On an unusually warm morning in the middle of January 1816, seventy-one-year-old Abigail Adams, wracked with pain and convinced she was dying, sat down to write her will. For Adams, scratching out this four-page document was, for one simple reason, an act of rebellion. The reason was that Adams's husband John, the former president, was still alive. Throughout Abigail's lifetime (which, despite her apprehensions that January morning, would continue into the fall of 1818), every wife in America was a feme covert -- a covered woman. "The husband and wife are one person in law," the English legal theorist William Blackstone had explained back in 1765; "that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage." The most tangible manifestation of this legal "coverture" was, as Adams complained to her husband in 1782, that married women's property was "subject to the controul and disposal of our partners, to whom the Laws have given a soverign Authority." Husbands assumed complete authority over their wives' real estate (land and buildings). And if a married woman brought to her marriage, or later acquired, personal property (which consisted of everything except real estate, be it cash or cattle), it, along with the income generated by her real estate, went to her husband, to dispose of as he pleased. Thousands of spinsters and widows left wills giving away their belongings, but married women were not permitted to distribute their real estate -- it was divided equally among their children -- and there was no reason for them to express their wishes regarding their personal property, for they had none to give.
Adams nonetheless decided to write a will. She began it by itemizing certain gifts she had previously made to her sons, explaining that she mentioned these so "that injustice may not be supposed to be done" to them. But the bulk of her will took care of her female relatives. They received gowns, watches, and rings -- and also securities and cash. Adams's brother, brother-in-law, son-in-law, and one of her sons had all failed to provide adequately for their families. To make up for these male relatives' failures, she had spent the previous three decades giving money to several men and nearly a dozen women in her family circle, often concealing these payments from her husband. She now decided not to share her belongings -- more precisely, the property she claimed to own -- equally among her heirs, as her husband would do (with a few exceptions) in his own will three years later. Instead she sought to harmonize her benefactions with the recipients' needs. The residuary legatees -- those receiving whatever, if anything, was left after all of her individual bequests had been carried out -- were her six granddaughters.
In the vast trove of Adams Papers housed at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, a copy of Adams's will, in her handwriting, is filed with the family's legal papers, but it was not actually a legal document that any court was bound to respect. Recognizing that hard truth, she did not begin it with the customary language about being of sound mind and body, instead writing, "I Abigail Adams wife to the Hon[ora]ble John Adams of Quincy in the County of Norfolk, by and with his consent, do dispose of the following property." By and with his consent. Although the document did not bear the signature of John Adams, Abigail insisted that she had persuaded her spouse to go along with her challenge to coverture. Over the course of their long lifetimes, John and Abigail Adams had worked together on a host of important projects that have earned them great renown, but this previously unreported collaboration -- in which the wife, not the husband, took the leading role -- may have been the most extraordinary of all.
Today Abigail Adams lives in the American memory as the most illustrious woman of the founding era. Yet the very existence of her will suggests that perhaps we do not know her quite as well as we think we do. What were the converging forces that prompted the wife of the second president to defy hundreds of years of statutes and legal precedents by writing a will? Given that married women of her era were not supposed to own personal property, how did she manage to acquire so much of it? When John discovered this document among his deceased wife's papers, he would have been well within his rights in throwing it in the fire, and that raises an additional question: what made her so sure he would carry out her wishes? The only way to solve these riddles is to trace two long-term developments. The first is the evolution of Abigail Adams's personality across the span of more than seventy years of revolution, war, and social upheaval. The second is the gradual working out, over the course of more than five decades, of her relationship with her husband. Abigail herself was never able to answer another question posed by her will, namely: Did John in fact carry out her instructions? But we can.
Excerpted from Abigail Adams by Woody Holton. Copyright © 2009 by Woody Holton. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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