“We Should Have Learned Women”

Sara Martin, Adams Papers

“If we mean to have Heroes, Statesmen and Philosophers, we should have learned women,” Abigail Adams declared to her husband John on 14 August 1776. The powerful statement may seem familiar to some—it was the fan favorite among a field of 32 contenders in the Abigail’s All-Stars bracket earlier this year. It is also one of the manuscripts currently on view in the Massachusetts Historical Society exhibit, Abigail Adams: Independence & Ideals.

Abigail Adams letter
Detail of letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 14 August 1776.

The display provides a glimpse of Abigail’s views from the political center of the emerging nation, including several letters written as the events of 1776 unfolded. “I cannot but feel sorry that some of the most Manly Sentiments in the Declaration are Expunged from the printed coppy,” Abigail wrote to John on 13 July 1776, just days before she “went with the Multitude into Kings Street to hear the proclamation for independance read” from the “Belcona” of the State House on 18 July. She was likely referring to the condemnation of slavery that she had read in an early draft of the Declaration but was absent from the final version.

Detail of Abigail Adams letter
Detail of letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 13 July 1776

As Abigail knew there was often a gap between theory and practice, she viewed education as critical to upholding republican principles. “I most sincerely wish that some more liberal plan might be laid and executed for the Benefit of the rising Generation, and that our new constitution may be distinguished for Learning and Virtue,” Abigail opined. “If much depends as is allowed upon the early Education of youth and the first principals which are instilld take the deepest root, great benifit must arise from litirary accomplishments in women.” John wholeheartedly agreed with his wife, replying on 25 August: “Your Sentiments of the Importance of Education in Women, are exactly agreable to my own. . . . In reading History you will generally observe, when you light upon a great Character, whether a General, a Statesman, or Philosopher, some female about him either in the Character of a Mother, Wife, or Sister, who has Knowledge and Ambition above the ordinary Level of Women, and that much of his Emminence is owing to her Precepts, Example, or Instigation, in some shape or other.” For the founding couple, education was key to sustaining the new nation.

Letter from John Adams
Detail of letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 25 August 1776

The Abigail Adams: Independence & Ideals exhibit will be on display through 21 September as part of the Society’s Remember Abigail events that spotlight the life and legacy of the nation’s second First Lady. The shared website www.RememberAbigail.org includes a calendar of MHS and partner events and other information about the commemoration. We encourage you to post your Abigail reflections to social media using #RememberAbigail.