The First Lady of John Adams

President John Adams’ wife, Abigail Adams, served as an unofficial adviser throughout his career. Their letters show him seeking her advice on a variety of issues, including his presidential ambitions. After her husband was elected president in 1797, Adams remained a supportive spouse and confidante, and her eldest son, John Quincy, would become president seven years later, in 1825.

Early Life

According to the Gregorian calendar, Abigail Smith was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, on November 11, 1744. She was a devoted reader, having studied the works of William Shakespeare and John Milton, among others, as the daughter of a minister. On the other hand, Adams did not attend school, which was typical for girls.

Abigail Smith and John Adams were third cousins who had been friends since they were children. The two met at a gathering in 1761, and John saw the petite, shy 17-year-old through new eyes and was instantly smitten. Three years later, the couple married, and their first child, a daughter named Abigail, was born in 1765. With the additions of John Quincy in 1767, Susanna in 1768, Charles in 1770, and Thomas Boylston in 1772, their family continued to grow. Unfortunately, Susanna died as a toddler, and the family later suffered another tragedy when Abigail gave birth to a stillborn daughter in 1777.

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Marriage to John Adams

John Adams spent so much time away from home due to his busy law practice. This situation deteriorated as he became involved in the American Revolution and the Revolutionary War. Abigail was frequently left to shoulder a large portion of the burden at home, raising their children and caring for the family farm. The couple remained close by writing to each other on a regular and intimate basis. It is estimated that they exchanged over 1,100 letters.

Abigail Adams expressed concern about how women would be treated while John was busy forming a new government. In one of the numerous letters she wrote to her husband. Aside from the odd spellings, Abigail frequently discussed political issues with her husband. Abigail was her husband’s unofficial adviser throughout his career. Their letters show him seeking her advice on a variety of topics, including his presidential ambitions.

Following the revolution, Abigail joined her husband in France and later in England, where he continued to serve as the first American minister to the Court of St. James from 1785 to 1788. When her husband was appointed vice president the following year, Abigail only stayed in Washington for a portion of the time, frequently returning to Massachusetts to tend to their farm and other business matters. While in the capital, she assisted First Lady Martha Washington in entertaining dignitaries and other officials in New York.

Political Involvement

After her husband was elected president in 1797, Abigail remained a supportive spouse and confidante. Some decried Abigail’s power over her husband, referring to her as “Mrs. President.” When she was in Philadelphia, the country’s capital at the time, the nation’s second first lady kept a busy schedule. Abigail got up early to take care of family and household matters, and she spent the rest of the day greeting visitors and hosting events. Because of her health, she still spent a lot of time in Massachusetts.

On policy issues, Abigail and John did not always agree. During her husband’s presidency, the U.S. had some disagreements with France. Once a great ally, France was in the midst of a revolution when John was elected president. The country was governed by a five-person executive council known as the Directory and a legislative body. The Directory had halted trade with the U.S. and refused to meet with any U.S. envoys. They informed President Adams in 1798 that French officials would hold talks in exchange for hefty bribes. This extortion attempt did not sit well with him, and he told Congress about it. The documents related to the incident were made public. The entire incident became known as the X, Y, Z Affair because President Adams had only used letters to identify the French officials rather than their names. Abigail believed that war should be declared, whereas John sought a peaceful, less expensive solution.

However, the couple did agree on the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The three alien acts were aimed at immigrants, increasing the waiting period for naturalization, granting the government the authority to detain foreign subjects, and allowing the deportation of any alien deemed dangerous. The Sedition Act established a federal prohibition on malicious anti-government writings and other works that incite opposition to Congress or the president. Penalties under the act included fines and jail time. Abigail, an ardent supporter of her husband, believed that those who spread lies about John should be punished. President Adams signed these acts into law, and historians have since chastised him for this anti-immigrant, anti-free speech legislation.



Life as the First Lady

Abigail Adams was John Adams’s wife and closest advisor and John Quincy Adams’s mother. She is occasionally considered a founding father of the United States and is now known as the first, second lady, and second the first lady of the United States. However, she did not use these titles at the moment. Abigail and Barbara Bush are the only two women in American history to have been able to marry one president and the mother of another.

Adams’s life is one of the most well-documented of all the First Ladies: she is best remembered for the numerous letters she wrote to her husband in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for the Continental Congresses. John frequently sought Abigail’s advice on various issues, and their correspondence is replete with intellectual exchanges about politics and government. Her letters also serve as witness account of life on the home front during the American Revolutionary War.

Later Life and Death

The Adams family learned of their second son Charles’s death, linked to his alcoholism, who defeated her husband in the 1800 election by Thomas Jefferson. The Adams family moved to Washington, D.C., the nation’s new capital, where they became the first occupants of the White House, with heavy hearts. While living in the new capital’s early days, Abigail wrote many letters to family members lamenting the unfinished state of their new home. After John resigned from office in 1801, they returned to their farm in their hometown within a few months.

The couple was able to spend time together now that John was retired. A young Abigail (nicknamed Nabby) died of cancer at her family’s home in 1814 while her mother, Abigail, continued to run the farm and care for the family members. Abigail had been battling her health for decades when she suffered a stroke in October 1818 and died on October 28, 1818, at home with her family.

If you want to read the brief biography of John Adams, click the link.