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By Joseph Glantz


Abigail Adams
​Joining us today is Abigail Adams, who was born in 1744, a British colonialist, and died in 1818 an American citizen. Her husband was John Adams, the second President of the United States. Their son John Quincy Adams was the sixth President of the United States. Her most noted writings are her communications with her husband John. (These writings are the sources here except where noted)

So what was it like to be known as the First Lady?
We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them. (1774)

Why is it that your generation produced such great leaders like Franklin, Washington, Jefferson and your husband?
These are times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or in the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by the scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman. (Letter to John Quincy Adams; 1780)

In other words?
Great necessities call forth great leaders. (This might be a paraphrase of "Great necessities call out great virtues" stated in her letter of 1780-01-19)
And what was the greatest challenge in creating a Democracy?
How difficult the task to quench the fire and the pride of private ambition, and to sacrifice ourselves and all our hopes and expectations to the public weal! How few have souls capable of so noble an undertaking! How often are the laurels worn by those who have had no share in earning them! But there is a future recompense of reward, to which the upright man looks, and which he will most assuredly obtain, provided he perseveres unto the end. (1775)

And how does one deal with that challenge – your day or ours?
I feel anxious for the fate of our monarchy, or democracy, or whatever is to take place. I soon get lost in a labyrinth of perplexities; but, whatever occurs, may justice and righteousness be the stability of our times, and order arise out of confusion. Great difficulties may be surmounted by patience and perseverance. (1775)

Let’s try a few gender issues. What advice did you give to your husband?
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 particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation. That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend. Why, then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity? Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your sex; regard us then as Beings placed by Providence under your protection, and in imitation of the Supreme Being make use of that power only for our happiness. (1776-03-31)

What did you think of some of the women’s leaders like Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar
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. (1776-05-07)

What to say to obnoxious male politicians?
It is really mortifying, sir, when a woman possessed of a common share of understanding considers the difference of education between the male and female sex, even in those families where education is attended to... Nay why should your sex wish for such a disparity in those whom they one day intend for companions and associates. Pardon me, sir, if I cannot help sometimes suspecting that this neglect arises in some measure from an ungenerous jealousy of rivals near the throne. (Letter to John Thaxter; 1778-02-15)

And what took women so long to assert themselves?
Knowledge is a fine thing, and mother Eve thought so; but she smarted so severely for hers, that most of her daughters have been afraid of it since. (Letter to Elizabeth Shaw; 1791)

Your views on slavery?
I wish most sincerely there was not a slave in this province. It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me—to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have. (1774)

Cliff notes and study guides?
Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence. (Letter to John Quincy Adams; 1780)
What would you say to today’s couch potatoes and remote control?
I begin to think, that a calm is not desirable in any situation in life. Every object is beautiful in motion; a ship under sail, trees gently agitated with the wind, and a fine woman dancing, are three instances in point. Man was made for action and for bustle too, I believe. (Letter to her sister; Mary Smith Cranch (1784)

In other words?
Luxury, that baneful poison, has unstrung and enfeebled her sons. (1779)

Writer’s block?
Shall we be despised by foreign powers for hesitating so long at a word? (1776-05-07)

And the key to good writing?
A little of what you call frippery is very necessary towards looking like the rest of the world. (1780)

Some of the great women writers who came after you like Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and Virginia Wolf?
If we mean to have Heroes, Statesmen and Philosophers, we should have learned women. The world perhaps would laugh at me and accuse me of vanity, But you I know have a mind too enlarged and liberal to disregard the Sentiment. If much depends as is allowed upon the early education of youth and the first principles which are instill'd take the deepest root, great benefit must arise from literary accomplishments in women. (1776)

Any parting advice?
Deliver me from your cold phlegmatic preachers, politicians, friends, lovers and husbands. (1776)

Do not grieve, my friend, my dearest friend. I am ready to go. And John, it will not be long. (Last words in letter to John Adams)

Copyright 2016 Joseph Glantz