Abigail Adams is by far the most richly documented American woman of the Revolutionary era. There have been many biographies of this wife of our second president and mother of our sixth, and we think we know her. But, as historian Woody Holton demonstrates in his magnificent new biography Abigail Adams, she was a complex person who played many roles and is not easily understood. Drawing on more than 2,000 of her surviving letters and other sources, Holton, whose excellent Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution was a finalist for the National Book Award, has given readers a compelling and rounded portrait of an exceptional and multifaceted Founding Mother.
In some ways Adams was a conventional woman of her time. She usually agreed with her husband on political matters. On the most controversial legislation of his term as president, the Alien and Sedition Acts, perhaps the most devastating attacks on civil liberties ever passed by Congress, she felt that the legislation was not strong enough. But in many other areas, such as religion, educating the family’s children (and grandchildren) and almost everything else domestic—financial matters—she and John differed widely. As Holton shows, she was a shrewd investor and expert businesswoman who, in many ways, was primarily responsible for the family’s healthy finances.
Two persistent themes run throughout her life. The first is advocacy for more rights for women, especially with regard to education. One of Adams’ greatest regrets in life was her lack of formal education (though she was indeed educated and enthusiastic about learning; she was taught by relatives and shared books and ideas with groups of friends.) Holton demonstrates that, contrary to the beliefs of some historians, Adams’ interest in women’s rights was not a subject confined to letters to her husband, but was emphasized in her correspondence with many others, both female and male.
A second broad emphasis was on financial stability. From an early age she was aware that if she wanted to accomplish certain things in life, such as helping the poor (as her mother had done), she would need a husband who was reasonably well-to-do. But she was a wise investor in her own right, favoring government securities over property, which John preferred. She was also an expert businesswoman. When John served in various positions that took him away from home, as was often the case, she would give him orders for various products to be sent to her for resale. Money gained with her business acumen enabled her to help many others, most prominently her sisters and their families.
Perhaps the clearest expression of Adams’ interests and concerns is a will she wrote in 1816, a time when married women were not legally allowed to control property. Holton describes it as an act of rebellion. She mentions at the beginning of the document that there were certain gifts she had earlier given to her sons, but most of the beneficiaries in her will were her female relatives. Adamsl notes that her will was “by and with his [John’s] consent.” Of all of their collaborations during lives of significant accomplishments that involved great sacrifices, disappointments and tragedy, Holton writes that this previously unreported will “may have been the most extraordinary of all.”
This exceptional biography should be read by anyone who wants to understand life in the Adamses’ era, particularly with regard to the role of women. Holton’s insightful and sensitive work gives us a fresh perspective on a unique life and helps us appreciate anew Abigail Adams’ role in the founding of the new nation.
Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.