The Unexpected Abigail Adams: A Woman “Not Apt to Be Intimidated”


June 9, 2024
by Nichole Louise Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: The Unexpected Abigail Adams: A Woman “Not Apt to Be Intimidated” by John L. Smith, Jr. (Westholme, 2024, $32.50 hardcover)

“I will never consent to have our sex considered an inferior point of light. Let each planet shine in their own orbit, God and nature intended it so—if man is Lord, woman is Lordess.”

 The Unexpected Abigail Adams: A Woman “Not Apt to Be Intimidated” offers a fascinating, in-depth, and oftentimes amusing account of the life of Abigail Adams through her letters, steadfast beliefs, keen intellect, and business acumen. While many know Abigail Adams within the context of her husband, John Adams, and the American Revolution, what Abigail achieved in her own right as a woman of her time is remarkable and pioneering. What’s more, she enjoyed a level of equality and true partnership with her husband that some women do not even have in the twenty-first century.

Author John L. Smith, Jr. heavily employs letters written throughout Abigail’s life, as well as letters written to her. The famous texts are of course referenced, such as the now renowned “Remember the Ladies” letter to her husband, but Smith also incorporates lesser known tidbits and life observations that reveal a more personal, intimate portrait of Abigail beyond the Founding Mother persona. While she accomplished much that is remembered by history, she was also a woman of her time with as many complexities, flaws, and idiosyncrasies as anybody albeit with a bit more decorum and grace than her husband, who was infamously known for his.

Throughout her life, Abigail cultivated friendships with other women that were filled with intellectual correspondence, as well as with influential men of the time such as Thomas Jefferson. Mercy Otis Warren was one of the first forged of famous friendships. Slightly Abigail’s senior, Mercy was somewhat of a mentor to Abigail and also very much someone Abigail wanted to emulate not just in motherhood, but also as an intellectual. Smith notes that “Mercy, taken with Abigail’s curious spirit, invited a mentor correspondence with Abigail, who eagerly accepted it.” (page 32) Abigail later divulged the contents of her famous “Remember the Ladies” letter to Mercy in 1776, relaying that she “ventured to speak a word on behalf of our sex.” Abigail also wrote to British historian Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay, explaining the political climate in America near the start of the Revolution. Abigail was taken with the fact that Macaulay, a woman, was a renowned historian, when she herself had had no formal schooling yet had been educated at home and by the books in her father Reverand Smith’s study.

The author sheds light on an interesting and little-known, flirtatious correspondence with James Lovell, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs during the war. While Abigail had only met Lovell twice, he was evidently quite taken with her as evidenced in his writing of forward and bold comments as a married man to a married woman. The author notes that Abigail played this precarious game for a reason, for she was in a “tug-of-war involving overt sexual advances by a powerful near stranger versus her own need for information as a wife of an important political figure.” (p. 117) Abigail was always eager for news of her husband and his work in Philadelphia, and later much more so when he and their eldest son John Quincy ventured to France on a diplomatic mission where the correspondence was spotty given distance and circumstance. Smith explains that “for five years Abigail tolerated Lovell’s cloaked but brazen advances, in exchange for help or information about John and John Quincy in Europe” that she was not privy to as a “private citizen.” (p. 118) Abigail’s clever navigation of her correspondence with Lovell illustrates just one instance of her keen mind and political sense, which she had cultivated much on her own.

The fact of her self-education in lieu of her own lack of formal schooling motivated Abigail to be a lifelong advocate for education for women, girls, and Freemen. Not only did Abigail believe women should be educated in their own right, but she further supported her argument by writing to her husband that “if [society] mean[s] to have heroes, statesmen, and philosophers, we should have learned women … great benefit must arise from literary accomplishments in women.” (p. 98) Such a notion surely aligns with the idea of “Republican Motherhood” popular at the time. Smith also recounts another little-known situation in which Abigail staunchly supported the education of a Black indentured servant boy working on the property. The boy, James, came to Abigail expressing his desire to attend a newly opened evening school, which Abigail supported. About a week into his attendance, a neighbor named Mr. Faxon came to Abigail’s door with complaints about the Black boy in the class. Abigail described the confrontation with Faxon in a letter to her husband, explaining that she turned Faxon’s argument back on him by pointing out that James attended the same church as the schoolboys and there had been no complaint there. She shot back at Faxon with, “because his face is black is he to be denied instruction? How is he to be qualified to procure a livelihood? Is this the Christian principle of doing unto others, as we would have others do to us?” (p. 244) Abigail essentially flustered the neighbor with her argument so much that he dropped it.

Abigail was known throughout her life as being an abolitionist and a supporter of Freemen despite having grown up in a home where her father owned six enslaved individuals. Abigail’s views on slavery are well-documented. She astutely noted the hypocrisy in fighting the British for freedom when many within the colonies, Founders included, owned individuals. Abigail wrote that she “wish[ed] most sincerely there was not a slave in the province. It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to [her]—fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.” (p. 44) She even privately ruminated to John that perhaps the war was a punishment for the existence of the institution in that the colonies must have “done evil or our enemies would be at peace with us. The sin of slavery as well as many others is not washed away … I think that the passion for Liberty cannot be equally strong in the breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow creatures of theirs.” (p. 76)

Abigail advocated for Black Americans not just within the context of slavery, but in education, as evidenced not only by the incident with James and neighbor Faxon but also with general friendship and support. After the death of her father, his only remaining slave, Phoebe, was freed. While Abigail and Nabby joined John and John Quincy in Europe, she left their house to the care of Phoebe and her husband Abdee. They had recently been married in the Adams home, Abigail later describing in a letter that she “gave them the liberty of celebrating their nuptials [t]here.” They were to stay in the house for free while the Adams family was abroad. Abigail stated she had “no doubt of their care and faithfulness, and prefer[ed] them to any other family.” (p. 153) When the Adams family returned, Abigail learned that Phoebe had been boarding homeless Freemen in the house. While this situation likely would have outraged some people of the time, Abigail’s reaction was quite the opposite. When she learned of this situation, she offered the Freemen jobs as servants which they accepted. She also moved Phoebe and Abdee to another house on the property at a reduced rent.

The author of this biography is keen to point out that Abigail was not without her own flaws and biases when it came to Black Americans or Africans. He notes that on the Atlantic crossing, she uncharacteristically called a ship’s cook “a great dirty lazy negro with no more knowledge of cookery than a savage.” (p. 156) Furthermore, after seeing a production of Othello in London, Abigail wrote to her sister that “Othello was represented blacker than any African. Whether it arises from the prejudices of education or from real natural antipathy I cannot determine, but my whole soul shuddered whenever I saw the sooty heretic Moor touch the fair Desdemona.” (p. 185) What is interesting here is that while Abigail is offput by the Black character, she also had enough self-awareness to wonder at and examine her own biases. Later in life, Abigail became quite a fan of Andrew Jackson. One can’t help but wonder if she knew about his treatment of Black and Indigenous people, and if so, how did she feel about it?

While Abigail was a life-long advocate for women, she also harbored personal biases on the appearances of others as well as thoughts very much shaped by the eighteenth century concept of womanhood, marriage, and motherhood. Abigail described sculptor Patience Wright as the “Queen of Sluts” (“slut” meaning unhygienic), and Benjamin Franklin’s “intimate” friend Madame Helvetius as shabbily dressed and without the manners of a lady. In a letter for her niece, Abigail wrote, “I was highly disgusted and never wish for an acquaintance with any ladies of this cast.” (p.164) Such comments from women, about women are still common today and Abigail’s petty comments should not overshadow the impact she made on the women around her. The “Remember the Ladies” letter to John Adams is perhaps her most notable, and for good reason. In it, she told her husband that women “will not hold [them]selves bound by any laws in which [they] have no voice, or representation.” (p. 85) And she most famously argued that her husband and his colleagues should “not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands,” telling John to “remember all men would be tyrants if they could … that your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute.” Abigail expressed her opinion of New Jersey’s early and progressive law that allowed land-owning, single women to vote (revoked in 1807), relating that if the Massachusetts “state constitution had been equally liberal with that of New Jersey and admitted females to a vote, [she] should have certainly exercised it.” (p. 249)

Despite such passionately progressive views, author John L. Smith, Jr. again points out that we must remember to view Abigail within the context of her time. Smith makes a valid point in arguing that despite such views, “she was not going to rebel against the existing social system that had been established for women and their role in it” (p. 49) and that to Abigail, “the purpose of the American Revolution was not to change society, which served as the underpinnings of civilization, but to change the government and its effect upon its citizens.” (p. 230) Perhaps in the same way that Abolitionist Founders knew they had to win the support of slaveholder lawmakers to achieve independence, Abigail knew that for independence to first be achieved, the powers that be could also not be “hindered” by changing the views of more conservative politicians on the rights of women and Black Americans.

Abigail’s shrewdness and understanding of the sociopolitical sphere blossomed over the course of her life. While John had always valued Abigail’s opinion on all things since their courting days, he later grew to heavily rely on her counsel in political matters. For example, he sent his draft of Thoughts on Government for her editorial notes, as well as a draft of his Vice-Presidential resignation letter for her comments; author Smith describes that John “realized he was … receiving excellent, cabinet-level advice from his wife. Abigail had become not only a shrewd partner, but a top-notch savvy political consultant.” (p. 242) John wrote to her while he was in Philadelphia for the Continental Congress, asking for her to join him and “assist [him] with [her] councils and console [him] with [her] conversation” and that he could “do nothing” without her. (p. 246) In another letter he said, “I think you shine as a stateswomen” (p. 82); high praise from a political heavy hitter of the day! What’s more, “groups of Bostonian men had agreed that if John Adams was elected president, but was to die suddenly in office, they should rather see Mrs. Adams in the Presidential chair than any other character now existing in America.” (p. 239)

While Abigail is known for being a political Founder in her own right, what some may not know is that she also had extraordinary financial and business acumen. Smith notes of her countless investments and business dealings, beginning with her 1777 purchase of Loan Office Certificates in a trustee name (for legal reasons) and the result of the Funding Act of 1790 in which she received a “generous interest payoff and security of the bonds … Abigail was thrilled with the step taken by Congress. She had made huge profits from her speculative investments which were endorsed by the federal government.” (p. 220) A driving force behind her investments was the creation of a pension account for female relatives and friends. While under the Law of Coverture Abigail technically did not “own” any money or property, she still made investments through her uncle’s name and built an account that was to be paid out upon her death. Smith notes that “Abigail had no problem with privately disregarding that law” (p. 175) with such a plan, and later, two years before her death, wrote a will. Smith again explains that Abigail’s “actions [in writing her own will] were illegal under the law” (p. 300) but “John took pains to ensure that Abigail’s last wishes were respected to the letter” (p. 320) even though he was under no legal obligation to do so. Later, “no legal challenge was ever raised about the document.” (p. 320) Abigail’s will listed nearly twenty women she had been saving and investing for in the pension fund throughout her life.

Abigail Adams continues to be a fascinating founder of America, and students of history and casual readers alike have a treasure trove of letters in which to study not just her beliefs, but also her distinct character. While much a woman of her time, she simultaneously enjoyed a unique and truly equitable partnership with her husband. John L. Smith, Jr. expertly captures the intellect, accomplishments, advocacy, and amusing quips of a woman who will be remembered for many years to come.

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  • I recently finished reading this book and am greatly impressed. This is the finest modern biography of Abigail Adams and should be required reading for every American. Her depth, her vision, her language is incredible. While I was reading I found myself thinking, “I wish I had known her – I wish I was able to talk with her.” That doesn’t happen often.

  • I have just read the first third of the book, and cannot put it down! It is so well researched and written, very interesting to get a glimpse of the times through the eyes of Abigail Adams, the wife and partner of John Adams. Considered to be an early feminist, she was educated and outspoken at a time when women were normally not “allowed” to be educated or independent. She was fortunate to have a husband who treasured her intellect. Strongly recommend this to anyone interested in knowing more about the lives of the “Founding Fathers” and the women who were partners in every sense.

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