History of Abigail Adams for Kids

Have you ever written a letter to someone who was far away? Writing letters can show someone you care about that you’re thinking of them, or let them know what you’re doing, thinking, and feeling. Writing a letter can even help you to think about how you’re feeling and how things are going in your life. People don’t write letters as much these days, because we have so many other ways to communicate across long distances: phones, Zoom calls, email, and social media. But in the past, before these things were invented, letters were the most important way people had to communicate with each other when they were far apart. 

But did you also know that letters are also important to people who study history? They are! We have the letters of many famous people from the past. In some cases, that’s the only writing we have that was written by an important person. Today, we’re going to talk about someone who is famous for the many letters she wrote to important people of her day: Abigail Adams. 

Abigail was the wife of one US president, and the mother of another, but her story starts in Weymouth, Massachusetts, in 1744, when the North American colonies were still part of England. Abigail was sick and weak at birth, but to everyone’s surprise, she survived. Whether her parents realized it at the time or not, this strong will was a characteristic that Abigail would show throughout her life. She was a spirited and curious child, who didn’t have much use for the types of chores girls were expected to do in colonial America. Instead of sewing, churning butter, or spinning wool into yarn, Abigail preferred to read the books in her father’s library, ask questions of his guests, and boss around her younger siblings! Even though she didn’t get to go to school, Abigail was interested in philosophy, history, government, law, and many other subjects. Over time, Abigail did learn to behave in the way people expected, but she never stopped reading, learning, or expressing her opinion. 

When she was 18, Abigail met a young struggling lawyer named John Adams. The two fell in love and were married in 1764. Abigail’s father, a minister, performed the ceremony. At first, the couple lived on a farm not far from Abigail’s childhood home, with John practicing law from the house. After a few years, the family moved to the city of Boston, where John’s law practice could grow. 

At this time, the American colonies were becoming unhappy with British rule. Britain had fought a war, the French and Indian War, to keep control of the American colonies. Britain won the war, but they had borrowed a lot of money to pay for it. They needed to pay that money back, so the British Parliament passed taxes on tea, paper, sugar, glass and other goods in the colonies. The American colonists were upset because they did not have a say in the taxes. Boston was full of people angry with the British king. They staged protests and boycotted, or refused to buy, British goods. John and Abigail watched all this and thought about how government should work and what rights people should have. John wrote pieces criticizing the taxes for the Boston newspaper. 

By 1774, Abigail and John felt that the colonies should try to win their freedom from Britain. John went to Philadelphia to be part of the First Continental Congress, where the delegates debated how to respond to British taxes and the harsh laws they’d enacted.  Abigail lived on their farm during this time, and she and John wrote to each other often. Though Abigail certainly had a lot to do running the farm and raising their four children, she used her letters to keep John informed of important events happening in their family and in Massachusetts.  

In 1775, John again took part in the Continental Congress. This time, he helped Thomas Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence, which said that the American colonies would no longer be part of Britain. If there was going to be a new country, Abigail thought it should do certain things a little better than in the past. She believed women should be allowed to own property, get a good education, and have a say in the laws of their own country. She wrote to John during the Congress:  “In this new code of laws…I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.” Unfortunately, her ideas didn’t make it into the Declaration of Independence or the new laws of the country. 

Abigail also questioned how other groups would be treated in the new country. Even though the Declaration of Independence stated that “all men are created equal” and had rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” most black people in the colonies were enslaved, and many of the members of the Continental Congress owned slaves. Abigail felt very strongly that this was wrong, and would lead to conflict between the states later on. She wrote to John: “I wish most sincerely there was not a slave in the province. It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me–fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to it as we have.” Unfortunately, this was another issue where Abigail’s views didn’t carry the day, though John was also against slavery. Sadly, when the United States constituion was written in 1787, it allowed slavery to continue. 

As the Continental Congress was debating and writing new laws, the Revolution was gaining speed. Abigail saw first hand the effects of the war. She wrote letters to John detailing British troop movements and battles that happened near their home, and . She even took her son, the future president John Quincy Adams, to a hilltop to watch the Battle of Bunker Hill. She housed and fed soldiers from the Revolutionary War in their home as well as people who had to leave their homes because of the fighting. All the while, she made all the decisions about how the farm should be run, and made sure the family had enough money to live. 

After the war, John Adams travelled to France to help negotiate the peace treaty between the new United States of America and England. At first, Abigail stayed behind and took care of running the family’s farm, but she, along with her oldest daughter and son, soon joined him in Europe. There, she had the chance to explore both Paris and London while John worked as a diplomat. 

When they returned to the United States, John became the vice-president to George Washington. When Washington decided to step down as president after eight years, John was elected as the second president of the United States. Abigail spent much of her time hosting dinners and meeting with visitors at the Presidential House in Philadelphia, which is where the capitol was at the time. She also advised John on who should be given certain jobs and helped him edit his speeches. 

In the last few months of John’s presidency, the couple moved to a brand-new presidential house in the brand-new capital city of Washington, DC. And I do mean brand-new: the house, which, of course, we now call the White House, wasn’t quite finished, and it was surrounded by woods and fields instead of the bustling city that’s there now! Abigail wrote to her daughter telling her how hard it was to heat the rooms, or even find people to help cut firewood.  Abigail warned her daughter though: “You must keep all of this to yourself. When asked how I like it, say that I write you the situation is beautiful, which is true. The house is livable, but there is not a single apartment finished.”

A few months later, John lost his attempt to be re-elected as president. Though Abigail was disappointed, she wrote to her son, future president John Qunicy Adams, saying: “could I be assured that the remainder of my days might be passed in Peace and quietness, I should have reason to rejoice in a liberation from public Life.” She and John returned to Massachuesetts, to enjoy their retirement on a farm they called Peacefield. John Quincy went on to be elected president in 1825, although Abigail had passed away by that time. 

Even for people who are well-known, being able to read their letters gives us a better idea of how they felt and reacted to events at the time. Letters help historians piece together what things were really like in the past – how people felt privately, and when conditions weren’t as rosy as they would have liked. Letters show us how people felt about each other, and how they supported each other. Abigail’s letters to John Adams, to her children, and to other people, famous or not, show us that she was an intelligent, caring, and opinionated woman. She was devoted to the cause of creating a successful and independent United States, and she made sacrifices to see it happen.  But more than telling us about the history of that time, these letters give us a glimpse of the real people who wrote them–not only their accomplishments, but their true feelings, fears, and hopes for the future.

Sources

Abigail Adams

https://millercenter.org/president/adams/adams-1797-abigail-firstlady

Abigail Adams (1744 – 1818)

https://www.nps.gov/adam/learn/historyculture/abigail-adams-1744-1818.htm

Black and slave population of the United States from 1790 to 1880

https://www.statista.com/statistics/1010169/black-and-slave-population-us-1790-1880/

First Lady Biography: Abigail Adams

http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=2 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Adams

https://www.nps.gov/articles/archeology-at-adams-birthplaces.htm

Belton, Blair. Abigail Adams in her own words. New York, NY: Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2014.

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About Bedtime History

Bedtime History is a series of educational, relaxing stories for kids and families. Learn about inspirational characters such as Jackie Robinson, Sacajawea, Neil Armstrong, and Maya Angelou. Other topics include space exploration, current events, and great feats of engineering such as The Transcontinental Railroad.