On October 25, 1764, Abigail Smith married a young lawyer from Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, by the name of John Adams, who would become, some thirty years later, the second president of the United States. Their union launched a vital and long-lived partnership of fifty-four years, which carried the couple from colonial Boston to Philadelphia and the politics of revolution; to Paris and London and the world of international diplomacy; and finally to New York , Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., where in November, 1800 they became the first presidential couple to occupy the newly built White House in the nation’s new capital. Among their five children, John Quincy Adams would also become a U.S. president. For almost two centuries, Abigail Adams remained the only American who was both the wife and the mother of a president, a distinction she now shares with Barbara Bush.
Abigail Adams is perhaps best remembered for her letters, written especially to her husband JohnExternal during long periods of separation, but also to her larger network of family members and friends, such as Mercy Otis Warren and Thomas Jefferson. The daughter of a Congregational minister born in 1744 in Weymouth, Massachusetts, the young Abigail received a sophisticated though largely informal education, fueled by the presence of many books and frequent visitors in her home. John Adams was one such visitor, and their earliest letters document a witty and affectionate courtship spanning several years. In married life, Abigail Adams proved a talented chronicler of significant events, combining a broad knowledge of history and politics with perceptive commentary and a keen eye for detail. Her letters comprise an important account of key events in the United States’ early history as a nation.
Adams and her husband corresponded regularly during the course of his many absences from home, first as a circuit judge in Massachusetts and then, most famously, while he attended the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. It was in one of these letters that Abigail Adams’s spirited admonition to “Remember the Ladies” appears:
I long to hear that you have declared an independency—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 favourable 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 p[a]rticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebel[l]ion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.
Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31, 1776 External, Adams Family PapersExternal, Massachusetts Historical Society
The Adams’s frequent separations continued into the 1780s, as John Adams accepted several commissions from the U.S. government to Europe, both during the revolution and after it formally ended. Throughout this time, Abigail Adams managed the family farm and finances, and raised the couple’s children largely on her own. The Adams sons, as they grew older, traveled with their father to Europe. In 1784 Abigail joined her husband in Paris, bringing along their oldest daughter, Abigail 2d (Nabby). From there the family moved to London where John Adams served in the challenging role of the United States’ first minister to the recently defeated Great Britain. On their return to Boston in 1788, the Adams moved into a new, larger home in Quincy, but only a few months later in March 1789, John Adams was selected the first vice president, serving with President George Washington for the next eight years.
During her husband’s vice presidency, Abigail Adams drew on her experience abroad to assist First Lady Martha Washington in official entertaining; together they created the new role of primary hostess for the country. Adams also advised her husband in politics, and kept charge of the family’s Massachusetts property, traveling home from the temporary capital at Philadelphia during periods of poor health. In Washington, D.C., she continued her entertaining in the unfinished and drafty White House in a barely habitable city. When, in 1800, John Adams lost his bid for re-election in what proved the nation’s first contentious presidential election, she happily retired from public life to spend more time with her husband.
- The Gottscho-Schleisner Collection contains a series of photographs of the Adams’s house in what is now Quincy, Massachusetts. To find them, search the collection on Adams. The Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey contains architectural surveys of the Abigail (Smith) Adams House, the John Adams Birthplace, and the John Quincy Adams Birthplace, as well as the Adams Mansion.
- Starting with the 1841 collection prepared by her grandson Charles Francis Adams, a great number of books containing the correspondence of Abigail Adams have been published. To locate additional titles go to the Library of Congress Online Catalog and search on Abigal Adams letters.
- In 1800, President John Adams approved an act of Congress providing for the establishment of the Library of Congress. The Adams Building, initially known as the Library Annex, was completed in 1939 and renamed in honor of the second president in 1980. Search the Horydczak Collection and Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive on Adams Building to find images of the building and its construction.
- The primary collections of papers for presidents John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and their family members including Abigail Adams, are housed at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Visit their online collection of Adams Papers External, including the correspondence between Abigail Adams and her husband JohnExternal and a timeline of the Adams familyExternal over several generations.