Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 21 February 1801
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Abigail Adams wrote to her husband President John Adams on 21 February 1801 from Philadelphia en route from Washington, D.C., to Quincy, Mass. In it, she provided John with an update about how the election of Thomas Jefferson as President of the United States was received. This letter is the last of nearly 1,200 extant letters that John and Abigail exchanged between 1762 and 1801. John's retirement from public service in 1801 meant that they had no need to exchange letters because they were not separated for any significant amount of time during the remaining seventeen years of their marriage. (Abigail died in 1818 and John died eight years later, in 1826.)
An Outgoing First Lady
On 3 December 1800 presidential electors across the United States convened in their respective states to cast their votes. Sixty-five-year-old incumbent President John Adams faced opposition within his Federalist Party but was also challenged by his vice president, Thomas Jefferson. Electioneering had been fierce, and both Federalists and Democratic-Republicans had mobilized supporters and vilified opponents.
It was another two months before the official results were declared, but prior to that, speculation abounded that Jefferson and New York's Aaron Burr had defeated Adams and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina. Pinckney's home state was rumored to have delivered unanimous support to Jefferson and Burr, prompting Abigail to write to her son Thomas Boylston Adams on 13 December 1800, "S Carolin has behaved as Your Father always Said She would." Abigail recognized the significance of South Carolina's votes: "the concequence to us personally, is that We retire from public Life." "For myself and family I have few regreets," she continued, "at My age and with my bodily infirmities I shall be happier at Quincy. neither my habits, or My Education or inclinations, have led Me to an expensive stile of living; So on that score I have little to mourn over; if I did not rise with Dignity, I can at least fall with ease; which is the more difficult task."
The official results, tabulated and announced to a joint session of Congress by Jefferson on 11 February 1801, revealed an electoral tie between Jefferson and Burr; each had 73 votes. Adams's defeat was confirmed; he received 65 votes, one more than Pinckney. Adams's presidency would end in less than a month. For Abigail, who had advised and supported John throughout his public career, it was time to prepare for retirement. "My own intention," she told Thomas Boylston, "is to return to Quincy as soon as I conveniently can."
Abigail departed Washington, D.C., for Quincy on 13 February 1801. That same day, well over a year after it was first introduced, John Adams signed the U.S. Judiciary Act into law, which among other reforms created sixteen new federal judgeships. Abigail arrived in Baltimore later that day. Fatigued from her journey, she informed John, "I am not so weary however as to have lost my curiosity about the fate of the Election," which was then being determined by the House of Representatives. By 17 February, she was in Philadelphia. Earlier that day, the House, in its thirty-sixth ballot, had elected Jefferson as president. By the 19th Jefferson's election was widely reported in the Philadelphia press.
On 21 February Abigail wrote to John again from Philadelphia, noting, "I want to see the list of judges." Three days earlier, he had issued the first in a series of nominations to the U.S. Judiciary that later became known as his "midnight appointments." Yet the appointments were not a byproduct of, or response to, Adams's or the Federalists' defeat in the election of 1800. The origins of the Judiciary Act of 1801 predated the election, and reforming the U.S. judicial system was a cause Adams supported throughout much of his public career. For instance, in his 3 December 1799 opening message to the first session of the sixth Congress, he described the judiciary's restructuring as "indispensably necessary." Abigail appreciated the importance of the judicial nominations, too, and even though she was in Philadelphia, she continued to be interested in the twilight of John's public career, writing "I wish You well through the remainder of Your political journey." With less than two weeks left in office, John Adams issued additional judicial nominations on 23, 25, 26 February and 2 March 1801, all of which were confirmed by the Senate.
From October 2018 to November 2019, the Massachusetts Historical Society and other Massachusetts cultural organizations will "Remember Abigail" by offering engaging programs and educational opportunities that explore the life and legacy of Abigail Adams. Join us at an event and post your reflections about Abigail on social media using #RememberAbigail. Learn more at Remember Abigail.
This letter is part of the Adams Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society and will be published by the Adams Papers Editorial Project in the forthcoming volume 14 of the Adams Family Correspondence (Harvard University Press, 2019). It is also available in My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams (2007), p. 475–476, and online at the Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive.
Adams Papers Digital Edition, which features Abigail Adams's correspondence with John Adams between 1762 and 1797.
Ellis, Joseph J. First Family: Abigail and John. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.
Founders Online, which features Early Access Documents of Abigail Adams's letters through her death in 1818.
Freeman, Joanne B. Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the Early Republic. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
Gelles, Edith. Abigail & John: Portrait of a Marriage. New York: William Morrow, 2009.
Gelles, Edith. Portia: The World of Abigail Adams. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.
Hogan, Margaret A. and C. James Taylor, ed. My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams, ed. Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.
Holton, Woody. Abigail Adams: A Life. New York: Free Press, 2009.
Levin, Phyllis Lee. Abigail Adams: A Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.
Turner, Kathryn. "Federalist Policy and the Judiciary Act of 1801." William and Mary Quarterly 22, No. 1. January 1965. Pp. 3–32.
Woodward, Hobson and Sara Martin, Christopher F. Minty, Amanda M. Norton, Neal Millikan, Gwen Fries, and Sara Georgini, ed. Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 14. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019.