Abigail Adams's rich extant correspondence extends from 1761, her seventeenth year, to just before her death in 1818. In this half century she exchanged letters with a wide variety of correspondents, and turned her pen to an even wider variety of subjects. Men and women, sons and daughter, sisters, uncles, aunts, nieces, cousins, in-laws, friends from childhood, and a handful of non-related but brilliant public figures from several states were all treated to her acute observations and strong opinions upon matters of particular interest to her family, events in her hometown, issues that agitated all of Massachusetts, and major questions of national politics and international diplomacy. Interspersed with this commentary on the news were her general thoughts on education, history, and literature, and her insightful descriptions and comparisons of religion and social customs, and the staging of public events--festivals and parades, concerts and the theater--in Boston, London, and Paris.
At the center of this extraordinary woman's letter-writing career was her voluminous correspondence with her husband, John Adams. And the central theme of this correspondence was the Adamses' mutual concern for the political--and moral--state of their country. In the spring of 1776, after eighteen months of unusually voluminous correspondence with John, who was serving in the Continental Congress, Abigail was reaching the peak of her powers as a political analyst. Dazzled by her unexpected talents, John Adams wrote to her on 27 May 1776: "I think you shine as a Stateswoman of late, as well as a Farmeress. Pray where do you get your Maxims of State, they are very apropos [?]"1
Nothing Abigail ever wrote better exemplifies this gift than her celebrated "Remember the Ladies" letter of 31 March 1776. The full passage shown here is worthy of quotation:
I long to hear that you have declared an independency—and by the way in 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 powers into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend. Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in immitation of the Supreem Being make use of that power only for our happiness.2
In his reply to this remarkable letter, on April 14, John displayed both his embarrassment at Abigail's telling criticism, and his wit in deflecting it:
As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient--that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent--that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented. --This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I wont blot it out.Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems. Altho they are in full Force, you know they are little more than Theory. We dare not exert our Power in its full Latitude. We are obliged to go fair, and softly, and in Practice you know We are the subjects. We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would compleatly subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat, I hope General Washington, and all our brave Heroes would fight.3
Abigail's celebrated plea has drawn more serious attention from modern scholars, and has placed her, in the minds of many, in the role of a pioneering feminist. If by feminist one means a person convinced of the fundamental equality of women with men, and committed to improving the position of women in society and removing all inequalities before the law, then Abigail qualifies. The twentieth-century reader, however, should note that her concern was not with equality of political participation, which she did not advocate for women, but for equality before the law, particularly with respect to property rights and the right to the protection of the law within marriage. In this concern she anticipated the principal objectives of those who would campaign for women's rights in America in the several decades following the American Revolution.
1. Adams Family Correspondence. L.H. Butterfield et al., eds. Cambridge, Mass., 1963-1973, 1:420.
2. Ibid., 1:369-370.
3. Ibid., 1:382. John Adams considered and justified the exclusion of women from voting in a letter to James Sullivan, 26 May 1776, in Adams 1977, 4:208-213.