The Adams Letters (American Revolution) 1776
Many observers of American history are fond of mentioning Abigail Adams’s famous letter to her husband, written on March 31st, 1776, during the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, as an historical indication that the movement for equal rights for women began simultaneously with the birth of the American nation. One interesting aspect of this assumption is that such an assumption is seemingly corroborated by Abigail Adams’s often-quoted remark to her husband: “I desire you would Remember the Ladies” (Adams Letters, 292), but such an assumption is not corroborated by John Adams’s immediate response to his wife, nor in his actions later in life, both during and after the Revolutionary War.
One immediate and obvious historical influence on the “The Adams Letters” in question, those which pertain to Abigail’s famous quote, is, of course, the Declaration of Independence itself. Although the Declaration of Independence forwarded important (and revolutionary) ideas about equality, freedom, and justice, the Declaration of Independence was also a form of a declaration of war against England. As such, John Adams’s appraisal of the immediate future of the burgeoning “ideal” state of The United States of America was one informed by the stern and pragmatic reality of war. Because of the grave challenges which were to face the new nation, first and foremost waging a successful war against a larger and more powerful country, John Adams’s notorious levity in regard to women’s rights as expressed in his response to Abigail must be regarded as ironic, rather than misogynistic.
In point of fact, King George III had already promised to put down the colonial rebellion by force of arms in his July 1st 1775 address to Parliament. This historical reality informs John Adams’s response to his wife just as it informs his actions, which were to take little heed of his wife’s geas. In the long run, the shadow of war probably blotted out the urgency of women’s rights in John Adams’s mind, just as it obscured the due consideration of slavery. After the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, in a letter to Count Sarsfield in 1785, John Adams continues to consider women and slaves in the same “breath”; remarks that “”I have all the pieces relative to the United Provinces, excepting the Pays de Drenthe. I have one piece upon slavery, one upon women, and two introductions to the subject of fiefs. That is all that I have.” (Adams, and Adams 370) . It is entirely possible that Adams was ambivalent to the plight of women a nd slaves; it is equally possible that he was anything but ambivalent, but simply understood the “liberation” of slaves and women to be an ideal which could not be reached concordant with the establishing of America as an independent nation. Therefore his comments were ironic rather than merely pejorative.
An interesting example of John Adams’s ambiguous phraseology and tone in regard to the subject of women and slaves can be found in his letter to James Sullivan when he remarks: “the same reasoning which will induce you to admit all men who have no property, to vote, with hose who have, for those laws which affect the person, will prove that you ought to admit women and children” (Adams Letters, 292) can be read as either open-minded or ironically misopgynistic. Merely by lumping women and children in the same category as men without property would seem to be an attempted “feminization” of all three demographics. This idea is supported by Adams’s following remark that “generally speaking, women and children have as good judgments, and as independent minds, as those men who are wholly destitute of property” (Adams Letters, 292). At this point, most readers would have to concede that Adams is in fact being sarcastic.
If John Adams intended to be ironic on the subject of women’s rights because he felt inherently powerless to accomplosh anything in that direfction, it is a much different story than if he became ironic and dismissive of women’s rights because he held women in low-esteem. The latter conclusion would seem to be contradicted by his relationship with Abigail and the very fact that he engages in a theoretical back and forth with her in a jesting tone. However, the irony of John Adams’ remarks on women or slaves is minimal compared to the historical irony of the events which impacted his wife’s life during the war.
If John Adams saw the bitter reality of war as an impediment to the addressing of women’s issues, the irony of the historical reality is that the war exerted a “role switching” influence on John adn Abigail Adams themselves, where, due to John’s long absences away from his family, Abigail became the acting head of the family and the chief decision maker and took on the workload which had historically been associated with men, not women. In fact, “The Revolutionary War not only increased Abigail’s traditional domestic responsibilities, but it shifted to her as well the primary responsibility for supporting her family. For ten years, Abigail served as the primary source of support for her family, a position to which she never adjusted comfortably ; yet it was a function which she performed energetically and competently” (Gelles null19). A still greater irony is that while Abigail remained classed in her husband’s mind as an equal to slaves and men without property, it was Abigail and not John Adams who personally saved the family’s property during the Revolutionary War: “in the subsequent six years of John’s absence, she focused her efforts on remaining free from debt and on not losing their property. Abigail did avoid debt, and she even added to their property holdings.” (Gelles null19). Although no progress was made for women’s rights during the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, the historical record demonstrates that women were equal in responsibility if not granted equal rights and recognition during the years of the American Revolution.
Adams, Charles Francis, and John Adams. The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: With a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations. Vol. 8. Boston: Little, Brown, 1853.
Gelles, Edith B. Portia: The World of Abigail Adams. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995.