New Illustrated Inventory: “The Letters of Abigail Adams”

Everyone knows Abigail Adams’s famous request to her husband to “Remember the Ladies” as he participated in discussions to form the new United States government. But what of Abigail’s other correspondence? Was she always so witty and quotable? Did she often discuss politics and the place of women in society? What did she think about the first First Lady, the newest fashions, and living in the newly created federal capital?

All of these questions and more can be answered by browsing through Abigail’s letters, over two hundred of which reside in the Society’s collections and are now digitally available through our newest online inventory, “The Letters of Abigail Adams.” AAS purchased this cache of letters, which had been preserved by a great-grandchild of Abigail’s sister, Mary Smith Cranch (1741-1811), in 1942. They are addressed almost exclusively to Mary and Mary’s daughter, Lucy Cranch Greenleaf (1767-1846). In these very personal letters Abigail describes traveling to London, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. She writes about her time in England in 1784, when John served as Minister to the Court of St. James, her life in Washington as First Lady, and her time in Quincy after John retired from the presidency in 1801.

One letter that seems to exemplify the tone, depth, and acute insightfulness of Abigail’s correspondence is one written to her sister Mary from London on April 28, 1787. In the letter, she touches upon the birth of her daughter Nabby’s first child, English versus American nursing styles, her own health, news about Shays’ Rebellion, American loyalist refugees in England, and potential second marriages for her uncles. In perhaps the most entertaining and shrewd part of the letter, she muses upon why one Miss Mayhew, whom she believes would be a “good wife,” is still single. She “cannot help thinking that it argues cowardice in the gentlemen that she still remains single. she has a strength of mind, and an understanding, which will always ensure her respect, provided the heriditary talant which she has at Satire; is properly regulated.” In the end, Abigail concludes that “I have ever observed that it is a most Dangerous thing for a Female to be distinguishd for any quallification beyond the rest of her sex. Whatever may be her Deportment, she is sure to draw upon herself the jealousy of the men and the envy of the women, nor do I see any way to remedy this evil but by increasing the number of accomplished women, a monopoly of any kind is always envidious.”

In this new inventory, you can view digital images of each of the letters at AAS, many of which also have transcriptions and brief abstracts. Letters with transcriptions that also appear in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Adams Papers Digital Edition include links out their locations in that resource, which includes more of Abigail’s letters and other correspondence from her husband, children, and grandchildren located at other institutions.

To entice you to take a closer look at some of Abigail’s letters, we’ve teamed up with the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) to bring you March Madness Abigail Adams-style. Beginning on Friday, March 22, we’ll be pitting thirty-two letters—sixteen from each institution’s collection—against each other in a bracket where users can vote on their favorite letters. For the first round of voting, the letters are grouped into eight categories: Education & Learning; Parenting & Family; Things Abigail Valued; Friends & Frenemies; Politics & Public Life; War; The World According to Abigail; and Women. The various rounds of “Abigail’s All-Stars” will run until March 31, the anniversary of her famous “Remember the Ladies” letter, and the winner will be announced on April 1. Keep an eye on Twitter and Facebook for updates on the competition and comment and follow along with the hashtags #AbigailsAllStars and #RememberAbigail.

In the meantime, take a dive into Abigail’s letters by browsing the new illustrated inventory. You may just be able to capture a little of the magic that happens when looking at the handwriting of an extraordinary woman who has inspired generations of historians, politicians, and women.

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