By Sara Georgini, Adams Papers
The First Lady was lost. Nine miles off the main road, Abigail Adams, 56, hacked her way through the thick woods bordering Baltimore and the “wilderness city” of Washington, D.C. Eager to join husband John in the new capital, Abigail had left Quincy in early November 1800 with two servants. By Saturday the 15th, they had fallen a few days off course. For two hours, a frustrated Abigail circled the same forest paths—a precious gulf of travel time gone, since they only rode in daylight, and local inns were scarce. Abigail (accurately) reckoned that 36 miles of rough and lonely land lay ahead. She forged on, “holding down & breaking bows of trees which we could not pass,” as she told sister Mary Smith Cranch, “untill we met a Solitary black fellow with a horse and cart. We inquired of him our way, and he kindly offered to conduct us.” Abigail hired him on the spot. Following his directions, by Sunday afternoon she reached her new home, “a Castle of a House…in a beautifull Situation” with a “romantic” view of the Potomac River.
Abigail Adams’ trove of letters, as national convention-watchers have recently reminded us, supply a unique view of slavery and of the African-American experience in the new republic. When First Lady Michelle Obama reiterated on Monday that slave labor built the White House, many viewers turned to founding-era papers, including those of the Adams family, for details. Enter Abigail. One of the second First Lady’s D.C. dispatches, back in popular circulation again this week, lists her candid observation of slaves at work outside the President’s House window. Here’s an extract of the 28 Nov. 1800 letter to Cotton Tufts that got Abigail Adams trending on Facebook and lighting up Twitter:
“The effects of Slavery are visible every where; and I have amused myself from day to day in looking at the labour of 12 negroes from my window, who are employd with four small Horse carts to remove some dirt in front of the house. The four carts are all loaded at the Same time, and whilst four carry this rubish about half a mile, the remaining eight rest upon their Shovels, two of our hardy N England men would do as much work in a day, as the whole 12; but it is true Republicanism that drive the Slaves half fed, and destitute of cloathing, or fit for May faire, to labour, whilst the owner waches about Idle, tho his one Slave is all the property he can boast. Such is the case of many of the inhabitants of this place.”
Such a public display of slavery in the nation’s capital distressed Abigail Adams, although a New England upbringing had not shielded her from its misery. Her father William Smith, a Weymouth clergyman, owned several slaves who were freed upon his death in 1783.“I wish most sincerely there was not a Slave in the province,” Abigail wrote to her husband in 1774, as demands for American liberty grew. A staunch antislavery advocate, Abigail was furious when the Declaration of Independence’s “most Manly Sentiments,” denouncing the slave trade, were, after debate, heavily struck from the final draft. Plain-spoken about the need for African-American freedom on paper, Abigail’s actions also merit a quick review. She employed her father’s former slave, Phoebe Abdee, to run the family farm. She educated African-American servants in her Quincy parlor. When a neighbor balked at Abigail sending one of her staff, James, to school, she argued for him in a letter to John: “The Boy is 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? Is this the Christian principle of doing to others, as we would have others do to us?” Then Abigail pivoted to quash James’ toughest critic: “Tell them Mr. Faxon that I hope we shall all go to Heaven together. Upon which Faxon laugh’d, and thus ended the conversation. I have not heard any more upon the subject.” The question of James’ education was settled in 1797. Three busy years later, Abigail set out for the President’s House.
Abigail, a hardy traveler, took advantage of every panorama and every person she met. Given a new window on the world, Abigail used it. Barely a month into her D.C. stay, Abigail accepted an invitation to visit Martha Washington, now the General’s widow, at Mount Vernon. The rooms she found “small and low,” and the “greatest Ornament” to the visitor’s eye, Abigail decided, was a long piazza that knit together the Potomac’s gauzy blue-grey with lush green lawn. Signs of decay, the New Englander wrote, now threatened parts of the plantation’s beauty. Abigail’s unique summit with her old friend and colleague is worth a ponder. What did the two First Ladies discuss? We know one topic for certain: Slaves. Specifically, Abigail wrote to her sister Mary Smith Cranch on 21 December 1800, the deepening anxiety that Martha, “with all her fortune finds it difficult to support her family, which consists of three Hundred souls.” With 150 Mount Vernon slaves on the brink of emancipation, Abigail wrote that Martha was “distrest” for the fate of “Men with wives & young children who have never Seen an acre, beyond the farm. are now about to quit it, and go adrift into the world without house Home or Friend.”
This rich letter, held in the Adams-Cranch Papers here at the Massachusetts Historical Society, contains Abigail’s description of plantation life and underlines her antislavery creed. “If any person wishes to see the banefull effects of slavery. as it creates a torpor and an indolence and a Spirit of domination,” Abigail wrote, “let them come and take a view of the cultivation of this part of the United States. I shall have reason to Say. that my Lot hath fallen to me in a pleasant place. and that verily I have a goodly Heritage.” Mount Vernon gave Abigail another President’s House window from which to see America’s slaves, and the thorny road ahead.