Abigail and John Adams exchanged about 1,200 letters during the course of their courtship and marriage. None more famous than the letter Abigail sent John 239 years ago today in which she asked him to “remember the ladies” as the new American political system was being crafted during the early days of the Revolutionary War.
I long to hear that you have declared an independancy—and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.
Abigail Adams was a remarkable woman. She advocated for equality long before it was fashionable. She trailblazed the role of the first lady as a top confidant and adviser. Her adversaries dubbed her “Mrs. President,” to which I say rock on Mrs. Adams.
So on this anniversary of her most famous words, “Remember the Ladies,” and on this last day of Women’s History Month, I thought it would be appropriate to Remember Abigail, to elevate the discussion and analysis of this remarkable quote by highlighting some lesser known facts about the letter and its author.
Both Abigail and John Adams were opposed to slavery. The very same “Remember the ladies” letter includes this lesser-known statement on slavery:
I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs. Of this I am certain that it is not founded upon that generous and christian principal of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us. . . .
John Adams responded to the letter, in a rather dismissive fashion. He called his wife “saucy” for her bold request:
As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient — that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent — that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters.
But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented. — This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I wont blot it out.
Abigail then wrote her friend Mercy Otis Warren and called her husband saucy in return, albeit behind his back.
He is very sausy to me in return for a List of Female Grievances which I transmitted to him. I think I will get you to join me in a petition to Congress. I thought it was very probable our wise Statesmen would erect a New Goverment and form a new code of Laws. I ventured to speak a word in behalf of our Sex, who are rather hardly dealt with by the Laws of England which gives such unlimitted power to the Husband to use his wife Ill.
In return he tells me he cannot but Laugh at My Extrodonary Code of Laws. That he had heard their Struggle had loosned the bands of Goverment, that children and apprentices were dissabedient, that Schools and Colledges were grown turbulant, that Indians slighted their Guardians, and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But my Letter was the first intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented. This is rather too coarse a complement, he adds, but that I am so sausy he wont blot it out.
So I have help’d the Sex abundantly, but I will tell him I have only been making trial of the Disintresstedness of his Virtue, and when weigh’d in the balance have found it wanting.
The back and forth continues between John and Abigail on the matter, and she boldly calls her husband ungenerous, this time to him directly.
I cannot say that I think you are very generous to the ladies; for, whilst you are proclaiming peace and good-will to men, emancipating all nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over wives.
But you must remember that arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken; and, notwithstanding all your wise laws and maxims, we have it in our power, not only to free ourselves, but to subdue our masters, and without violence, throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet.
These excerpts make for great historical drama in a 21st century history classroom, but how can they be used to elevate rigor and inquiry?
Students need to contextualize the Founding Era and explore subtopics such as gender roles and slavery. Have students investigate whether Abigail’s views were common or extraordinary? Have students assume the role of a woman in the Founding Era. A first person simulation will engage students, allow them to contextualize the time period, will foster student discourse, and will lead to increased retention. Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook includes many “Historical Perspectives” simulations. Each simulation includes at least one female perspective for students to assume.
The Abigail Adams Biography included in Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook includes more primary source material on Abigail Adams’ contributions to American society.
Discovery Education Streaming includes a video clip on Abigail Adams and Female Patriots. Discovery Education Social Studies Techbook includes a core interactive text on Female Patriots and the War Effort, in both English and Spanish. It includes a great section on the boycotting efforts of Sarah Bacheand Esther DeBerdt Reed, which shows how women were political actors in the time period, even though equal voting rights were yet to be achieved.
Also, please read my other blog posts related to Women’s history:
- How Old History Textbooks Covered Women, and Why That Matters Today
- Celebrate Women’s Suffrage with Image Analysis