to escape from slavery by serving in the British or Continental armies” (Lehrman Inst.).

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However, the most famous and considered important part of the letter begins with the words “by the way in the New Code of Laws (…)”. Abigail is moved by the same dynamism and enthusiasm of the revolution “With her husband at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia arguing the case for American independence, she implored him to “remember the ladies’ in the ‘new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make…. ” (PBS). She accused men, the husbands, of not having been so kind with the wives until then. She uses words such as “tyrants” or “Naturally Tyrannical” to refer to males, accusing them of the vassalage of women. She continues with a tone of menace if solutions are not given to improve women’s voices ‘…we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.’ However, at the end of the fifth and sixth paragraphs, she lowers the tone, asking more for protection and friendship than for hostility. In the second part of the letter, dated five days later, the tone is less gay. Health problems are stalking the Braintree community, killing several children because of the Canker fever. Not for nothing did Abigail and John Adams lost two of their six children when they were just infants. In a similar way, this section of the text presents peculiar customs of the time, as when Abigail refers to the sick room, a usual habit in the first US colonies referred to several times in Tracy Chevalier’s novel The Last Runaway. Therefore, Abigail is concerned by domestic daily matters, she shares her concerns with her husband and in addition explains to him practical matters concerning the farm and their business, such as the way of making Salt peter. At the end of the letter, the farewell to her husband is affectionate -both of them had special names for each other at the end of their letters-.

Despite the eloquence of Abigail’s words, the consequences of her claim for women’s rights contained in the letter were not significant at the time. The first reaction was the responding letter of John Adams. In it can be perceived a reaction of his of playful mockery, treating his wife, in a flirtatious tone that is a constant in their correspondence, to “saucy”. “As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh.”. He even goes further, referring to women as “another tribe more numerous and powerful than all the rest were grown discontented”. However, if we think of the projection of Abigail’s letter in a major scale, her influence throughout history has been enormous. “The importance of Abigail Adams’ letters is clear only when we view the larger scope of American history.” (Collett). Rightly or wrongly, the repercussion of Abigail’s words went way beyond John Adam’s answer. Instead, it is often considered the seed that inspired Women’s Rights Movement in the US, a movement that flourished on July 13, 1848, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her Declaration of Sentiments, a fight that in the end enjoyed a clamorous victory when the right of women to vote was guaranteed finally in 1919, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

To conclude, even though in Europe Abigail Adams is not such a renowned figure as she is in the US where Remember the Ladies is a usual study material in schools, her written legacy affords a precious historical source of the pre- and post-revolutionary American periods. Basically, the purpose of Remember the Ladies letter is for Abigail Adams to communicate with her husband who is far from his family, but also to ask for a better role and representation of women in the new nation and its constitution. Her letter can be considered a priceless historical testimony of a period of American history that is crucial to understand the pre and post-revolution periods but also American Women’s Rights movements. The first part, extremely well-known for the words “Remember the ladies”, has become a sort of claim for a part of the American feminist movement and a symbol of the roots of their actions. Through it, even though the primary audience of Abigail’s letter is John Adams, the writer is also indirectly asking the authors of the Declaration of Independence, the committee made up of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston to intervene in women’s defence. It is also important to underline that the text can be better understood if we situate Abigail’s words in the period when they were written, that is to say, a time when the role of colonial married women in society was considerably limited and based on the legal doctrine of femme covert or coverture. Effectively, “in the 1700s the lives of colonial married women were governed by the legal doctrine of femme covert or coverture. Under this doctrine a husband and wife were considered one person, and that person was the husband.” (Kadonsky). In other words, in the XVIII century, the role of women in European and Anglo-American societies consisted merely of finding a good husband and being a good housewife, bringing up the children and taking care of the family. They had no legal rights; they could not sign any document on their own. Women did not have access to formal education and their rights depended on the goodwill of the husbands and other male members of the family. “In American legal history, changes in the late 18th and early 19th century began to extend women’s property rights; these changes affected coverture laws.”(Lewis). In this context, Abigail Adams was privileged but fought her whole life to bring formal education to women like her who hadn’t had the chance to go to school. While it is true that she was educated at home, she did have access to many books and to political matters, and above all and incredibly for the time, open communication with her husband, a fact that according to Boyle was not that uncommon at the time. The historian portrays American colonial society as less-rigid in terms of hierarchies and gender roles than European models (Boyle 12). In respect to women role, the historian declares: “…in actual practice, gender boundaries were no typically patrolled so rigidly, and women played respected social roles in their communities” (Boyle 13). It is in this position of trust that she wrote, obviously in a private context, her thoughts and wishes with regard to women’s poor rights. Accordingly, the purpose of her letter is to ask her husband and, indirectly through him the rest of the members of the Committee, for the inclusion of women’s rights in a new US constitution. In a way, the opportunity offered by a draft for a new Constitution motivated Abigail Adams to ask for women’s rights, and was, at the same time, the cause of her “insolence”.

In my opinion, Abigail’s letter is an astonishingly and crucial historical document, since it illustrates accurately the outlook of a brilliant woman who constitutes a precious witness of a decisive historical period of American history in the time she lived. It is also a letter that permits us to discover an important thinker and voice that affords an interpretation of her time, without underestimating her critical thinking. Abigail Adams has appeared to me as a fascinating and balanced figure who masterfully juggles the requirements of a woman of her time, a perfect spouse, farmer, “during the war, women gained managerial experience running farms and businesses for absent husbands and fathers” (Boyer 24), mother, even perfect host in her role of wife of the ambassador and First Lady, far ahead of her time, as when she writes and speaks openly through her hundreds of letters. On the one hand, “Remember the Ladies” owes her reputation basically because of her message of women rights defence, as interpreted by some feminist voices, an interpretation of the facts that can be considered overestimated, if we commit the mistake of analysing Abigail’s words from the biased perspective of our current 21st century point of view. The truth is that Adam’s position makes us wonder if she was not completely what we nowadays know as a feminist, or if she truly was a pioneer of the future movement of feminism, an example that would be equivalent to what we intend as a feminist today. The clue to truly appreciate Abigail Adam’s words is to be able to read them from the prism of a woman of her time, standing back and thinking ahead of our current mentalities of citizens of the 21st century. All the steps that have already been taken in the still running fight for Women’s Human Rights and Gender Equality, would have never been achieved without women like her, people who started to ask for a proper place for women in a world of men. Other women followed her, like Mary Wollstonecraft, Susan B. Anthony, Alice Stone Blackwell, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Emmeline Pankhurst, Sojourner Truth, among many anonymous others. But Abigail Adams certainly deserves a place of honour in the primary history of the defence of women’s rights and among the First Ladies of American governments. Considered by most an early advocate for women’s rights, she is certainly for me one of the first examples of female empowerment and a clear example of elegance, humanity and wisdom.

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