While there has yet to be a female president, first ladies have been important in shaping many presidencies and their policies. In the start of a new series, Kate Murphy Schaefer goes back to the late 18th century and considers the importance of Abigail Adams to America and Founding Father John Adams.
With the recent passing of former first lady Barbara Bush, Americans are once again allowed to indulge in a favorite pastime: memorializing and waxing rhapsodic about their most public citizens. This is second only to the most popular pastime: ridiculing those same citizens for what they did and did not do. Presidents are elected; to some degree they understand and accept the level of scrutiny they will be under for the rest of their lives. First ladies are, as Barbara Bush’s daughter-in-law Laura said, “elected by one man,” but have to live under the same microscope as their husbands.
A first lady must be “a showman and a salesman, a clotheshorse and a publicity sounding board, with a good heart, and a real interest in the folks,” explained Lady Bird Johnson. If any of those traits seem contradictory, that is the point. There are no set guidelines outlining a first lady’s role and duties, but Americans expect them to conform to expectations that change quickly and often. Within this White-House-shaped cage, they are judged for what they wore, said, and did, and also for what they did not wear, say, or do.
Still, first ladies are privileged because their words and actions are considered important enough to include in the historical record. For most of American history, women were expected to be silent observers as men shaped the world in which they lived. Their stories were beneath notice, and therefore ignored and forgotten. America’s earliest first ladies were considered important because they were connected to important men. Abigail Smith Adams, wife of President John Adams, provides an excellent example.
The Political “Pest”
Born in 1744, Abigail Smith was raised in a family that was politically aware and active. Her maternal grandfather, John Quincy, held several positions in the Massachusetts government and encouraged his daughter and granddaughters to keep abreast of what was going on in the world outside the home. She was not formally educated, but her correspondence demonstrates she was extremely well-read and had an agile, searching mind. “In an age when women were content to take a backseat to their husbands and keep their mouths shut,” wrote historian Cormac O’Brien, “Abigail gave free rein to her extraordinary intellect.”
Abigail was most outspoken in her correspondence with husband John. When Adams left for Philadelphia for the Continental Congress in 1776, he left a very curious wife at home. Abigail “pestered the politicians for news” and asked her husband for updates in lengthy letters. “(T)ell me if you may where your Fleet are gone? What sort of Defence Virginia can make against our common Enemy? Whether it is situated as to make an able Defence?” she asked in a letter dated March 31, 1776. She was a stalwart defender of the Revolution and her husband, and was emboldened by her husband’s respect for her views. One of her most famous letters encouraged her husband to “remember the ladies” in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.
“Remember the Ladies”
“(I)n the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men could be tyrants if they could.”
In three sentences, Adams set forth the radical idea that protection under the law also applied to women. Use of the word tyrant was deliberate and effective, recalling John Locke’s warning that “wherever law ends, tyranny begins.” She intimated American men were no better than the British if they did not include the needs and opinions of women in the nation they created. She went so far as to predict women would “foment a Rebelion (sic)” if the new government did not grant them a voice, prompting John’s reply, “(a)s to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh.”
The female rebellion did not come to pass, but the Adams’ correspondence laid bare a distressing truth about the American experiment. Revolution created a new nation, but not a new society. Race, class, and gender narrowed the founders’ definition of who was entitled to the rights of life, liberty, and property. They overthrew the British colonial “tyrants” and took up the mantle themselves. “I have sometimes been ready to think that the Passion for Liberty cannot be Eaqually (sic) Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs,” wrote Abigail. These liberal views were exceptionally progressive during her time. It can be argued they were progressive two hundred years later as women campaigned for equal protection under the law with the Equal Rights Amendment.
Her opinions on women’s rights kept private, it was Abigail’s vocal support of her husband, that “tireless promoter of liberty and…abrasive pain in the ass,” that most influenced popular opinion of the first lady. As Adams and Thomas Jefferson squared off in the 1790s, Abigail was often caught in the crossfire. Her perceived influence on the President was exaggerated and therefore useful to political adversaries. They had no problem remembering the lady, calling her “Mrs. President” behind her back and arguing behind closed doors that she had “queenly aspirations.”
“My pen runs riot”
By 1797, Abigail well understood her position’s lack of privacy. “My pen runs riot. I forget that it must grow cautious and prudent. I fear I shall make a dull business when such restrictions are laid upon it.” Her fear was unfounded as she most certainly did not find being first lady a “dull business.” She expressed relief to finally leave the public eye when her husband left office. She never fully left the limelight, however. The first lady became “first mother” upon the election of her son President John Quincy Adams, namesake of the grandfather who had inspired her so many years before.
Abigail Adams spoke at a time women were supposed to be silent, and was politically aware when women were supposed to look no further than home and hearth. Her mind and opinions were extraordinary, so we are lucky her words were preserved. We should not forget that she was included in the historical record because of her connection to a powerful man. Though Abigail was far from ornamental in life, historians rendered her so after death. As historians continue studying the founding of our nation, they must work to “remember the ladies,” understanding the roles women played could be both hidden and important. For every woman recorded in the history books, the names and contributions of thousands more were lost. Would including women’s stories fundamentally alter our historical understanding of the American Revolution and the Early Republic? Probably not. But remembering the ladies would add new life to a history too long seen as cut and dried.
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 Laura Bush quoted in Kate Anderson Bower, First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies (New York: Harper Collins, 2017), 7.
 Lady Bird Johnson quoted in Ibid, 4.
 Cormac O’Brien, Secret Lives of the First Ladies (Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2005), 18.
 “Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March - 5 April 1776,” Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive, Massachusetts Historical Society, https://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17760331aa.
 John Locke, “Chapter XVIII: Of Tyranny,” Two Treatises of Government, Book II, section 202.
 O’Brien, 21.
 “Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 29 January 1797,” Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive, Massachusetts Historical Society, https://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17970129aa.
Bower, Kate Anderson. First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies. New York: Harper Collins, 2017.
“Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March - 5 April 1776,” Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive, Massachusetts Historical Society, https://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17760331aa.
“Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 29 January 1797,” Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive, Massachusetts Historical Society, https://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17970129aa.
Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. (1689).
O’Brien, Cormac. Secret Lives of the First Ladies. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2005.