Abigail Adams was born at the North Parish Congregational Church in Weymouth, Massachusetts, to The Reverend William Smith (1707-1783) and Elizabeth (née Quincy) Smith. On her mother’s side she was descended from the Quincy family, a well-known political family in the Massachusetts colony. Through her mother she was a cousin of Dorothy Quincy, wife of John Hancock. Adams was also the great-granddaughter of The Reverend John Norton, founding pastor of Old Ship Church in Hingham, Massachusetts, the only remaining 17th-century Puritan meetinghouse in Massachusetts.
As with several of her ancestors, Adams’s father was a liberal Congregationalist minister: a leader in a Yankee society that held its clergy in high esteem. Smith did not focus his preaching on predestination or original sin; instead he emphasized the importance of reason and morality. Adams was a sickly child and was not considered healthy enough for formal schooling. Although she did not receive a formal education, her mother taught her and her sisters Mary (1739–1811) and Elizabeth (1742–1816, known as Betsy) to read, write and cipher; her father’s, uncle’s and grandfather’s large libraries enabled the sisters to study English and French literature. As an intellectually open-minded woman for her day, Adams’ ideas on women’s rights and government would eventually play a major role, albeit indirectly, in the founding of the United States. She became one of the most erudite women ever to serve as First Lady.
Smith married Elizabeth Quincy in 1742, and together they had four children, including three daughters: one born in 1743, Abigail born in 1744 and another born in 1745. Their only son, born in 1746, died of alcoholism in 1787. In 1764 Smith presided over the marriage of John Adams and his daughter. In July of 1775 his wife Elizabeth, with whom he had been married for 33 years, died of smallpox. In 1784, at age 77, Smith died.
As third cousins. Abigail and John had known each other since they were children. In 1762, John accompanied his friend Richard Cranch to the Smith household. Cranch was engaged to Adams’ older sister, Mary. John was quickly attracted to the petite, shy, 17-year-old brunette who was forever bent over some book. He was surprised to learn she knew so much about poetry, philosophy and politics, considered unusual for a woman at the time.
Although Adams’ father approved of the match, her mother was appalled that her daughter would marry a country lawyer whose manners still reeked of the farm, but eventually she gave in. The couple married on October 25, 1764, five days before John’s 29th birthday, in the Smiths’ home in Weymouth. Then Rev. Smith (the bride’s father) performed the nuptials. After the reception, the couple mounted a single horse and rode off to their new home, the small cottage and farm John had inherited from his father in Braintree, Massachusetts. Later they moved to Boston, where his law practice expanded.
In 10 years, she gave birth to six children:
Abigail (“Nabby”) (1765–1813)
John Quincy Adams (1767–1848)
Grace Susanna (“Susanna”, nicknamed “Suky”) (1768–70)
Thomas Boylston Adams (1772–1832)
Elizabeth (stillborn in 1777)
Adams was responsible for family and farm when her husband was on his long trips. “Alas!”, she wrote in December 1773, “How many snow banks divide thee and me.” She raised her two younger sons throughout John’s prolonged absences. She also raised her elder grandchildren, including George Washington Adams and a younger John Adams, while John Quincy Adams was minister to Russia. Her childrearing style included relentless and continual reminders of what the children owed to virtue and the Adams tradition.
In 1784, she and her daughter Nabby joined her husband and her eldest son, John Quincy, at her husband’s diplomatic post in Paris. After 1785, she filled the role of wife of the first U.S. minister to the Court of St James’s (Britain). They returned in 1788 to a house known as the “Old House” in Quincy, which she set about vigorously enlarging and remodeling. It is still standing and open to the public as part of Adams National Historical Park. Nabby later died of breast cancer, having endured three years of severe pain.
When John was elected President of the United States, Abigail continued a formal pattern of entertaining. With the removal of the capital to Washington in 1800, she became the first First Lady to preside over the White House, or President’s House as it was then known. The city was wilderness, the President’s House far from completion. She found the unfinished mansion in Washington “habitable” and the location “beautiful”; but she complained that, despite the thick woods nearby, she could find no one willing to chop and haul firewood for the First Family. Adams’ health, never robust, suffered in Washington. She took an active role in politics and policy, unlike the quiet presence of Martha Washington. She was so politically active, her political opponents came to refer to her as “Mrs. President”.
After John’s defeat in his presidential re-election campaign, the family retired to Quincy in 1800. Abigail followed her son’s political career earnestly, as her letters to her contemporaries show. In later years, she renewed correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, whose political opposition to her husband had hurt her deeply. Abigail and John’s marriage is well documented through their correspondence and other writings. Letters exchanged throughout John’s political obligations indicate his trust in Abigail’s knowledge was sincere. “She could quote poetry more readily than could John Adams,” states McCullogh. Their correspondence illuminated their mutual emotional and intellectual respect. John often excused himself to Abigail for his “vanity”, exposing his need for her approval.
Adams was an advocate of married women’s property rights and more opportunities for women, particularly in the field of education. Women, she believed, should not submit to laws not made in their interest, nor should they be content with the simple role of being companions to their husbands. They should educate themselves and thus be recognized for their intellectual capabilities, so they could guide and influence the lives of their children and husbands. She is known for her March, 1776 letter to John and the Continental Congress, requesting that they, “…remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”
John declined Abigail’s “extraordinary code of laws,” but acknowledged to Abigail, “We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight.”
Along with her husband, Adams believed that slavery was evil and a threat to the American democratic experiment. A letter written by her on March 31, 1776, explained that she doubted most of the Virginians had such “passion for Liberty” as they claimed they did, since they “deprive[d] their fellow Creatures” of freedom.
A notable incident regarding this happened in Philadelphia in 1791, where a free black youth came to her house asking to be taught how to write. Subsequently, she placed the boy in a local evening school, though not without objections from a neighbor. Adams responded that he was “a Freeman as much as any of the young Men and merely because his Face is Black, is he to be denied instruction? How is he to be qualified to procure a livelihood? … I have not thought it any disgrace to my self to take him into my parlor and teach him both to read and write.”
Adams, as well as her husband, was an active member of First Parish Church in Quincy, which became Unitarian in doctrine by 1753. Like her husband, her theological views evolved over the course of her life. In a letter to her son near the end of her life, dated May 5, 1816, she wrote of her religious beliefs: I acknowledge myself a unitarian – Believing that the Father alone, is the supreme God, and that Jesus Christ derived his Being, and all his powers and honors from the Father … There is not any reasoning which can convince me, contrary to my senses, that three is one, and one three. She also asked Louisa Adams in a letter dated January 3, 1818, “When will Mankind be convinced that true Religion is from the Heart, between Man and his creator, and not the imposition of Man or creeds and tests?”
Adams died on October 28, 1818, of typhoid fever. She is buried beside her husband in a crypt located in the United First Parish Church (also known as the Church of the Presidents) in Quincy, Massachusetts. She was 73 years old, exactly two weeks shy of her 74th birthday. Her last words were, “Do not grieve, my friend, my dearest friend. I am ready to go. And John, it will not be long.”
- November, 22, 1744
- Weymouth, Massachusetts
- October, 28, 1818
- Quincy, Massachusetts
- United First Parish Church
- Quincy, Massachusetts