America Women: The Wife of John Adams


The mother in her office holds the key
Of the soul; and she it is who stamps the coin
Of character, and makes the being who would be a savage,
But for her gentle cares, a Christian man.
                                                            OLD PLAY

————— O we will walk this world,
Yoked in all exercise of noble aim.

Abigail Smith was a daughter of the Rev. William Smith, a Congregational minister of Weymouth, Massachusetts, where she was born on the eleventh of November, 1744, O. S. “It was fashionable to ridicule female learning,” in her day; and she says of herself in one of her letters, “I was never sent to any school.” She adds, “I was always sick. Female education, in the best families, went no further than writing and arithmetic.” But notwithstanding her educational disadvantages, she read and studied in private, and kept up a brisk correspondence with relatives, and by these means expanded and fed her mind, and cultivated an easy and graceful style of writing.

On the twenty-fifth of October, 1764, Miss Smith became the wife of John Adams, a lawyer of Braintree.* Her grandson, Charles Francis Adams, to whose Memoir of her we are indebted for these statistics, says, that “the ten years immediately following, present little that is worth recording.”

Prior to 1778, Mr. and Mrs. Adams had been separated at sundry times, in all, more than three years, which was a severe trial to her fortitude. The strength of her conjugal affection may be gathered from an extract from one of her letters: “I very well remember,” she writes, “when the eastern circuits of the courts, which lasted a month, were thought an age, and an absence of three months, intolerable; but we are carried from step to step, and from one degree to another, to endure that which at first we think impossible.” Thus she was schooled for separation from her husband, when, in 1778, he went to France as a joint commissioner. While he was absent from his country on that occasion, faithful to the calls of duty, she remained at home, and managed, as she had done before, the affairs of the household and farm. And there let the reader look at her and see a picture of a true mother of the Revolution. “She is a farmer cultivating the land, and discussing the weather and crops; a merchant reporting prices-current and the rates of exchange, and directing the making up of invoices; a politician, speculating upon the probabilities of peace or war; and a mother, writing the most exalted sentiments to her son.”

What nobler deed could the mother, thus situated, do with her son, John Quincy Adams, in a foreign land, than to write to him in a tone like that of the extracts which follow, and which are taken from letters dated 1778-8O:

“‘Tis almost four months since you left your native land, and embarked upon the mighty waters, in quest of a foreign country. Although I have not particularly written to you since, yet you may be assured you have constantly been upon my heart and mind.

“It is a very difficult task, my dear son, for a tender parent to bring her mind to part with a child of your years going to a distant land; nor could I have acquiesced in such a separation under any other care than that of the most excellent parent and guardian who accompanied you. You have arrived at years capable of improving under the advantages you will be likely to have, if you do but properly attend to them.

They are talents put into your hands, of which an account will be required of you hereafter; and being possessed of one, two, or four, see to it that you double your numbers.

“The most amiable and most useful disposition in a young mind is diffidence of itself; and this should lead you to seek advice and instruction from him, who is your natural guardian, and will always counsel and direct you in the best manner, both for your present and future happiness. You are in possession of a natural good understanding, and of spirits unbroken by adversity and untamed with care. Improve your understanding by aquiring useful knowledge and virtue, such as will render you an ornament to society, an honor to your country, and a blessing to your parents.

Great learning and superior abilities, should you ever possess them, will be of little value and small estimation, unless virtue, honor, truth, and integrity are added to them. Adhere to those religious sentiments and principles which were early instilled into your mind, and remember that you are accountable to your Maker for all your words and actions.

“Let me enjoin it upon you to attend constantly and steadfastly to the precepts and instructions of your father, as you value the happiness of your mother and your own welfare. His care and attention to you render many things unnecessary for me to write, which I might otherwise do; but the inadvertency and heedlessness of youth require line upon line and precept upon precept, and, when enforced by the joint efforts of both parents, will, I hope, have a due influence upon your conduct; for, dear as you are to me, I would much rather you should have found your grave in the ocean you have crossed, or that any untimely death crop you in your infant years, than see you an immoral, profligate, or graceless child.

“You have entered early in life upon the great theatre of the world, which is full of temptations and vice of every kind. You are not wholly unacquainted with history, in which you have read of crimes which your inexperienced mind could scarcely believe credible. You have been taught to think of them with horror, and to view vice as

‘a monster of so frightful mien,
That, to be hated, needs but to be seen.’

“Yet you must keep a strict guard upon yourself, or the odious monster will soon lose its terror by becoming familiar to you. The modern history of our own times, furnishes as black a list of crimes, as can be paralleled in ancient times, even if we go back to Nero, Caligula, or Caesar Borgia. Young as you are, the cruel war into which we have been compelled by the haughty tyrant of Britain and the bloody emissaries of his vengeance, may stamp upon your mind this certain truth, that the welfare and prosperity of all countries, communities, and, I may add, individuals, depend upon their morals. That nation to which we were once united, as it has departed from justice, eluded and subverted the wise laws which formerly governed it, and suffered the worst of crimes to go unpunished, has lost its valor, wisdom and humanity, and, from being the dread and terror of Europe, has sunk into derision and infamy. …

“Some author, that I have met with, compares a judicious traveler to a river, that increases its stream the further it flows from its source; or to certain springs, which, running through rich veins of minerals, improve their qualities as they pass along. It will be expected of you, my son, that, as you are favored with superior advantages under the instructive eye of a tender parent, your improvement should bear some proportion to your advantages. Nothing is wanting with you but attention, diligence, and steady application. Nature has not been deficient.

“These are times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. Would Cicero have shone so distinguished an orator if he had not been roused, kindled, and inflamed by the tyranny of Catiline, Verres, and Mark Anthony? The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. All history will convince you of this, and that wisdom and penetration are the fruit of experience, not the lessons of retirement and leisure. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities, which would otherwise lie dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman. War, tyranny, and desolation are the scourges of the Almighty, and ought no doubt to be deprecated. Yet it is your lot, my son, to be an eye witness of these calamities in your own native land, and, at the same time, to owe your existence among a people who have made a glorious defence of their invaded liberties, and who, aided by a generous and powerful ally, with the blessing of Heaven, will transmit this inheritance to ages yet unborn.

“Nor ought it to be one of the least of your incitements towards exerting every power and faculty of your mind, that you have a parent who has taken so large and active a share in this contest, and discharged the trust reposed in him with so much satisfaction as to be honored with the important embassy which at present calls him abroad.

“The strict and inviolable regard you have ever paid to truth, gives me pleasing hopes that you will not swerve from her dictates, but add justice. fortitude, and every manly virtue which can adorn a good citizen, do honor to your country, and render your parents supremely happy, particularly your ever affectionate mother.

… “The only sure and permanent foundation of virtue is religion. Let this important truth be engraven upon your heart. And also, that the foundation of religion is the belief of the one only God, and a just sense of his attributes, as a being infinitely wise, just, and good, to whom you owe the highest reverence, gratitude, and adoration; who superintends and governs all nature, even to clothing the lilies of the field, and hearing the young ravens when they cry; but more particularly regards man, whom he created after his own image, and breathed into him an immortal spirit, capable of a happiness beyond the grave; for the attainment of which he is bound to the performance of certain duties, which all tend to the happiness and welfare of society, and are comprised in one short sentence, expressive of universal benevolence, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ .  .

…. .

” Justice, humanity, and benevolence, are the duties you owe to society in general. To your country the same duties are incumbent upon you, with the additional obligation of sacrificing ease, pleasure, wealth, and life itself for its defence and security. To your parents you owe love, reverence, and obedience to all just and equitable commands. To yourself, — here, indeed, is a wide field to expatiate upon. To become what you ought to be, and what a fond mother wishes to see you, attend to some precepts and instructions from the pen of one, who can have no motive but your welfare and happiness, and who wishes in this way to supply to you the personal watchfulness and care, which a separation from you deprived you of at a period of life, when habits are easiest acquired and fixed; and though the advice may not be new, yet suffer it to obtain a place in your memory, for occasions may offer, and perhaps some concurring circumstances unite, to give it weight and force.

“Suffer me to recommend to you one of the most useful lessons of life, the knowledge and study of yourself. There you run the greatest hazard of being deceived. Self-love and partiality cast a mist before the eyes, and there is no knowledge so hard to be acquired, nor of more benefit when once thoroughly understood. Ungoverned passions have aptly been compared to the boisterous ocean, which is known to produce the most terrible effects. ‘Passions are the elements of life,’ but elements which are subject to the control of reason. Whoever will candidly examine themselves, will find some degree of passion, peevishness, or obstinacy in their natural tempers. You will seldom find these disagreeable ingredients all united in one; but the uncontrolled indulgence of either is sufficient to render the possessor unhappy in himself, and disagreeable to all who are so unhappy as to be witnesses of it, or suffer from its effects.

“You, my dear son, are formed with a constitution feelingly alive; your passions are strong and impetuous; and, though I have sometimes seen them hurry you into excesses, yet with pleasure I have observed a frankness and generosity accompany your efforts to govern and subdue them. Few persons are so subject to passion, but that they can command themselves, when they have a motive sufficiently strong; and those who are most apt to transgress will restrain themselves through respect and reverence to superiors, and even, where they wish to recommend themselves, to their equals. The due government of the passions, has been considered in all ages as a most valuable acquisition. Hence an inspired writer observes, ‘He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit, than he that taketh a city.’ This passion, cooperating with power, and unrestrained by reason, has produced the subversion of cities, the desolation of countries, the massacre of nations, and filled the world with injustice and oppression. Behold your own country, your native land, suffering from the effects of lawless power and malignant passions, and learn betimes, from your own observation and experience, to govern and control yourself. Having once obtained this self-government, you will find a foundation laid for happiness to yourself and usefulness to mankind. ‘Virtue alone is happiness below;’ and consists in cultivating and improving every good inclination, and in checking and subduing every propensity to evil. I have been particular upon the passion of anger, as it is generally the most predominant passion at your age, the soonest excited, and the least pains are taken to subdue it

‘what composes man, can man destroy.?'”

With such a mother to counsel him, one is led to ask, how could John Quincy Adams help becoming a noble-minded and great man? Who wonders that, with good natural endowments and his excellent privileges, coupled with maternal training, he fitted himself to fill the highest office in the gift of a free people?

In June, 1784, Mrs. Adams sailed for London to join her husband, who was then our Minister at the Court of St. James. While absent, she visited France and Netherlands; resided for a time in the former country; and returned with her knowledge of human nature, of men, manners, &c., enlarged; disgusted with the splendor and sophistications of royalty, and well prepared to appreciate the republican simplicity and frankness of which she was herself a model. While Mr. Adams was Vice-President and President, she never laid aside her singleness of heart, and that sincerity and unaffected dignity which had won for her many friends before her elevation, and which, in spite of national animosity, conquered the prejudices and gained the hearts of the aristocracy of Great Britain. But her crowning virtue was her Christian humility, which is beautifully exemplified in a letter which she wrote to Mr. Adams, on the 8th of February, 1797, “the day on which the votes for President were counted, and Mr. Adams, as Vice-President, was required by law to announce himself the President elect for the ensuing term:”

“‘The sun is dressed in brightest beams.
To give thy honors to the day.’

“And may it prove an auspicious prelude to each ensuing season. You have this day to declare yourself head of a nation. ‘And now, O Lord, my God, thou hast made thy servant ruler over the people. Give unto him an understanding heart, that he may know how to go out and come in before this great people; that he may discern between good and bad. For who is able to judge this thy so great a people?’ were the words of a royal sovereign; and not less applicable to him who is invested with the chief magistracy of a nation, though he wear not a crown, nor the robes of royalty.

“My thoughts and my meditations are with you, though personally absent; and my petitions to Heaven are, that ‘the things which make for peace may not be hidden from your eyes.’ My feelings are not those of pride or ostentation, upon the occasion. They are solemnized by a sense of the obligations, the important trusts, and numerous duties connected with it. That you may be enabled to discharge them with honor to yourself, with justice and impartiality to your country, and with satisfaction to this great people, shall be the daily prayer of your “A. A.”

From her husband’s retirement from the Presidency, in 1801, to the close of her life, in 1818, Mrs. Adams remained constantly at Quiney. Cheerful, contented, and happy, she devoted her last years, in that rural seclusion, to the reciprocities of friendship and love, to offices of kindness and charity, and, in short, to all those duties which tend to ripen the Christian for an exchange of worlds.

But it would be doing injustice to her character and leaving one of her noblest deeds unrecorded, to close without mentioning the influence for good which she exerted over Mr. Adams, and her part in the work of making him what he was. That he was sensible of the benignant influence of wives, may be gathered from the following letter which was addressed to Mrs. Adams from Philadelphia, on the eleventh of August, 1777:

“I think I have some times observed to you in conversation, that upon examining the biography of illustrious men, you will generally find some female about them, in the relation of mother, or wife, or sister, to whose instigation a great part of their merit is to be ascribed. You will find a curious example of this in the case of Aspasia, the wife of Pericles. She was a woman of the greatest beauty, and the first genius. She taught him, it is said, his refined maxims of policy, his lofty imperial eloquence, nay, even composed the speeches on which so great a share of his reputation was founded.

“I wish some of our great men had such wives. By the account in your last letter, it seems the women in Boston begin to think themselves able to serve their country. What a pity it is that our generals in the northern districts had not Aspasias to their wives.

“I believe the two Howes have not very great women to their wives. If they had, we should suffer more from their exertions than we do. This is our good fortune. A smart wife would have put Howe in possession of Philadelphia a long time ago.”

While Mr. Adams was wishing that some of our great men had such wives as Aspasia, he had such a wife, was himself such a man, and owed half his greatness to his Aspasia. The exalted patriotism and the cheerful piety infused into the letters she addressed to him during the long night of political uncertainty that hung over these Colonies, strengthened his courage, fired his nobler feelings, nerved his higher purposes and, doubtless, greatly contributed to make him the right hand man of Washington.

The diligent and faithful Andromaches, the gifted and patriotic Aspasias of the Revolution, did their portion of the great work silently and unseen. Secretly they urged their husbands and sons to the battlefield, secretly spoke to them by letter in the camp or convention, and secretly prayed for wisdom to guide our statesmen and victory to crown our arms. Thus privately acting, how little of their labor or their worth is known. How few of their names are treasured in our annals. With rare exceptions, like the builders of the pyramids, their initials are lost. Then, while we have the name and the noble example of Mrs. Adams, with a few of her patriotic compeers, let us pledge our unswerving devotion to Freedom over the unknown names of the wives and mothers who secretly assisted in nerving the arm that broke the sceptre of British dominion on these shores, and gave the eagle of Liberty a safe and abiding home on our mountain tops. 

*The part of the town in which he lived was afterwards called Quincy in honor of Mrs. Adams’s maternal grandfather.


Excerpted from Noble Deeds of American Women
(Patriotic Series for Boys and Girls)
Edited by J. Clement
With an Introduction by Mrs. L. H. Sigourney
BOSTON: Lee and Shepard, Publishers
Entered by Act of Congress, in the year of 1851,
by E. H. Derby and Co., in the Clerk’s Office of the Northern District of New York

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