The Abigail Adams Problem; or, Teaching Women’s History of the Revolutionary Era

Sara T. Damiano
Raphaelle Peale, “Abigail Smith Adams.” Hollow-cut silhouette, white paper on modern black paper. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Raphaelle Peale, “Abigail Smith Adams.” Hollow-cut silhouette, white paper on modern black paper. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

In my teaching, I often suggest that for free white women, as for many other social groups, the revolutionary era opened up new opportunities, but did not fully capitalize on the most radical components of its ideology. Republican motherhood, for example, acknowledged women’s vital roles in preserving the new United States but emphasized women’s moral influence over husbands and children rather than their direct involvement in government. The United States Constitution allowed that women could be counted for the purposes of representation. Yet only New Jersey granted women the right to vote, and the state revoked this right in 1807.[i]

The well-known exchange between Abigail and John Adams offers a pithy example of opportunities foreclosed for women during the revolutionary era. On March 31, 1776, Abigail urged John to “Remember the Ladies” and to “not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands” because “all men would be tyrants if they could.” Two weeks later, John brushed off Abigail’s “saucy” admonition, stating, “I cannot but laugh.” He maintained that men “have only the Name of Masters” and that surrendering this “would completely subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat.”[ii]

As a teacher, I am tempted to play up this exchange between Abigail and John. It seemingly stands in for the revolution writ large: Despite some women’s urging, the Founders failed to “Remember the Ladies.” And, it captures undergraduate interest. Particularly in my upper-level women’s history courses, students admire the spunk and assertiveness of Abigail Adams, whom they see as articulating an early version of modern feminism.

Yet, especially in light of my contribution to the October joint issue of the William and Mary Quarterly and the Journal of the Early Republic on “Writing to and from the American Revolution,” I worry about my role in facilitating such views of the American Revolution and Abigail Adams. If we aim to teach students to analyze the foreignness of the past, then we undercut our work by focusing only on the quest for “rights.” Doing so arguably flattens other aspects of historical actors’ lives and even marginalizes those individuals who were not necessarily thinking in terms of “rights.”

In my recent article, I examined husband–wife correspondence about economic matters during the wartime years. As spouses including Abigail and John Adams negotiated their dual roles as romantic partners and economic collaborators, I argued, they creatively comingled emotional and practical language and ultimately destabilized hierarchical understandings of marriage. In other words, eighteenth-century men and women renegotiated power relations not only through overt discussion of laws and “rights” but also through more prosaic interactions.

Women Voting in New Jersey in the Late Eighteenth Century. From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Nov. 12, 1864.

Women Voting in New Jersey in the Late Eighteenth Century. From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Nov. 12, 1864.

How can we encourage our students to develop a more nuanced, holistic view of the revolutionary era? One path forward, I have come to believe, lies not with (heaven forbid!) jettisoning Abigail Adams, but rather with using the Adams correspondence more extensively and with greater intentionality. Many primary source collections include Adams family correspondence, and all of Abigail and John’s letters are freely accessible online through the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive.

By reading more widely in the Adams letters, students can discover how Abigail Adams’s injunction to “Remember the Ladies” was but one component of the couple’s correspondence. To take just one example, in her March 31, 1776 letter, Abigail devoted only two paragraphs out of twelve to patriarchal authority.  She also wrote about Virginia politics, conditions in Boston in the aftermath of the British occupation, neighbors’ illnesses, the health of the Adams’s children, Abigail’s home manufacturing efforts, and a manuscript concerning “the various sorts of powder, as fit for cannon, small arms, and pistols.” Even examining this single letter in its entirety provides a more complete snapshot of the Adams marriage than does the famous quotation extracted from its context.[iii]

Such wider reading can in turn serve as a starting point for comparisons between the Adamses and other couples. Social standing, education, and personal opinions shaped spouses’ correspondence, and John and Abigail Adams were in many ways exceptional. Yet the most prosaic details of the Adams letters are not unique: Other husbands and wives likewise exchanged news, coordinated economic matters, and experienced the pangs of physical separation. For those seeking to engage students in such comparisons, the Adams letters pair nicely with another set of sources used in my article, the Massachusetts Historical Society’s digitized letters of Dudley Colman, a Newbury, Massachusetts, tavernkeeper and town clerk, to his wife, Mary.

Regardless of whether read alone or in combination with other sources, the breadth of content in the Adams letters raises numerous questions for class discussion. Some of these are historical: How did the overall corpus of John and Abigail’s letters depict their marriage, and how did their correspondence surrounding myriad prosaic matters give shape to power dynamics within their marriage? Others invite deeper consideration of sources and the genre of the familiar letter, which encouraged easy exchange and including diverse topics within a single missive. What conventions seem to have governed the couple’s letters, and how should an awareness of genre shape our interpretations of the Adams letters?

One final, crucial set of questions concerns the relationship between history and memory. Given that John and Abigail Adams treated so many different topics in their letters, why does Abigail’s “remember the ladies” quotation garner so much attention? To what extent does this tendency encapsulate popular or scholarly approaches to women’s history of the revolutionary era, and how might we work toward a more three-dimensional view of women’s lives and social relations during the period? In other words, harnessing students’ initial admiration of Abigail Adams might serve as an entry point into the same conversations taking place in our research.


Endnotes

[i] Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill, NC, 1980), 269–88; Jan Ellen Lewis, “‘Of Every Age Sex & Condition’: The Representation of Women in the Constitution,” Journal of the Early Republic 15 (Autumn 1995), 359–87; Rosemarie Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic (Philadelphia, 2007), 30–37.

[ii] Abigail Adams to John Adams, Mar. 31–Apr. 5, 1776 [electronic edition], Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive (AFP), Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston (MHS); John Adams to Abigail Adams, Apr. 14, 1776, AFP, MHS.

[iii] Abigail Adams to John Adams, Mar. 3–Apr. 5, 1776, AFP, MHS.

16 April 2018

About the Author

Sara T. Damiano is Assistant Professor of History at Texas State University.

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  1. Janet Wedge
    Janet Wedge says:

    Suggest you look at the book “In the Words of W9men” by North, Wedge, Freeman. A useful resource for teaching and an interesting read by itself. See my (Janet Wedge) blog for additional material.

    Reply

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