Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Abigail Adams (1744–1818)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Lucia Gilbert Runkle (1844–1923)
THE CONSTITUTION of the State of Massachusetts, adopted in the year 1780, contains an article for the Encouragement of Literature, which, it declares, should be fostered because its influence is “to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in dealings, sincerity and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments among the people.” In these words, as in a mirror, is reflected the Massachusetts of the eighteenth century, where households like the Adamses’, the Warrens’, the Otises’, made the standard of citizenship. Six years before this remarkable document was framed, Abigail Adams had written to her husband, then engaged in nation-making in Philadelphia:—“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 encouraging learning and virtue.” And he, spending his days and nights for his country, sacrificing his profession, giving up the hope of wealth, writes her:—“I believe my children will think that I might as well have labored a little, night and day, for their benefit. But I will tell them that I studied and labored to procure a free constitution of government for them to solace themselves under; and if they do not prefer this to ample fortune, to ease and elegance, they are not my children. They shall live upon thin diet, wear mean clothes, and work hard with cheerful hearts and free spirits, or they may be the children of the earth, or of no one, for me.”  1
  In old Weymouth, one of those quiet Massachusetts towns, half-hidden among the umbrageous hills, where the meeting-house and the school-house rose before the settlers’ cabins were built, where the one elm-shaded main street stretches its breadth between two lines of self-respecting, isolated frame houses, each with its grassy dooryard, its lilac bushes, its fresh-painted offices, its decorous wood-pile laid with architectural balance and symmetry,—there, in the dignified parsonage, on the 11th of November, 1744, was born to Parson William Smith and Elizabeth his wife, Abigail, the second of three beautiful daughters. Her mother was a Quincy, of a distinguished line, and her mother was a Norton, of a strain not less honorable. Nor were the Smiths unimportant.  2
  In that day girls had little instruction. Abigail says of herself, in one of her letters:—“I never was sent to any school. Female education, in the best families, went no further than writing and arithmetic; in some few and rare instances, music and dancing. It was fashionable to ridicule female learning.” But the household was bookish. Her mother knew the “British Poets” and all the literature of Queen Anne’s Augustan age. Her beloved grandmother Quincy, at Mount Wollaston, seems to have had both learning and wisdom, and to her father she owed the sense of fun, the shrewdness, the clever way of putting things which make her letters so delightful.  3
  The good parson was skillful in adapting Scripture to special exigencies, and throughout the Revolution he astonished his hearers by the peculiar fitness of his texts to political uses. It is related of him that when his eldest daughter married Richard Cranch, he preached to his people from Luke, tenth chapter, forty-second verse: “And Mary hath chosen that good part which shall not be taken away from her.” When, a year later, young John Adams came courting the brilliant Abigail, the parish, which assumed a right to be heard on the question of the destiny of the minister’s daughter, grimly objected. He was upright, singularly abstemious, studious; but he was poor, he was the son of a small farmer, and she was of the gentry. He was hot-headed and somewhat tactless, and offended his critics. Worst of all, he was a lawyer, and the prejudice of colonial society reckoned a lawyer hardly honest. He won this most important of his cases, however, and Parson Smith’s marriage sermon for the bride of nineteen was preached from the text, “For John came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and ye say, He hath a devil.”  4
  For ten years Mrs. Adams seems to have lived a most happy life, either in Boston or Braintree, her greatest grief being the frequent absences of her husband on circuit. His letters to her are many and delightful, expressing again and again, in the somewhat formal phrases of the period, his affection and admiration. She wrote seldom, her household duties and the care of the children, of whom there were four in ten years, occupying her busy hands.  5
  Meanwhile, the clouds were growing black in the political sky. Mr. Adams wrote arguments and appeals in the news journals over Latin signatures, papers of instructions to Representatives to the General Court, and legal portions of the controversy between the delegates and Governor Hutchinson. In all this work Mrs. Adams constantly sympathized and advised. In August, 1774, he went to Philadelphia as a delegate to a general council of the colonies called to concert measures for united action. And now begins the famous correspondence, which goes on for a period of nine years, which was intended to be seen only by the eyes of her husband, which she begs him, again and again, to destroy as not worth the keeping, yet which has given her a name and place among the world’s most charming letter-writers.  6
  Her courage, her cheerfulness, her patriotism, her patience never fail her. Braintree, where, with her little brood, she is to stay, is close to the British lines. Raids and foraging expeditions are imminent. Hopes of a peaceful settlement grow dim. “What course you can or will take,” she writes her husband, “is all wrapped in the bosom of futurity. Uncertainty and expectation leave the mind great scope. Did ever any kingdom or State regain its liberty, when once it was invaded, without bloodshed? I cannot think of it without horror. Yet we are told that all the misfortunes of Sparta were occasioned by their too great solicitude for present tranquillity, and, from an excessive love of peace, they neglected the means of making it sure and lasting. They ought to have reflected, says Polybius, that, ‘as there is nothing more desirable or advantageous than peace, when founded in justice and honor, so there is nothing more shameful, and at the same time more pernicious, when attained by bad measures, and purchased at the price of liberty.’”  7
  Thus in the high Roman fashion she faces danger; yet her sense of fun never deserts her, and in the very next letter she writes, parodying her husband’s documents:—“The drouth has been very severe. My poor cows will certainly prefer a petition to you, setting forth their grievances, and informing you that they have been deprived of their ancient privileges, whereby they are become great sufferers, and desiring that these may be restored to them. More especially as their living, by reason of the drouth, is all taken from them, and their property which they hold elsewhere is decaying, they humbly pray that you would consider them, lest hunger should break through stone walls.”  8
  By midsummer the small hardships entailed by the British occupation of Boston were most vexatious. “We shall very soon have no coffee, nor sugar, nor pepper, but whortleberries and milk we are not obliged to commerce for,” she writes, and in letter after letter she begs for pins. Needles are desperately needed, but without pins how can domestic life go on, and not a pin in the province!  9
  On the 14th of September she describes the excitement in Boston, the Governor mounting cannon on Beacon Hill, digging intrenchments on the Neck, planting guns, throwing up breastworks, encamping a regiment. In consequence of the powder being taken from Charlestown, she goes on to say, a general alarm spread through all the towns and was soon caught in Braintree. And then she describes one of the most extraordinary scenes in history. About eight o’clock on Sunday evening, she writes to her husband, at least two hundred men, preceded by a horse-cart, passed by her door in dead silence, and marched down to the powder-house, whence they took out the town’s powder, because they dared not trust it where there were so many Tories, carried it into the other parish, and there secreted it. On their way they captured a notorious “King’s man,” and found on him two warrants aimed at the Commonwealth. When their patriotic trust was discharged, they turned their attention to the trembling Briton. Profoundly excited and indignant though they were, they never thought of mob violence, but, true to the inherited instincts of their race, they resolved themselves into a public meeting! The hostile warrants being produced and exhibited, it was put to a vote whether they should be burned or preserved. The majority voted for burning them. Then the two hundred gathered in a circle round the single lantern, and maintained a rigid silence while the offending papers were consumed. That done—the blazing eyes in that grim circle of patriots watching the blazing writs—“they called a vote whether they should huzza; but, it being Sunday evening, it passed in the negative!”  10
  Only in the New England of John Winthrop and the Mathers, of John Quincy and the Adamses, would such a scene have been possible: a land of self-conquest and self-control, of a deep love of the public welfare and a willingness to take trouble for a public object.  11
  A little later Mrs. Adams writes her husband that there has been a conspiracy among the negroes, though it has been kept quiet. “I wish most sincerely,” she adds, “that there was not a slave in the province. It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me—to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.”  12
  Nor were the sympathies of this clever logician confined to the slaves. A month or two before the Declaration of Independence was made she writes her constructive statesman:—“I long to hear that you have declared an independence. And by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands! Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could! If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation. That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute; but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend. Why, then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity? Men of sense in all ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your sex. Regard us, then, as being placed by Providence under your protection; and in imitation of the Supreme Being, make use of that power only for our happiness,”—a declaration of principles which the practical housewife follows up by saying:—“I have not yet attempted making salt-petre, but after soap-making, believe I shall make the experiment. I find as much as I can do to manufacture clothing for my family, which would else be naked. I have lately seen a small manuscript describing the proportions of the various sorts of powder fit for cannon, small arms, and pistols. If it would be of any service your way, I will get it transcribed and send it to you.”  13
  She is interested in everything, and she writes about everything in the same whole-hearted way,—farming, paper money, the making of molasses from corn-stalks, the new remedy of inoculation, ‘Common Sense’ and its author, the children’s handwriting, the state of Harvard College, the rate of taxes, the most helpful methods of enlistment, Chesterfield’s Letters, the town elections, the higher education of women, and the getting of homespun enough for Mr. Adams’s new suit.  14
  She manages, with astonishing skill, to keep the household in comfort. She goes through trials of sickness, death, agonizing suspense, and ever with the same heroic cheerfulness, that her anxious husband may be spared the pangs which she endures. When he is sent to France and Holland, she accepts the new parting as another service pledged to her country. She sees her darling boy of ten go with his father, aware that at the best she must bear months of silence, knowing that they may perish at sea or fall into the hands of privateers; but she writes with indomitable cheer, sending the lad tender letters of good advice, a little didactic to modern taste, but throbbing with affection. “Dear as you are to me,” says this tender mother, “I would much rather you should have found your grave in the ocean you have crossed than see you an immoral, profligate, or graceless child.”  15
  It was the lot of this country parson’s daughter to spend three years in London as wife of the first American minister, to see her husband Vice-President of the United States for eight years and President for four, and to greet her son as the eminent Monroe’s valued Secretary of State, though she died, “seventy-four years young,” before he became President. She could not, in any station, be more truly a lady than when she made soap and chopped kindling on her Braintree farm. At Braintree she was no more simply modest than at the Court of St. James or in the Executive Mansion. Her letters exactly reflect her ardent, sincere, energetic nature. She shows a charming delight when her husband tells her that his affairs could not possibly be better managed than she manages them, and that she shines not less as a statesman than as a farmeress. And though she was greatly admired and complimented, no praise so pleased her as his declaration that for all the ingratitude, calumnies, and misunderstandings that he had endured,—and they were numberless,—her perfect comprehension of him had been his sufficient compensation.  16

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.