Thank Goodness Abigail Smith Adams Loved to Write Letters Because They Show the Woman Behind the Public Image

Thank Goodness Abigail Smith Adams Loved to Write Letters Because They Show the Woman Behind the Public Image

Aug 07, 2023

Earlier this week, I saw My Dear Madam and was instantly inspired.

My Dear Madam is a performance researched, written and performed by one of our greats here in Colonial Williamsburg (CW), Katharine Pittman.

Because of it, you may see a future post on the creation and role of First Ladies, but in the meantime, I'm fascinated by letters. It was the premise of Katharine's creation: the friendship, found in writing, between Martha Washington and Abigail Adams. More specifically, the correspondence that took place as our first "President's Lady" left with her husband and the next was set to replace her.

So I sat down with my laptop, coffee on hand, (and of course, visited the Rockefeller Library!). Then dug into Abigail Smith Adams.

RELATED: Read this article by Katherine about researching primary sources and interpreting Martha and the letter that is the inspiration what is in this post!

writing this history blog at a coffee shop using my laptop

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Why I chose to dig deeper into Abigail Smith Adams' letters.

Using the actual sources, primary sources, to learn about history is vital. And what better source than one's own words?

One thing referenced by Katharine, the Adams' kept many letters - offering scholars like herself the opportunity to peek into their private lives and share it all with us.

And she is sooo right! There are so many letters Abigail wrote and received. She even writes about writing them as she "impatiently" awaited word from her husband and our 2nd President, John.

[Excerpt below re-written from My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams]

Feb'ry 26 1794 Quincy

my Dearest Friend,

Not receiving any Letters on Saturday evening I was so impatient that I sent James to Town on Sunday afternoon, and he brought me home your kind favours of the 8th 9th and 10th of this Month; I do not omit writing to you once a week, and sometimes twice.

(the letter continues)

handwritten letters using a quill pen

Photo by Digital Content Writers India on Unsplash

My Dearest Friend: the opening line of letters between husband and wife.

The letters between John and Abigail always seem to begin with "My Dearest Friend." I haven't studied enough letters between spouses to know if this was common, however, it's the first I've seen of it.

The letters I've been reading between the two cover everything from notes about racism, King Louis XVI's execution, the Adams' own servants including indentured, to health. From the snow covering the ground to updates on family members, no matter how history remembers this couple, they were as human, as emotional, as feeling, as full of life and you and I.

The letters between Mr. and Mrs. Jefferson, as well as those of Mr. and (both) Mrs. Henry(s) seem to be gone to history. And I heard today, (I need to get this verified) that Martha Washington burned her many of her letters. But I wish I could read any out there!

A few facts about Mrs. Adams - the public stuff.

Of course, there are very public things you can find on Mr. and Mrs. John Adams, so I'm dropping those as well. Pure facts, no human element.

  • Abigail married John Adams, future President, in 1764 at age 20.
  • She and Barbara Bush currently share the distinction of being both wife to one President and mother to another.
  • She was the 2nd "first lady" of the United States of America.
  • In 1818, she died at her home in Quincy, Massachusetts, of typhoid fever. (source here)

What about the woman, and complex individual, behind the facts?

Here are some excerpts on each of the topics above, all pulled from My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams.

On her love for John, this final paragraph on a letter written prior to marriage.

From Abigail Smith to John Adams

Weymouth, April 7, 1764

"Shall I come and see you before you go. No I wont, for I want not again, to experience what I this morning felt, when you left."

On her son's political aspirations and successes, she is open to him traveling the world. This portion of a letter about their sons, is in response to her learning John Quincy will accompany Francis Dana on a mission to Russia.

Abigail to John

Sepbr 29 1781

"I learn by mr Brush, that mr Dana is gone to Petersburgh, and with him master john. For this I am not sorry. Mr Danas care and attention to him, I shall be well satisfied in ---and Russia is an Empire I should be very fond of his visiting."

On her becoming the anticipated first lady, sharing advice to her husband, upon receiving word of President Washington's plan to retire:

Abigail to John

Quincy [MA] Febr'y 20 1796

"You write me fully assured that the P is unalterably determined to retire. This is an event not yet contemplated by the people at large. We must be attentive to their feelings and to their voice. No Successor, can expect such support as the P. has had...... You know what is before you, the whips and scorpions, the Thorns without Roses, the dangers anxieties and weight of Empire."

Portion of the final letter in this compilation, exhibiting in words the 2nd First Lady's popularity:

From Abigail to John

Philadelphia 21 February 1801

"I shall leave this city tomorrow. I believe there is scarcly a Lady who ever came to the drawing Room but has visited me, either old or young, and very many Gentlemen; as to return of their visits, they cannot expect it; I believe they have made a point of it; who published my arrival in the papers, I know not, but the next morning by ten oclock rainy as it was, they began to come and have continued it by throngs ever since. I thank them for their attention and politeness, tho I shall never see them again."

If you find letters at an estate sale, in your attic--or tucked in a piece of furniture even!-- please share them. I know that's cheeky, but seriously, share them- let's show the world the humans behind our history.

Where to learn more about Abigail Adams.

I'll close with these words from Abigail showing her human side just a little bit-- and a sentiment I clearly share.

"My bursting heart must find vent at my pen."

Abigail Adams, John Adams, L. H. Butterfield, Marc Friedlaender, Mary-Jo Kline (1975). “The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784”, p.90, UPNE

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There is a huge practical disclaimer to the content on this blog, which is my way of sharing my excitement and basically journaling online.

1) I am not a historian nor an expert. I will let you know I’m relaying the information as I understand and interpret it. The employees of Colonial Williamsburg base their presentations, work, and responses on historical documents and mainly primary sources.

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3) Photo credit to me, Daphne Reznik, for all photos in this post, unless otherwise credited! All photos are personal photos taken in public access locations or with specific permission.