She was the wife of one president and the mother of another, but only now has Abigail Adams, that paragon of women, been granted the honor of a commemorative stamp.
It is something of a scandal that she had to wait so long for the postal service to deliver this recognition. If only for her letter-writing, which was prodigious, and her oft-stated yearnings for a proper postal system -- the want of which caused her great agonies during the endless separations from her husband, her "dearest friend" -- she should have caught the eye of the postal authorities long ago.
She was a candidate for Bicentennial notice but was edged out by less luminous, less prolific and, in the eyes of her admirers, less worthy sisters -- Martha Washington and Molly Pitcher.
In announcing that the oversight was to be corrected, Belmont Faries, the former Washington Star editor and stamp columnist who is chairman of the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee, noted that "Abigail Adams was far more than 'the wife of' ". She was, he said, "the first fully emancipated woman" and a partner in a remarkable marriage, which was "based on a love between equals."
Abigail Adams did an extraordinary amount of waiting. Her husband, John Adams, was more often gone than at home for the 10 years during which the Revolutionary War was fought and a new nation was struggling to be born. She waited with a verve seldom seen, or at least put down on paper.
To some, John Adams may have been a dumpy, grumpy Yankee lawyer. Abigail loved him passionately from the moment she set eyes on him, and the years made him "dearer to me than all this universe contains beside." Every hour spent out of his company was sunless, incomplete. But she gave up her joy willingly.
"How many are the solitary hours I spend, ruminating upon the past, and anticipating the future, whilst you overwhelmed with the cares of State, have but few moments you can devote to any individual. All domestick pleasures and injoyments are absorbed in the great and important duty you owe your Country . . . . It is to be preffered to Parents, Wives, Children, Friends and all things the Gods only excepted . . . . Thus do I suppress every wish, and silence every Murmer, acquiescing in a panfull Seperation from the companion of my youth, and the Friend of my heart."
Abigail Adams, warm-blooded, high-minded, was a patriot. Her patriotism had nothing of the crowing, complacent "We're No. 1" that we endure today. To her, it meant sacrifice, struggle and going above and beyond anything that could reasonably have been expected of an indifferently educated 18th century parson's daughter, who cheerfully shouldered the responsibilities of a single parent, farm-manager and war correspondent for the "animating cause."
Her only complaint, and it was rarely expressed, was when John Adams' expressions of love fell short: "Could you after a thousand fears and enxieties, long expectation and painful suspences," she wrote in the seventh year of his almost continual absence from home, "be satisfied with my telling you that I was well, that I wished you were with me, that my daughter sent her duty, that I had ordered some articles for you which I hoped would arrive etc. etc. By Heaven if you could, you have changed Hearts with some frozen Laplander."
Nor did she hesitate to lecture him about the failings of his sex in regard to hers. "I cannot say that I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations," she wrote him tartly after the Declaration of Independence, "you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives."
Abigail Adams was a great, natural letter-writer. Her spelling was lamentable. Her appalling approximations are all faithfully reproduced in "The Book of Abigail and John," a collection of their letters published by the Harvard University Press. But she had the power to transcribe her thoughts and her emotions exactly as they came to her, and she did not know how to be boring.
The postal service, which is often late, must be commended for noticing her at last. Some, who prefer their colonial dames in lace-trimmed caps, may regret the stamp's picture of her, which is startlingly modern, making her look like the vice president of a steel company or the head of a social agency. But then, she was contemporary, in everything, except possibly her addiction to writing letters.