Abigail Adams refused to be a footnote. Born on November 22, 1744, she would go on to become the wife of one President and the mother of another. But it’s Adams’s first-rate political mind that has secured her place in history. The celebrated First Lady was, in several respects, years ahead of her time.
1. THERE’S A BIT OF CONFUSION ABOUT WHEN SHE WAS BORN.
Biographies often cite November 11, 1744 as the day Abigail Adams (née Smith) was born. This is both true and false. While John Adams was 9, his future spouse was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts to Elizabeth and Reverend William Smith, a Congregationalist minister. Back then, Britain’s American subjects still used the Julian calendar. Originally implemented by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE, it remained standardized throughout Europe for more than 15 centuries. Unfortunately, his calendar was about 11 minutes a year out of sync with the earth’s rotation. This might not seem like a big deal, but over time, it became one: By 1582, the calendar was a full 10 days off course. Obviously, some adjustments were needed.
So, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced a new calendar—one that was designed to eliminate this growing problem. At his command, ten October days were completely skipped over (October 4 was directly followed by October 15) and measures were taken to make leap years happen less frequently. We still use the Gregorian calendar today.
While Catholic countries converted to it more or less immediately, Britain and her colonies didn’t do so until 1752. At that point, the Julian calendar had become 11 days off schedule. So according to this outdated metric, Abigail Adams was born on November 11, 1744. In contrast, our modern Gregorian calendar tells us that she came into the world on November 22.
2. SPELLING WASN’T HER STRONG SUIT.
Like most New England girls in the 18th century, Abigail and her sisters were homeschooled (most likely by their mother). At the Smith residence, available reading material ranged from Shakespeare to the Bible to local newspapers. Over time, Abigail would become a voracious bibliophile and a terrific writer. However, because standardized education was unavailable to those of her sex, Abigail’s numerous letters were frequently plagued with such typos as “perticular,” “benifit,” and “litirary.” And while it’s true that standardized spelling was still in its infancy in the Colonies, Abigail was particularly self conscious about it, even ending one of her letters with “You will escuse this very incorrect Letter.”
3. DURING THE REVOLUTION, ADAMS MADE BULLETS FOR THE AMERICAN CAUSE.
On June 17, 1775, Adams and her 7-year-old son, John Quincy, watched as the Battle of Bunker Hill erupted near Charlestown, Massachusetts. The brutal clash and its aftermath claimed over 100 American lives. Among those slain was Joseph Warren, the Adams’ family doctor and general of the Revolution. “Our dear friend,” she wrote her husband, “ … fell gloriously for his country—saying better to die honorably in the field than ignominiously in the gallows.” Enraged, Adams seized her precious pewter spoons and melted them down into musket balls, which she then distributed to rebel forces. She also sheltered numerous patriot troops and Boston refugees at her Braintree home.
4. JOHN AND ABIGAIL EXCHANGED OVER 1100 LETTERS.
Their correspondence offers an intimate look at early American life—and a truly remarkable marriage. Before the war, John’s law practice regularly brought him to Boston. As a member of the Continental Congress, he toiled in Philadelphia throughout much of the Revolution. Diplomatic duties would later whisk him off to Europe and, during his presidency, he spent prolonged periods away from his beloved wife.
Through it all, John and Abigail diligently wrote each other. Their discourse includes eyewitness accounts of the vote for independence, Washington’s inauguration, and countless other moments that helped shape their young nation. Some letters even gush with romance. “I look back,” Abigail reminisced in 1782, “to the early days of our acquaintance; and Friendship, as to the days of Love and Innocence; and with an indescribable pleasure I have seen near a score of years roll over our Heads, with an affection heightened and improved by time—nor have the dreary years of absence in the smallest degree effaced from my mind the Image of the dear untitled man to whom I gave my Heart.”
While these two made up oodles of pet names (he’d sometimes call her “Miss Adorable,” for instance), they’d usually refer to each other as “My Dearest Friend” or “Much Loved Friend.”
5. SHE WAS AN EARLY WOMEN’S RIGHTS ADVOCATE.
Abigail penned what’s arguably her single most famous letter on March 31, 1776. “I long to hear that you have declared an independency,” she informed John. “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.”
Her husband’s response was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. “As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh,” he replied. The matter was dropped shortly thereafter. Still, Abigail never gave up: She’d later speak out in favor of women’s property rights and education.
6. ABIGAIL AND THOMAS JEFFERSON HAD A ROCKY PERSONAL HISTORY.
Their friendship blossomed in Paris, where the men who would become America’s second and third presidents began working as diplomats during the summer of 1784. Tired of writing her husband from afar, Abigail made the transatlantic voyage.
At first, Jefferson and Mrs. Adams bonded over their shared love of gardens and songbirds. When John was named Ambassador to the Court of St. James in London, Abigail and her new acquaintance reluctantly parted ways (“I shall regreet [sic] … the loss of Mr. Jeffersons Society,” she wrote). They became international pen pals, exchanging gossip and even shipping each other the occasional gift. In Jefferson’s mind, she was—as he once confided to James Madison—“one of the most estimable characters on earth.”
Sadly, their relationship grew cold when Jefferson handed Mr. Adams a bitter electoral defeat in 1800. Four years later, when the new President’s daughter, Polly, passed away at age 25, Abigail wrote a delicately-worded letter of condolence. Jefferson was both touched and impressed by the letter. “[S]he carefully avoided a single [expression] of friendship towards myself,” he observed, “and even concluded it with the wishes ‘of her who once took pleasure in subscribing herself your friend.”
Things didn’t thaw out between them until Jefferson and her husband began corresponding on friendly terms again in 1811. Abigail and the Sage of Monticello would subsequently resume their letter-writing.
7. SHE MISSED JOHN’S INAUGURATION.
When President Adams was sworn in on March 4, 1797, John’s mother was dying in Massachusetts. A particularly brutal New England winter kept Abigail away from Philadelphia (which was then the nation’s capital), much to the new Chief Executive’s dismay. “The times are critical and dangerous,” he wrote her, “and I must have you here to assist me.” She joined him in the City of Brotherly Love that spring.
8. JOHN AND ABIGAIL REALLY HATED ALEXANDER HAMILTON.
George Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury had a knack for making powerful enemies, including Jefferson, James Monroe, and (of course) Aaron Burr. Then there was John Adams, who once referred to Hamilton as the “bastard brat of a Scotch peddler.” No love was lost between them. In 1800, Hamilton circulated a very critical pamphlet that amounted to a full-on character assassination aimed at our second commander-in-chief. Ultimately, Hamilton’s sharp words helped destroy Adams’ re-election bid.
Abigail shared her husband’s disdain for his political rival. “Beware that spair Cassius,” she warned John in 1797. “O, I have read his heart in his wicked eyes many a time. The very devil is in them. They are lasciviousness itself.”
9. SHE VEHEMENTLY OPPOSED SLAVERY.
“I wish most sincerely that there was not a slave in the province,” she wrote in a 1774 letter to her husband. Though Abigail’s father had been a slaver, she remained firmly against the practice throughout her life. In March 1776, Abigail slammed the sheer hypocrisy of slave-owning American rebels, stating, “I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for liberty cannot be eaqually [sic] strong in the breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs.”
10. ADAMS ONCE PERSONALLY TAUGHT A YOUNG BLACK MAN THAT SHE BARELY KNEW.
By the standards of her period, she also had a progressive attitude toward integration. Shortly before John took the oath of office, Abigail informed the president-elect about a free black servant boy whom she’d personally given reading and writing lessons. Afterwards, she enrolled him into a local school. Without warning, a neighbor then approached her and bemoaned this new pupil’s presence there.
Irate, Abigail replied that the boy was “as much a Freeman as any of the [other] young Men and merely because his Face is Black, is he to be denied instruction? How is he to be qualified to procure a livelihood? … I have not thought it any disgrace to my self to take him into my parlor and teach him to both read and write.”
Just like that, the neighbor backed off and no further objections were raised.
11. SHE WAS THE FIRST PRESIDENTIAL WIFE TO LIVE IN THE WHITE HOUSE.
During most of his administration, John Adams—like his predecessor—lived at the Presidential mansion in Philadelphia. Located at the intersection of 6th and Market Streets, it would serve as the headquarters of the government’s executive branch until May 1800.
Abigail and John moved into the White House on November 1 (between the two dates, the President stayed at a local tavern). At the time, their new mansion was—to the First Lady’s chagrin—still under construction. “Not a chamber is finished of a whole,” she complained. The building suffered from poor insulation. An awkward White House Christmas party did little to lift Abigail’s spirits. As one witness put it, she was “distressed and embarrassed because it was still cold. The guests sat around trying to look comfortable and hide their gooseflesh, but they left early.”
12. A LIGHT INFANTRY COMPANY ONCE NAMED ITSELF AFTER HER.
In 1798, a Massachusetts volunteer regiment asked for Abigail’s permission to rechristen themselves as “Lady Adams Rangers.” Flattered, she happily consented.
13. SHE WAS A DOG LOVER.
Through the years, the Adams family included several dogs. Their two best-known pooches, however, were some mutts that they dubbed Juno and Satan. While the devilishly-named canine was regarded as John’s dog, Juno really took a shine to Abigail. After leaving the White House, she could often be seen with the animal padding along at her side. In an 1811 letter to her granddaughter Caroline Smith, Adams declared that “As if you love me proverbially, you must love my dog. You will be pleased to know that Juno yet lives, although like her mistress she is gray with age.”