Woody Holton -- Financial Advice From Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams (1744-1818) at around fifty-five years old. (COURTESY OF ADAMS NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK)
By Woody Holton
Sunday, July 5, 2009

Thomas Jefferson died so deep in debt that his beloved estate, Monticello, had to be sold to satisfy his creditors. James Madison also left behind mounds of financial obligations. But John Adams, the man Jefferson turned out of the White House in 1801, died rich and debt-free -- despite sharing his predecessor's careless attitude toward money. What was his secret?

His wife.

Long famous for her political partnership with her husband and her advocacy for women's rights, Abigail Adams was also something of a financial wizard. Some of the first lady's investment choices were a tad unsavory, but all of them were prudent, and many of her strategies remain useful today. Adams understood the difference between panic and reasonable caution. She largely avoided exposure to the speculative bubbles of the 1790s that did so much damage to her son-in-law and two of her sons. Had she been alive in July 2008 and owned stock in Abigail Adams National Bancorp, I suspect she would have sold it. (That financial institution named for Adams hasn't done as well as she did: It lost two-thirds of its value in the past year and is now being sold.)

This weekend, as we look back on all that this country's founding families bequeathed us, why not ask for just a little more help? We could all use it. If you were to hire Abigail Adams as your financial adviser, here's the advice that the Massachusetts matriarch would offer.

Invest with your head, not your heart. For John Adams, land was a feel-good investment, since it bolstered his sense of personal independence. He wanted to invest all of his savings in real estate. But Abigail showed her husband that his farmland returned as little as 1 percent annually, while she could earn as much as 25 percent each year speculating in depreciated government securities. (These bonds had been disbursed to Continental Army soldiers and then inveigled from them at a fraction of their face value.) John continued to buy real estate, but he shifted a large chunk of his portfolio to bonds.

Wait for the motivated seller. In 1785, the Adamses's daughter, also named Abigail, jilted her faithless fiance, the playwright Royall Tyler -- a move that her parents enthusiastically supported. After that, Tyler had no interest in remaining in the mansion that he had purchased for her in Braintree, Mass. He walked away from the house and stopped making payments to the seller, who had financed the transaction. The frustrated seller agreed to unload the house at a bargain price. The new buyers were Abigail and John Adams.

Take risks. During the Revolutionary War, Abigail convinced John, who had traveled to Europe as a diplomat, to start sending her merchandise to sell. In time she would import everything from bulk linen and calico to gauze, lace, ribbon and "Barcelona handkerchiefs." Some of John's early shipments, which were uninsured, were captured by the British, and he got cold feet. But Abigail urged him not to become discouraged. The war had driven the price of European merchandise sky-high, so she could still make a handsome profit even if the majority of the vessels carrying her goods were captured. "If one in 3 arrives I should be a gainer," she told John in a 1779 letter, and he continued his shipments.

Stay coy while bargaining. When buying real estate, Abigail sometimes had third parties approach potential sellers on her behalf. She instructed her agent in Massachusetts not to reveal that he was representing her until the bargain had been struck. Her concern was that if the seller knew he was dealing with the wealthy Adams family, he would demand a higher price.

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