MHS News

MHS Makes Winning Bid for Abigail Adams Letter in Recent Sotheby’s Auction

The Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) is delighted to announce its recent acquisition of a letter written by Abigail Adams from Quincy, MA on October 18, 1800, to Dr. Benjamin Rush, responding to criticisms against her husband during the presidential campaign. The letter was auctioned at Sotheby’s on April 14 as part of the James S. Copley Library, a collection of letters and documents from the Revolutionary period signed by such notable figures as John and Abigail Adams, Samuel Adams, Ethan Allen, John Hancock, and George Washington. The acquisition was made possible by a gift to the MHS from an anonymous donor.

The MHS chose this particular letter not only because it will complement and enhance the Society’s Adams Family Papers collection but also because it demonstrates Abigail Adams's engagement in early American politics. This is the first contested presidential campaign in the history of the United States and Abigail Adams demonstrates both her involvement in her husband’s career and her keen grasp of the issues at hand. She writes, "If there can be any measures calculated to excite a wish in the breasts of our Countrymen for a permanent executive Majestrate, it must arise from the corruption of morals introduced by frequent Elections, from the indecent calumny which sports with the purest Characters; and strives to level them with the meanest; which filches from the most meritorious, that which is dearer than life their good name—that previous ointment which they have stored up to embalm their memory."

“The Adams Papers editors at the MHS have been aware of the Abigail Adams letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush for more than fifty years and are thrilled to have it as part of our collection. The document was offered at auction as early as 1943, when the suggested price was a mere $45,”
commented Jim Taylor, Adams Papers Editor-in-Chief. “It is an excellent example of the first lady’s interest in and knowledge of early national politics. The MHS owns Abigail’s draft of the letter. The document recently obtained by the MHS is the final version that she sent, and is significantly different than the draft,” he explains. “This letter, when compared to the draft, demonstrates the great care that she took in expressing her ideas.”

Published: Friday, 16 April, 2010, 1:29 PM