American historian Woody Holton’s biography Abigail Adams
(2009) concerns the foundational figure in American social and political history, also the wife of John Adams, whose strong will, intelligence, and feminist philosophy contributed critically to early figurations of the American republic which ultimately were encoded into law. The book uses a wealth of evidence, including more than 2,000 letters from Adams’s own archives, to argue that she campaigned vigorously for causes such as the education of women, the eradication of discrimination on the basis of sex, and the inclusion of those who were routinely marginalized in the political process. Holton uses Adams’s story not only to illuminate her underappreciated contributions, but also to gesture towards the troubling erasure of the stories of many other brilliant women in American history who, in a more just world, might be remembered as its Founding Mothers.
Holton begins by outlining the American hero’s personality. Formative to Adams’s selfhood was her experience growing up with an overprotective mother who rarely allowed her an outlet for creative or political expression; this instilled in Adams an affinity for polarizing conclusions and an aversion to equivocation and political neutrality. Finding no one authority figure to cling to or model herself after, Adams instead came to define herself against a multitude of individuals for whom she held strong positive and negative opinions. These included Benjamin Franklin, whom she disliked due to his rivalry with her husband, in which she viewed Franklin as petty and scheming to undermine his hard work. It also included James Lowell, a member of Congress with John, who criticized his form of patriotism, which he viewed as inflexible. She came to admire, but also to loathe, her father’s former slave Phoebe Abdee, who helped protect and care for the destitute despite Abigail’s command to desist. She was vigorously ambivalent about her husband, whom she viewed as clueless in financial matters, a fact that especially irritated her because he judged her negatively for making money in nontraditional ways. Adams’s identity was further forged by her son, John Quincy, who would get lost in studying, to her chagrin, only to land in her good graces by following a life in government and eventually becoming president himself.
Holton takes care to qualify his portrait of Adams as a radical woman for her time. She was also highly ordinary, in many respects: she was deferential to her husband, especially in matters related to public service, a world she did not conceive of entering in the way a man was permitted. In the judgment of history, she also had her own severe ideological flaws: she pushed, unsuccessfully, for strengthened language in the Alien and Sedition Acts, which are now considered some of the worst ever erosions of civil liberty in America. Nonetheless, she clearly valued the freedom of religion, and the rights of women to invest and execute business, and to have their voices heard in political life.
Holton acknowledges two main drives that seemed to guide Adams’ decision-making through her entire life. The first was her deep belief that women deserved equal rights, particularly in the domain of education. Adams regretted being deprived of a formal education, though she strove to keep up with her male contemporaries by engaging in discourse with her friends. Her surviving correspondences show that she was publicly vocal about these beliefs. The second drive Holton attributes to Adams was the will to be financially sound. Even in Adams’s childhood, she knew that wealth opened doors to opportunities that exceeded the ordinary American experience. This led her to seek a husband who was well off; however, along the way, she realized that she could achieve what she wanted on her own. She became a shrewd retailer and went on to help support her sisters and their extended families as well as her own husband, kids, and grandkids.
At the end of Abigail Adams,
Holton analyzes Adams’s ultimate artifact: her will. She composed the document in 1816, directly confronting the contemporary legal position that rendered married women unable to own property. To Holton, the will represents an important act of feminist rebellion in American history, not only for its improbable conception, but also for its implicit appeal to female solidarity: many of its clauses gave away property to other female relatives. The will, interestingly, was written with the approval of President Adams. Holton holds this document, over all other of Adams’s political statements, to be the most radical.
A profile of a complex, imperfect, feminist figure from a time before feminist theory came to be, Abigail Adams
is simultaneously a profile of the early years of America and the conditions that happened to shape Adams’s personality and will. It frames Adams as a relatively righteous individual in the long arc in which moral rights and liberties always remain unfinished.