When Abigail Smith met the up-and-coming lawyer John Adams, little did she know that after they were married they would spend more time apart than together.
Little did she know that she would manage their family farm single-handedly, turning it into the profit-making venture it became.
Little did she know that she would become one of the most important recorders of a pivotal time in American history, her letters serving as a journalistic account for posterity as well as important correspondence between Abigail, her husband, family, friends, and politicians.
Or that she would show “the world” that a husband and wife could stand as equals on the political stage.
Or that she would try to influence the shapers of America’s defining governing documents by asking them to “remember the ladies.”
Or that she would define the role of Second Lady, expand the role of First Lady, and become the first First Lady to live in the “President’s House” – what we now call the White House.
Or that she would raise and educate America’s brilliant fourth President.
All this she did despite her husband’s frequent and lengthy absences while he rode the circuit as a young attorney and, later, while he served his country in Europe and in Philadelphia; despite early shortages of money, food, and supplies; during the threat of British invasion and, later, the political threats that jeopardized her husband’s reputation and career. Abigail also bore six children, one of whom died in infancy, and suffered frequent illnesses throughout her life.
Yes, she was often lonely and wished things were different. But she had a powerful sense of duty, rooted in her Christian faith, and she knew that she and her husband, John, were playing key roles in defining the new American nation.
A native of Weymouth, Massachusetts, Abigail Smith was the daughter of the pastor of the North Parish Congregational Church, Rev. William Smith, who was one of the best educated and most prosperous men in the community. Her mother, Elizabeth Quincy Smith, was well known for her charitable works and for educating her daughters. One grandfather, Col. Josiah Quincy, served in the militia and in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
From all of these role models, Abigail learned duty, faith, hard work, the value of education, self confidence, fairness, public service, and a deep love for her country. From these solid, New England roots, Abigail would go on to serve as an ambassador’s wife in Europe and at the highest levels in American society. She held her own.
If we could have a conversation with her today, what advice might she give to us personally and professionally?
• It’s not all about you
I chose the title “hang tough” because there are times when we are all called to a higher purpose, and we need to put the mission first. Abigail endured John’s lengthy absences because he was engaged in essential, important, and patriotic work. Thanks to David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, we now know just what a key role he played.
• Be who you are
Abigail was always herself – on the farm or in European courts. She knew her values. She knew what mattered. She had the strength of character to not be swayed by flattery or finery.
• Know what and who you stand for and be prepared to defend it
In America, Abigail often had to defend John, first when he defended the British troops after the so-called Boston Massacre, later, when he became president and negotiated his way out of another war with France and Britain. In Europe, she defended America. Even later, she had to defend her son John Quincy Adams as his political career became more and more prominent. I cannot imagine Abigail flinching for a second when called upon to defend principles or people.
• Be creative, and find ways around obstacles
During the Revolutionary War, Abigail was really "up against it" when it came to shortages of money and supplies. During John's absences, she just had to figure things out – and she did. In New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., same thing. With each new experience came challenges she used her creativity and smarts to figure out.
• Don't be afraid of hard work, but also "work smart"
No one worked harder on the farm, in person or long distance, than Abigail. And it paid off. She managed a very successful farm, as well as her duties as an ambassador's wife and then as Second Lady and First Lady. Abigail was practical, and focused on what was important. Today, we would credit her with focusing on the highest ROI.
Abigail Smith Adams was an admirable woman in our American story -- capable, intelligent, and strategic, as a business woman, journalist/correspondent, political adviser, wife, and mother. If you are ever in the Boston area, I encourage you to visit the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Massachusetts (National Park Service), to see two of her homes and her burying place.
She’s worth a visit!
2012 © Bonnie Hurd Smith
Bonnie Hurd Smith, the President and CEO of History Smiths, is an expert on using history in new and innovative ways. She is a marketing, PR, event planning, and cultural tourism professional who also happens to be a respected historian (especially women's history), author, and public speaker.