As my knowledge of America’s Revolutionary era has reached the “ankle-deep” stage over the last couple years, there are a few authors that I should probably thank. Without question, Ron Chernow’s studies of Alexander Hamilton and (most recently) George Washington get a mention. David McCullough is another, especially for his biography of John Adams.
For you internet junkies, I have to thank Frances Hunter’s American Heroes and Martin and company over at What Would the Founders Think. These two sites have both taught me so much about the early days of this nation, and both deserve a look from you.
But one author that I think may sometimes get overlooked is Joseph Ellis. My first exposure to his writing came several years ago with His Excellency. Then I read American Sphinx, his work on Thomas Jefferson. A couple of months back, I picked up First Family, which represents Ellis’ return to John and Abigail Adams. One of these days, I’ll actually get it finished.
In the introduction to First Family, Ellis reminds us that John and Abigail shared one of the most remarkable relationships in U.S. history. It wasn’t just the steadfastness of their marriage, the struggles raising of a family (including a future President), and growing old together that set them apart. In fact, those things are pretty common to many couples.
But Ellis writes, “Abigail and John traveled down that trail about two hundred years before us, remained lovers and friends throughout, and together had a hand in laying the foundation of what is now the oldest enduring republic in world history. And they left a written record of all the twitches, traumas, throbbings, and tribulations along the way. No one else has ever done that.”
He informs us that the record consists of “roughly twelve hundred letters between them” and describes it as “a treasure trove of unexpected intimacy and candor.”
Throughout the Colonies’ push for independence, this second “First Couple” spent quite a bit of time apart, as duty often called John away, whether it be to Philadelphia and the Second Continental Congress, or even further away to Paris. David McCullough writes that Abigail’s letters often concerned news from the homefront. “…family, of politics, of her day-to-day struggles to manage expenses, cope with shortages, and keep the farm going…”.
However, Abigail was far more than just the keeper of the house while John was away. She was a shrewd woman with a strong mind and a keen sense her husband’s work and its implications, not only for them, but for generations that would follow. On March 31, 1776, she wrote to John concerning the British evacuation of Boston and smallpox vaccinations.
But then she followed up with some seemingly parenthetical thoughts that have become her most famous words. “And, by the way,” she wrote, “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 favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands.” She continued on (quoting Daniel Defoe), “Remember all men would be tyrants if they could.” And then she offered up a playful (or was it?) threat for her husband’s consideration. “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to forment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
Mrs. Adams final statement here is most remarkable. A woman, living in a society completely dominated by men, talking of independence and equality. And while her husband took her statements as playful banter, I cannot but imagine that the phrase “will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation” really packed a punch. This was the reason he and other men were meeting in Philadelphia, talking about revolution and independence from the rule of tyranny.
Abigail Adams threw down the proverbial gauntlet to her husband, challenging him (and those with whom he gathered) to consider the possibility that freedom involved more than “taxation with representation” and more than throwing off the shackles of King George III. Maybe it also included equality for women in the voting booth. She and John both detested slavery (their letters discuss it on numerous occasions), and maybe freedom had something to say about that as well.
Ninety years and a bloody Civil War would be required to ultimately end the curse of slavery in America. And more than 150 years would pass before women were finally allowed to vote. But Abigail’s letter saw that “city of the future” in the spring of 1776, when the battle-cry of freedom was just warming up.
Recommended Reading: First Family: Abigail and John Adams