“My dear Daughter”: John and the other Abigail Adams

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

The first extant letter from John Adams to his daughter was written on 19 Sept. 1774, when Nabby was nine years old. He opened the letter by praising the “Improvement in your hand Writing and in the faculties of the Mind” but quickly transitioned into talking about her brothers, filling the page with advice he wanted Nabby to convey to them.

We don’t have any evidence of how Nabby may have reacted to this snub—if she perceived it as such—but John Adams’s next extant letter provides some clarity. In it, Adams encourages his daughter to be “more attentive than ever to the instructions and examples of your mamma and your aunts. They I know will give you every assistance in forming your heart to goodness and your mind to useful knowledge, as well as to those other accomplishments which are peculiarly necessary and ornamental in your sex.”

Aha. Adams had suggestions of books to fill his sons’ time and of virtues to fill their heads. He was consciously raising lawyers and future statesmen to take over the governance of the nation he was trying to build. But when it came to a quiet nine-year-old girl, he was stumped. What was her future? To become a wife. What advice could he give her? Take after your mother.

He even seemed to have had trouble finding things to correct in her character. “I shall not lay down any rules for your behaviour in life,” he wrote on 2 Dec. 1778, “because I know the steadiness of your mind, your modesty and discretion.” John’s inability to think up advice for his daughter led to some painfully dry letters like this one from 1777 where he described attending a Scots’ Presbyterian Church service. (This may interest scholars of religion. It probably did not interest an eleven-year-old girl.)

Abigail Adams Smith, miniature portrait on porcelain tile by an unidentified artist, [18--]
Abigail Adams 2d, known to her family as “Nabby.”
On the rare occasions he saw an opportunity to correct Nabby, he overcompensated, like in this 26 Sept. 1782 letter in which he overreacts to Nabby asking for a small present. “Taste is to be conquered, like unruly appetites and passions, or the mind is undone,” he wrote. “There are more thorns sown in the path of human life by vanity, than by any other thing.”

His message was taken to heart. In her next letter to him, Nabby wrote, “I assure you my Dear Sir that I have suffered, not a little mortification, whenever I reflected that I have requested a favour of you that your heart and judgment did not readily assent to grant. Twas not that your refusal pained me, but the consciousness that there was an impropriety, in my soliciting whatever you should consider incompattiable to comply with. It has rendered me so througherly dissatisfied with my own oppinion and judgment, that I shall for the future take care to avoid the possibility of erring in a similar manner.”

Even John Adams knew he had overreacted, backpedaling with, “I know your disposition to be thoughtful and serene, and therefore I am not apprehensive of your erring much in this way” and closed the letter by assuring Nabby of his “inexpressible tenderness of heart” for her.

Ironically, it was his daughter, the person he seemed to find it hardest in all the world to advise, to whom he gave the best advice: “To be good, and to do good, is all We have to do.”

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