by Gwen Fries, Adams Papers
Abigail Adams knew what to do. Whether her correspondent was nursing a broken heart or a broken arm, Abigail had the cure. She penned thousands of letters throughout her life offering advice on matters spiritual, botanical, financial, medical, and political.
But what would Abigail Adams do in the midst of a pandemic? Fortunately, with the trove of letters Abigail left us from the 1776 smallpox epidemic, the question is not “What would Abigail do?” but rather “What did Abigail do?”
First, Abigail kept herself informed and was proactive. Abigail had already lived through a smallpox epidemic in 1764 and knew the importance of staying ahead of the disease. On 17 June 1776, she wrote to John that inoculation was beginning. “Dr. Bulfinch has petitiond the General Court for leave to open a Hospital some where, and it will be granted him. I shall with all the children be one of the first class you may depend upon it.”
Second, Abigail heeded the advice of medical professionals. Doctors encouraged patients to remain in peak physical form to fight the disease. “We are ordered all the Air we can get,” Abigail wrote on 29 July. “[We] abstain from Spirit, Salt and fats, fruit we Eat, all we can get, and those who like vegetables unseasond may Eat them, but that is not I.” In the same letter, Abigail lamented that their isolation was extended several weeks by the doctor’s uncertainty that the inoculation took with each child, but she trusted his judgment. “This doubtfull Buisness is very dissagreable as it will detain us much longer, but there are several instances now of persons who thought they had had it, and were recoverd, and lived away freely, and now are plentifully dealt by.”
Third, Abigail sought solace when the stress got to be too much. This solace mainly came in the form of candid letters to her husband. “This Suspence is painfull,” she wrote on 30 July. “Tis a pestilence that walketh in Darkness.” She was homesick and stir-crazy and longed “for the sweet air of Braintree.” On 1 August, she acknowledged that “I forget one day what I wrote the day before. This small pox is a great confuser of the mind, I am really put to it to spell the commonest words.”
John empathized, writing on 23 July, “You will find several dull Hours, and the Children will fatigue you.” On 10 August, he wrote, “This Suspence and Uncertainty must be very irksome to you. But Patience and Perseverance, will overcome this, as well as all other Difficulties. Dont think of Time, nor Expence.”
Abigail kept herself informed, was proactive, and monitored her physical and mental health. But above all, Abigail wrote. During the two months that Abigail and the children were isolated with smallpox, Abigail wrote more than 15 letters to John detailing their experience. “I believe you will be tired of hearing of small pox,” Abigail wrote to John on 29 July. She filled page after page with information not only about herself, but about their neighbors, their servants, and what information she received from the outside world.
Because of Abigail, we can feel and know what it was like to live through the smallpox epidemic in 1776. The MHS invites you to bear witness to history the same way Abigail did. Tell us about your experience living through the COVID-19 pandemic. Historians of the future will thank you. Someday someone might even write a blog post about you.