As a young country lawyer, John Adams thought he seemed to lack focus.
“Ballast is what I want, I totter, with every Breeze. My motions are unsteady.”
History has shown that he eventually would find his “Ballast” in the steady personage of Abigail (Smith) Adams, his almost-equally-famous better half. Over the course of their fifty-four-year-long marriage, they exchanged nearly 1,100 letters which chronicled the entire birth of the United States up to John Adams’ presidency. Though Abigail was home schooled by her mother, her father, Rev. William Smith of Weymouth, Massachusetts, had a parsonage library of hundreds of books which Abigail had free access to – and which she used. At an early age, Abigail became an avid reader and writer … good qualities if you’ll be hooking up with John Adams.
But Abigail wasn’t the first heart throb of John. That title would have to go to twenty-two year old Hannah Quincy, the witty, flirtatious daughter of Col. Josiah Quincy of Braintree. Hannah was very popular within the social club of eligible bachelors that John was part of, which included the future Declaration of Independence signer Robert Treat Paine. But Hannah let it be subtly known that she had found young John Adams equally attractive. In Adams’ earliest diary, he scratched the glowing words about Hannah (who he called “Orlinda”), “That Face, those Eyes.”
Shy John, however, procrastinated too much and fellow bachelor Bela Lincoln swooped in and married Hannah.
In 1759, about the same time John had first met dazzling Hannah Quincy, he had also met the shy, fifteen-year old Abigail Smith. There reportedly had been no sparks of any kind between the two. In fact, John had found the very young Abigail lacking in “fondness” and “Tenderness.”
Pushing ahead just a few years, however, things were different. Hannah was engaged, and Mary Smith, Abigail’s oldest sister, was being courted by another social circle bachelor, Richard Cranch. Now the twenty-seven year old John Adams had begun to take notice of the seventeen-year old Abigail Smith, and she of him. Abigail had also changed a lot. She had become poised and self-assured in her intelligence and wit. It showed.
John and Abigail began to see a lot of each other and their affection toward one another started growing more and more. In their early letters to each other, written while John was away on his legal riding circuit, they both referenced classical mythology – something they both were fond of. He would sign his letters “Lysander,” who was a heroic Spartan admiral. To her, she was John’s “Diana,” the Roman goddess of the moon and hunting. In a February 1763 diary entry, John described Abigail (Diana) in a rapid and romantic bevy of Thesaurus words:
Di. was a constant feast. Tender feeling, sensible, friendly. A friend. Not an imprudent, not an indelicate, not a disagreeable Word or Action. Prudent, modest, delicate, soft, sensible, obliging, active.
True, it was no “hot stuff” which sizzled the pages when he described Hannah. But maybe to Congregationalist John Adams, Abigail had so many admirable “sensible” qualities, that she would make a very agreeable consort – and more importantly a “tender … friend.” There was never any hint that Abigail had felt differently about him – so many of her famous letters to John began with “My Dearest Friend.” During their courting years, some of John’s romantic letters would even start with “Miss Adorable” or “Ever Dear Diana.” They became engaged.
Though the marriage date of October, 1764 had been chosen, John had one more duty he had to attend to before he could get married. Because his circuit law duties took him to so many areas and in contact with so many people – and now that he was getting married on top of it – Adams figured it was smart to get inoculated against smallpox. He spent over forty days in isolation and recovery from April 6 through about May 10, 1764. He read and re-read Abigail’s letters to him with “a joyful Heart,” but reminded her of the disinfection treatment that his own letters to her required:
I have one Request to make, which is that you would be very careful … Smoke all the Letters from me, very faithfully, before you, or any of the Family reads them. For, altho I shall never fail to smoke them myself before sealing, Yet I fear the Air of this House will be too much infected.
John tells Abigail her “Faults”
By May 7, John was successfully near the end of his smallpox isolation and observation period. With still so much time to think on his hands, he possibly overthought this next action. He had remembered that he’d made a promise to Abigail to give her a list of her faults and defects. Why? So that she could fix them. That gesture might not go over so well in today’s world, but to John and Abigail it might’ve been another indication of becoming closer to each other, now with their wedding just five months away. Maybe. Maybe it was also just John being his obnoxious self.
I promised you, Sometime agone, a Catalogue of your Faults, Imperfections, Defects, or whatever you please to call them. I feel at present, pretty much at Leisure, and in a very suitable Frame of Mind to perform my Promise. But I must caution you, before I proceed to recollect yourself, and instead of being vexed or fretted or thrown into a Passion, to resolve upon a Reformation—for this is my sincere Aim, in laying before you, this Picture of yourself.
- John told Abigail that she needs to learn to play cards better:
In the first Place, then, give me leave to say, you have been extreamly negligent, in attending so little to Cards. You have very litle Inclination, to that noble and elegant Diversion, and whenever you have taken an Hand you have held it but aukwardly and played it, with a very uncourtly, and indifferent, Air.
- She blushes at any little thing said:
Another Thing, which ought to be mentioned, and by all means amended, is, the Effect of a Country Life and Education, I mean, a certain Modesty, sensibility, Bashfulness, call it by which of these Names you will, that enkindles Blushes forsooth at every Violation of Decency, in Company, and lays a most insupportable Constraint on the freedom of Behaviour.
- She always refuses to learn how to sing:
In the Third Place, you could never yet be prevail’d on to learn to sing. This I take very soberly to be an Imperfection of the most moment of any. An Ear for Musick would be a source of much Pleasure, and a Voice and skill, would be a private solitary Amusement, of great Value when no other could be had.
- She hangs her head like a bent-over cattail with bad posture
In the Fourth Place you very often hang your Head like a Bulrush. You do not sit, erected as you ought, by which Means, it happens that you appear too short for a Beauty …
but then John kidded with Abigail, writing that her posture was from a result of her reading and thinking too much!
This Fault is the Effect and Consequence of another, still more inexcusable in a Lady. I mean an Habit of Reading, Writing and Thinking. But both the Cause and the Effect ought to be repented and amended as soon as possible.
- She sits with her legs crossed (also caused by thinking too much):
Another Fault, which seems to have been obstinately persisted in, after frequent Remonstrances, Advices and Admonitions of your Friends, is that of sitting with the Leggs across. This ruins the figure and the Air, this injures the Health. And springs I fear from the former source vizt. too much Thinking.
- She walks “pigeon-toed”:
A sixth Imperfection is that of Walking, with the Toes bending inward. This Imperfection is commonly called Parrot-toed, I think, I know not for what Reason. But it gives an Idea, the reverse of a bold and noble Air, the Reverse of the stately strut …
Adams ended the letter before he committed the worst “Fault” – “that of tedious and excessive Length.” Besides, he’d listed all of Abigail’s “Spotts” that he could think of. He added that they were not in any particular order: “Have not regarded Order, but have painted them as they arose in my Memory.”Super.
It’s unclear when John’s “list of faults” letter, dated May 7 from Boston, reached Abigail in Weymouth. But because her rapid replyis dated May 9, you can bet she whipped out a pen and paper pretty quickly after reading his letter.
Abigail wrote that she would continue with some of her faults listed until she knew for certain that John considered them a big deal. And that she would certainly continue to be modest and blush:
I thank you for your Catalogue, but must confess I was so hardned as to read over most of my Faults with as much pleasure, as an other person would have read their perfections. And Lysander must excuse me if I still persist in some of them, at least till I am convinced that an alteration would contribute to his happiness. Especially may I avoid that Freedom of Behaviour which according to the plan given, consists in Voilations of Decency, and which would render me unfit to Herd even with the Brutes. And permit me to tell you Sir, nor disdain to be a learner, that there is such a thing as Modesty without either Hypocricy or Formality.
As for “singing,” she advised him to give up on it and don’t bring it up again:
As to a neglect of Singing, that I acknowledg to be a Fault which if posible shall not be complaind of a second time, nor should you have had occasion for it now, if I had not a voice harsh as the screech of a peacock.
She agreed to start standing up straight:
The Capotal fault shall be rectified, tho not with any hopes of being lookd upon as a Beauty, to appear agreeable in the Eyes of Lysander, has been for Years past, and still is the height of my ambition.
As for sitting cross-legged, she said she thought it was no big deal, but if it made him happy, then she would stop. And she told him to stop thinking about women’s legs:
The 5th fault, will endeavour to amend of it, but you know I think that a gentleman has no business to concern himself about the Leggs of a Lady, for my part I do not apprehend any bad effects from the practise, yet since you desire it, and that you may not for the future trouble Yourself so much about it, will reform.
As for walking “pigeon-toed”, she simply wrote one single sentence:
The sixth and last can be cured only by a Dancing School.
Abigail’s letter to John ended by saying “I … will not add to my faults” by writing “a tedious Letter.” It was not signed as “Diana,” but simply: “A Smith.” Hmmmmm …
And they got married anyway.
“[A Letter to Richard Cranch about Orlinda, a Letter on Employing One’s Mind, and Reflections on Procrastination, Genius, Moving the Passions, Cicero as Orator, Milton’s Style, &c., October–December 1758.],” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/02-01-02-0010-0001-0003, accessed June 4, 2018 (original source: The Adams Papers, Earliest Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, June 1753 – April 1754, September 1758 – January 1759, ed. L. H. Butterfield (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966), 69–82).
Their famous letters extended from 1763 during their courtship to 1797, the first year of Adams’ presidency. Abigail died on October 28, 1818. The last letter Abigail is thought to have written was to their daughter, Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, dated August 21, 1818. In it, Abigail references Andrew Jackson: “I have just been reading the Life of Genll Jackson—and I admire the Man; as his character is represented—I esteem him, much more highly than I did before, I read it.”
“A Letter to Richard Cranch about Orlinda.”
Ironically, Hannah Quincy Lincoln Storer (1736 – 1826) would go on to become an occasional pen pal to Abigail Adams.
“The Earliest Diary of John Adams,” Introduction, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/02-01-02-0001, accessed June 6, 2018 (original source: The Adams Papers, Earliest Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, June 1753 – April 1754, September 1758 – January 1759, 1–42).
The Diary of John Adams, “Braintree Feby. 1st. 1763. Tuesday.,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-01-02-0008-0001-0001, accessed June 7, 2018 (original source: The Adams Papers, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, vol. 1, 1755–1770, ed. L. H. Butterfield (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961), 233–235).
John Adams was successfully inoculated against smallpox in Boston on April 13, 1764 by Dr. Joseph Warren.
John Adams to Abigail Smith, April 17, 1764, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-01-02-0027, accessed June 9, 2018 (original source: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 1, December 1761 – May 1776, ed. Lyman H. Butterfield (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963), 32–35).
“John Adams to Abigail Smith, April 13, 1764,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-01-02-0023, accessed June 4, 2018 (original source: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 1, December 1761 – May 1776, 28–29). Because germs, viruses and bacteria were still unknown, it was thought that applying smoke to paper could act as a disinfectant and it would be “purified.”
“John Adams to Abigail Smith, May 7, 1764,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-01-02-0035, accessed June 9, 2018 (original source: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 1, December 1761 – May 1776, 44–46.
“Abigail Smith to John Adams, May 9, 1764,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-01-02-0037, accessed June 9, 2018, (original source: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 1, December 1761 – May 1776, 46–47).
What a woman Abigal Adams was! We could use her ” moxie” today.Will check out more info when I go to local library tomorrow.
I’m immersed in Rev.war- 4th great grandfather served as a Capt.
I also volunteered at Morristown, N.J. Nat. historic park where I grew up.
Try Woody Holton’s ‘Abigail Adams: A Life’, it was pretty thorough and details a lot of the workings in their household as well as the children, though at times tries a bit too hard to modernize and make Abigail out to be a radical feminist. Thanks for the article!
Abigail Adams has always been a favorite of mine. I have been fascinated by the Colonial Period since I was in grade school ( 1955 1st grade ). Some had to do with being originally from New York , as one of the thirteen colonies , we got a lot of that in history. In the last several years I’ve done my genealogy and , among other things, found seven Revolutionary War Patriots in my mother’s family. Hummm, genetic memory ? 🙂
Sarah – Abigail was indeed not an average woman for her life and times! I still often wonder how she put up with John’s attitudes at times, even though she understood his point of view. She indeed kept him from saying even worse things publicly and was his “ballast”. Thank you for having volunteered your time at Morristown.
Thank you for your excellent book recommendation and a spot-on comment.
Wonderful article, thank you.
For the record, Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams was Abigail and John’s daughter-in-law, not their daughter. Louisa was married to John Quincy Adams.
Thank you for the important point and I stand corrected, Ms. Adams!