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Excerpt from Abigail Adams by Woody Holton, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Abigail Adams

by Woody Holton

Abigail Adams
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2009, 512 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2010, 512 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
BJ Nathan Hegedus

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For generations, Abigail Adams's words -- in particular her famous "Remember the Ladies" letter of March 31, 1776 -- have inspired women seeking equity in the workplace, before the law, and within their own families. Yet they have always been mere words, and skeptics have emphasized that the only place she ever dared to utter them was in confidential letters to her husband. But the skeptics are wrong. Adams actually shared her views on women's rights with numerous correspondents, male and female, inside and outside her family. She even published a brief critique of one particularly obnoxious misogynist in a Boston newspaper (albeit anonymously). Most important of all, she was not content merely to register her verbal objections to the subjugation of women. She turned her own household into a laboratory where she imagined what the emancipation of women might look like. In the fall of 1781, about the time of the British surrender at Yorktown, she had made the first of her own declarations of independence. She took some of the money she had earned as a wartime dealer in European finery (therein lies another tale, to be told in due course) and placed it "in the hands of a Friend," whose identity she conspicuously withheld from her husband. Later she invested this "money which I call mine" in ways that John considered unsavory. For instance, she speculated in government securities that Revolutionary War soldiers had been forced to part with for pennies on the dollar. Moreover, she sometimes devoted her mercantile and speculative profits to causes of which her husband did not approve, justifying the expenditures as coming out of what she variously called "my own pocket money" or "my pin money."

Adams's determination to enact some of her proto feminist ideals within her own household -- to act as though the doctrine of coverture lost its force at her front door -- is only one of the many surprises concealed within the pages of this woman's extraordinary life history. Given the sheer number of authors who have recounted her story, an astonishingly small portion of it has been told. Biographies of Abigail Adams generally portray her as agreeing with her husband on nearly everything -- a depiction that is only accurate if you concentrate, as most of her biographers have, on her political views. On more personal matters, such as religion, the education of the Adams children, and -- most of all -- family finances, John and Abigail frequently clashed. The sparks that sometimes flew between them illuminate both personalities, and their disagreements can also bring some clarity to a range of broader issues, especially the complex question of what the American Revolution did for -- or to -- women.

Many of the Adamses' marital differences will resonate with modern couples. In fact, one astonishing aspect of Abigail's story is that much of it seems strikingly familiar. As a teenager, she bridled under her mother's overprotective gaze, and even as a young adult she continued to nurse the wounds she felt her mother had inflicted on her. She did not like the man who courted her little sister, Elizabeth, often called Betsy (primarily because he was too Calvinist). She was annoyed at the way her married friends prattled on about their children -- until she became a mother herself. She wondered whether her infant daughter's first smiles were mirth or simply gas, borrowed baby gear from her older sister, Mary, and worried about whether the local school was doing her children more harm than good. Her husband irritated her by ignoring the family as he lost himself in his newspaper -- and infuriated her by leaving her with a houseful of sick children and not even bothering to write. Her teenage daughter resisted her authority in ways that recalled her own adolescent rebellions.

One reason that many of the scenes of Adams's life have a modern resonance is that she prided herself on navigating the most important intellectual currents of her era. Long before her contemporary Thomas Paine christened their epoch the Age of Reason, Abigail and other educated men and women on both sides of the Atlantic had liberated themselves (as they saw it) from the bonds of blind faith, placing new emphasis on the thought processes of every individual. Letter writing and diary keeping both mushroomed during the Enlightenment. Abigail wrote more than two thousand surviving letters, and she devoted large portions of them to exploring her feelings. To an extent that does not seem unusual today but that would have astonished her grandmother, Abigail liked to think about her thoughts. A fortunate byproduct of Adams's fondness for reflection and self-expression is that she is far and away the most richly documented woman of America's founding era. A matchless trove of personal information -- primarily letters -- makes it possible to trace the evolution of her personality in astonishing detail. John Adams constantly berated himself for vanity, and his enemies' accusation of arrogance sticks to him even today. Yet in many ways Abigail was even more self-possessed. To be sure, John's intellectual reach often intimidated her, but in all of her other relationships, she was surprisingly confident -- "saucy," John called her. Adams's self assurance shown brightest in her approach to other people's offspring. Once it became clear that she had failed to dissuade her younger sister, Elizabeth, from marrying Reverend John Shaw, she urged the couple not to have any children. In 1809, her son John Quincy sailed to St. Petersburg, Russia, as the American minister (a diplomatic post below the rank of ambassador), leaving two of his boys behind with their grandmother. Adams periodically sent his mother explicit instructions about who should board and educate the boys, but she routinely overruled his decisions. At one point she placed George and John with Elizabeth (who by then had lost her first husband and taken another), but then she became dissatisfied with her sister's childraising technique and moved the boys yet again.

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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