Book review: 'Abigail Adams,' by Woody Holton

By Rosemarie Zagarri
Sunday, February 14, 2010


By Woody Holton

Free Press. 483 pp. $30

In recent years, Abigail Smith Adams, the wife of President John Adams and mother of John Quincy Adams, has gained fame as a kind of proto-feminist. Her feisty demand that the Continental Congress "Remember the Ladies" when formulating a new code of laws for their newly independent country has often been cited to that effect. Woody Holton's "Abigail Adams" convincingly demonstrates that Adams's demand meant both more and less than previously understood. Her handling of the family's finances made her a forerunner of those who later campaigned to expand women's economic rights.

Unlike most happily married couples, John and Abigail spent much of their married life apart -- first when John's career as a lawyer in provincial Massachusetts took him away from home and then when prolonged periods of government service led to lengthy stays in Philadelphia, Paris, Amsterdam and London. Early in their marriage, from 1774-84, the spouses lived apart more than together. They managed the separations by writing letters -- a lot of them: Over 1,200 from their 54-year marriage survive.

Holton's work draws on these rich sources to offer a comprehensive yet highly readable account of Abigail's life. Unlike many previous biographies, Holton's depicts Abigail not as a forerunner of modern feminism but as an 18th-century woman making the best of a difficult situation. Rather than succumb to bitterness or despair over her husband's frequent absences, she used the separations as opportunities to enhance her power and authority in the marriage. Without him around, Abigail was the one who ultimately decided how to rear the children, manage the farm, deal with hired help and manage the finances. Through her experiences, she developed a strong confidence in her abilities and an ongoing critique of women's subordinated status. Without ever explicitly endorsing female suffrage, she advocated better educational opportunities for women and a lessening of their social oppression.

In the best sections of the book, Holton provides a portrait of Abigail as something of an economic opportunist -- in the best sense of the term. Due to the legal stricture known as "coverture," married women were officially prohibited from owning property or making contracts in their own name. Yet Holton shows how Abigail often pressed against these strictures, acting as if they did not pertain to her. During the turbulent years of the Revolution, she bolstered the family's income by selling goods that were in short supply, such as ribbons, lace, pins and gauze, for a substantial profit. Sometimes acting on John's orders and sometimes acting alone, she purchased land in Massachusetts and in Vermont. Most significant, from an early date she invested in government securities. She was, according to Holton, a shrewd speculator who bought when the price was low and sold when the price was high. None of these transactions was illegal. To Holton, however, they indicate that Abigail was a calculating profit-maximizer whose speculations sometimes came at the expense of less well-off women, small farmers or penniless Revolutionary War soldiers.

Yet, Holton indicates, Abigail used the proceeds not to underwrite a lavish lifestyle but to guarantee her family's economic future. At various times, she drew upon that "money which I call mine" to pay for the education of grandchildren, to bring troubled nieces and nephews to live in her home and to make loans to those in need. During this same period, John earned only the modest salary of a public official. Thus, while other founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison ended their lives in debt, the Adams family, though not wealthy, was financially secure -- in good part, according to Holton, because of Abigail's excellent money-management skills.

In the end, Holton suggests that Abigail's economic self-assertiveness represented far more than a pragmatic response to her financial situation. Her actions were part and parcel of her longstanding resistance to women's subjugated status, a "tangible protest" against women's economic and political disenfranchisement. She was not alone. As works by historians such as Laurel Ulrich, Nancy Cott and Carole Shammas have shown, many other women in late 18th-century America were beginning to develop a larger understanding of their economic potential. In Holton's hands, Abigail Adams, too, emerges as a figure who, long before the 20th century, figured out the connection between economic power and legal rights.

Rosemarie Zagarri is a professor of history at George Mason University and the author of "Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic."

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