YOU COULD TAKE Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson, Rosalynn Carter -- toss in Edith Wilson -- roll them into one, and still not equal the presidential wife power of Abigail Adams, the prototype of the first lady as a political partner. Almost 200 years ago, the wife of our second president and mother of our sixth (the only woman in history doubly blessed) advised her husband John Adams on the issues, championed his career, chastised his enemies and managed his finances. John Adams relied heavily on her opinion. "I never wanted your Advice and assistance more in my Life," he wrote after his inauguration in 1797. Her son, John Quincy Adams, whom she trained for public service, said his mother's life "gave the lie to every libel on her sex that was ever written." Thomas Jefferson pronounced her "one of the most estimable characters on earth," and now historian Charles Akers, author of this new biography which draws from 1,000 letters in the recently opened Adams family papers, concludes that she was "the nation's best informed woman on public affairs."
Abigail Adams earned such accolades at a time women in Massachusetts could not vote, hold office or attend town meetings. She exerted her influence behind the scenes and through her many letters. "If I cannot be a voter . . . I will be a writer of votes," she declared in 1780 when she launched a campaign against John Hancock in his race to become first governor of Massachusetts. "If a woman does not hold the Reigns of Government, I see no reason for her not judging how they are conducted," she later said. And judge she did -- in hundreds of letters written to John Adams and to her circle of correspondents which included prominent Europeans and American statemen -- Thomas Jefferson among them. She was patriotic, articulate and tough -- an early hardliner towards England, ("The only alternative which every American thinks of," she wrote Catharine Macaulay, the English historian, in 1774, "is liberty or death") and later towards France. (The time has come, she wrote in 1798, to show the French that "we did not break from the shackels of our parent, to become slaves of our sister.")
She roundly criticized other founding fathers who failed to meet the Adams standards -- or hindered John's career. Benjamin Franklin, whom she at first admired as a "true patriot," became an "old Sorcerer" when he thwarted John Adams at the peace negotiations in Paris. John Hancock she scorned as a "tinkeling cymball; Alexander Hamilton was "as ambitious as Julius Caesar." Only Thomas Jefferson, whom she found an "Excellent Man, Worthy of his Nation," occupied a permanent "little corner" of her heart, even during his political alienation from John Adams in the 1790s. Between Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson ran many letters and a warm friendship. When he was in France as American minister and she was in England as wife of the American minister, they exchanged political ideas and cozy favors. He sent her shoes from Paris; she shopped in London for his shirts. (And voiced her disapproval of the presence at his legation of Sally Hemings, the pretty 14-year-old slave, whose relationship with Jefferson sparked political gossip in the campaign of 1800 and historical controversy ever after.)
Abigail Adams knew that women were equal to men. "I will never consent to have our Sex considered in an inferior point of light," she wrote when she was first lady, "If Man is Lord, woman is Lordess." Separate but equal was how she saw the roles of the sexes. Women might be relegated by nature to marriage, home and motherhood, but their sphere was equally important -- particularly when it came to raising sons to be the nation's leaders which she did successfully with her eldest, John Quincy. She saw to John Quincy's education, took him to watch the battle of Bunker Hill, pointed him towards a career of public service. When he was 11, and again at 15, she urged him to accompany his father to Europe. "These are times," she said, "when a genius would want to live."
Abigail's intelligence and independence were forged into a self-confidence of steel by the sacrifices she made for husband's career. A political widow for more than half her married life, she was separated from John by the Atlantic Ocean for six and a half years at one stretch -- except for an interval of four months. In her husband's absences, Abigail kept in touch with his allies, brought up his four children, ran his farm at Braintree, and cleverly managed his finances (which she referred to first as "your," then "our" and finally, "my" business.) When John Adams became a national hero, she was not shy about taking credit for his success. "It is my due," she said, "for having sacrificed so large a portion of my peace and happiness to promote the welfare of my country."
Theirs was an unusual marriage, one between equals and one based on love. "Miss Adorable" John Adams called her when they courted in 1763. Three decades later he wrote from Philadelphia (where he was serving as George Washington's Vice President), "I am as impatient to see you as I used to be twenty years ago." When Abigail was past 50, she vowed, "I would not give up the Heavenly Sensations of a virtuous Love, even at this advanced period of Life, for all the Wealth of all the Indies," After half a century of marriage to John Adams, she still was sure "my first choice would be the same if I again had youth, and the opportunity to make it."
This solid, competent biography is studded with details about life in early America -- the perils of travel, the horrors of smallpox and yellow fever -- and laced with human touches about the feisty Abigail. Akers describes her when she was courted by John Adams as a "physically passionate" young woman who "a quarter of a century later . . . still remembered her thrill and blush when their hands first touched." He also states that she acknowledged late in life "that she did not hold to the fatalistic belief that a wife must have all the children that came her way."
To whom did she make these intimate confessions? When and where? Alas, Professor Akers isn't telling. He fails to include footnotes or chapter notes citing the specific documents from which these and other fascinating nuggets come. This is an unfortunate omission in an otherwise most satisfying book.