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The Election of 1796: Abigail Adams’ Sacrifice
Abigail Adams, a Massachusetts housewife and intellectual, received a letter in January 1796 from her husband, John Adams, the first Vice President of the United States (Parks 1). “In perfect Secrecy between You and me,” he wrote, “I must tell you that I now believe the P. will retire” (Adams, 7 January 1796).
Abigail thought over the implications of his words. In 1788, her husband had aimed for the presidency but lost to George Washington, who earned more than twice as many votes. With a second-place finish, Adams had to settle for the vice-presidency, and he spent much of his two terms away from his Massachusetts home (Sawyer 87). Frustrated by “Political Chess,” he wished for more power to communicate with Congress and complained that the House of Representatives wasted his time (J. Adams, 15 January 1796 1). Now, upon the retirement of “P.” -- President George Washington -- John Adams could once more hope to effect great change. Abigail’s initial reply was less than supportive, however. “Some communications in Your Letters are a Source of much anxiety to me,” she lamented (A. Adams, 21 January 1796 1). She argued that, if personal matters decided his career, John ought to retire along with Washington. The couple had lived apart for five years, ever since Abigail had fallen ill with malaria in Philadelphia and returned to Massachusetts, and she wanted her husband to come home (Sawyer 91).
Throughout her married life, Abigail had spent time away from John, who was called away from home by his work. At first, John had practiced law in Boston and traveled around Massachusetts while she stayed at their farm in Braintree (Akers 18, 26, 18). Homeschooled and accustomed to exploring her parents’ extensive library before her marriage, Abigail then filled her time by studying books and newspapers and writing letters, when not tending her farm and children (Parks 1; Sawyer 28-29). Fortunately, John returned home frequently during their early years of marriage, and she also lived with him in Boston for some time; when together, the Adamses revelled in each other’s company, and they enjoyed discussing politics (Akers 18, 25, 32-33).
As American relations with Britain deteriorated, however, Abigail was more often separated from her husband. In 1776, she had stayed in Massachusetts while John worked in Philadelphia, the seat of pre-Revolutionary politics. A strong-willed woman, Abigail raised her family and managed the farm alone, overcoming financial problems by growing her own food (Sawyer 28-29). However, though she worked busily with her three children, she struggled with loneliness. Feeling that her “bursting Heart must find vent at [her] pen,” she continued to write letters to her husband (A. Adams, 18-20 June 1776 1). Drawing upon a wide knowledge of literature, she eloquently expressed both her longing for John and her ideas about government, writing her most famous opinion on March 31, 1776: “Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors” (A. Adams, 31 March - 5 April 1776 1). Though John flatly rejected these feminist ideas, he read her other proposals seriously and answered her numerous questions about his work (J. Adams, 14 April 1776 1). In return, Abigail observed and informed him of Britain’s military preparations in Massachusetts (Sawyer 29). Though she and her children loathed being away from John, Abigail’s political awareness then convinced her of the value of her family’s sacrifice.
Abigail again faced separation from her husband in 1778, when Congress asked John to travel to Paris and negotiate a military treaty against England. Neither wife nor husband initially wanted to accept this appointment. Abigail was fatigued by the war. Her children had been fatherless for much of their lives. Furthermore, John would risk his life by making the two perilous transatlantic journeys. On the other hand, Abigail realized that good relations with France could crucially improve America’s future, and she trusted her husband to handle such an important matter. For the good of their country, the couple assented to John’s appointment (Sawyer 52-53).
Eighteen years later, Abigail had given up her husband many times for America’s sake. If John’s candidacy for president would only affect her domestic contentment, she may have gladly spared him again. However, the troubles of their children now distressed her. Her only daughter Nabby lived in faraway New York, a separation which Abigail confessed was “painful” to her (Sawyer 90). Her youngest son Thomas was frequently ill and occasionally bedridden by rheumatism (Sawyer 90, 89, 90-91). Coping with these issues and suffering from rheumatism herself, Abigail wished that John would leave public life and return home (A. Adams, 28 December 1793 1). She also worried that she could not perform adequately as First Lady, especially as a successor to the beloved Martha Washington: “Whether I have patience, prudence, discretion sufficent to fill a Station so unexceptionably as the Worthy Lady who now holds it, I fear I have not” (A. Adams, 20 February 1796). In her letters, Abigail Adams had expressed many decided opinions that could cause consternation if widely disseminated. She knew that, if her husband became president, a slip of her tongue would be well-publicized and could jeopardize his political career. She also apprehended the insults John would face during his candidacy. Just as she felt unable to match Martha Washington’s grace, the second president could not succeed President Washington “without suffering severe criticism” (Sawyer 93). The highly politicized environment portended a fiery election.
On the other hand, Abigail had been willing to endure public disgrace before. Many years ago, before the revolution, English soldiers had fired their muskets upon a crowd of colonists and killed five men in the “Boston Massacre.” When the soldiers were put on trial, John argued the highly controversial case on their behalf, believing in his duty to uphold the universal right to a fair trial despite the public’s overwhelming hatred for his clients. Hoping to serve a greater good, John and Abigail were willing to face widespread rejection by Bostonians. However, the Adamses’ bravery had eventually gained respect from other colonists, and Abigail had no such guarantee of a happy outcome now (Sawyer 22-23).
Reading John’s letter, Abigail thought about her past. She considered the needs of her family and her country. She and John discussed the possibility of a presidency, and they finally decided.
Abigail Adams was the second First Lady of the United States. After joining her husband in the capital Philadelphia in 1797, she became even more politically active and defended the highly controversial Alien and Sedition Acts, which John had not opposed though they restricted the rights of foreigners and the press (Sawyer 96-97; Parks 1). Due to sickness, she spent part of the next year at her Massachusetts home but returned to politics soon, moving to the new capital, Federal City, in 1800 (Sawyer 100-101). Finally, when John lost the 1800 election to Thomas Jefferson, husband and wife retired together from public life (Sawyer 105-107). Abigail Adams passed away in Massachusetts in 1818, after a lifetime of dreaming of, sacrificing for, and nurturing young America (Parks 1).
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Adams, Abigail. Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 28 December 1793. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/aea/cfm/doc.cfm? id=L17931228aa&numrecs=13&archive=all&hi=on&mode=&query=rheumatism&queryid=&rec=8&st art=1&tag=text#firstmatch (accessed 10/17/2012).
Adams, Abigail. Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March - 5 April 1776. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/aea/cfm/doc.cfm? id=L17760331aa&numrecs=1&archive=all&hi=on&mode=&query=remember%20the%20ladies&queryi d=&rec=1&start=1&tag=text#firstmatch (accessed 10/17/2012).
Adams, John. Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 7 January 1796. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/aea/cfm/doc.cfm? id=L17960107ja&numrecs=105&archive=all&hi=on&mode=&query=p%2E&queryid=&rec=60&start=51 &tag=text#firstmatch (accessed 10/17/2012).
Adams, John. Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 13 March 1796. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/aea/cfm/doc.cfm? id=L17960313ja&numrecs=1&archive=all&hi=on&mode=&query=could%20make%20Speeches&queryid =&rec=1&start=1&tag=text#firstmatch (accessed 10/17/2012).
Adams, John. Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 14 April 1776 http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/aea/cfm/doc.cfm? id=L17760414ja&numrecs=5&archive=letter&hi=on&mode=&query=despotism&queryid=&rec=1&start= 1&tag=text#firstmatch (accessed 10/17/2012).
Adams, John. Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 15 January 1796. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/aea/cfm/doc.cfm? id=L17960115ja&numrecs=109&archive=all&hi=on&mode=&query=1796&queryid=&rec=10&start=1&t ag=dateline#firstmatch (accessed 10/17/2012).
Akers, Charles W.. Abigail Adams: An American Woman. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980. American National Biography Online. http://www.anb.org/articles/home.html.
Sawyer, Kem Knapp. Abigail Adams. New York: DK Publishing, 2009.