Abigail Adams revised: New book paints a different portrait of famed first lady

Lane Lambert

University of Richmond history professor and author Woody Holton will lecture about his just-published Free Press biography, “Abigail Adams: A Life,” on Tuesday at the Adams National Historical Park.

Here the National Book Award finalist tells Patriot Ledger reporter Lane Lambert what inspired him to chronicle the life of the wife of one president and the mother of another.

Q: With so many Adams books already available, what moved you to write another one?

A: I kind of stumbled across her, while I was doing my previous book (“Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution”). I thought war-bond speculators were an important (financial) battle of that time, and I wanted to find one bond speculator to put a face on all the others. None of the others were well-documented – but I found one, and it was Abigail.

Q: That’s not the image most Americans have of the woman who’s best known for telling John Adams to “remember the ladies.”

A: I was fascinated to find that out about her. She was a more aggressive speculator ... a junk bond dealer. John had that (romantic) feeling about the land, because he owned it. Abigail wanted to know what had the greater return.

She dragged her husband into the modern world, financially speaking. She could be more modern because she was female.

When she wrote her will in 1816 (the year she died), she had $5,000 in personal property, which would be worth $100,000 today. She left nothing to her grandsons, even though they were poor. She left all her money to the women in the family, her granddaughters and nieces, even though technically it should have gone to their husbands.

Under the laws of the time, she couldn’t own land at all, or personal property. But she acted as if she did anyway. That’s one thing that compelled me to write the book.

Q: In what other ways was Abigail a more modern woman?

A: Like most of us today, she was progressive in some areas and not in others. She could push for women’s education, for the idea that women were intellectually men’s equal, and for getting rid of the rule that women couldn’t own property. But she was very traditional in many ways.

She never once got on a horse – and this was a horse culture. She talked about how weaker women were for traveling on the ocean. She definitely saw women and men as different, with different duties. But that’s not inconsistent with feeling they were equal in other capacities.

One thing that surprised me was the extent to which she was a product of slavery. She grew up with slaves (owned by her father, the Rev. William Smith) ... and her racial prejudice would come out once in a while.

But what also surprised me was her supreme self-confidence. Even if she used “whatever you say” language with John, she was much more self confident than she’s been given credit for – almost to a fault.

Q: Has she been put on a pedestal? Or is it appropriate for her to be held up as a feminist icon?

A: Yes to both. She really was ahead of her time in so many ways, but it’s a mistake to call her a feminist. She was a proto-feminist.

Q: You portray a more testy relationship between her and John Adams. Did they have a truly deep bond, as they’re usually shown?

A: They deeply loved each other, but they had some pretty serious spats.

Finances were one area of disagreement ... and that was one area where John totally caved to her and was glad he did. One thing that really made her mad was when he got busy (overseas), he didn’t write her.

Q: Early in the book you note that their first child, Nabby, was born less than nine months after they were married. Are you suggesting they may have had premarital sex?

A: All I supplied was the date. It could have been a premature birth, but it kind of annoyed me that no other biographers had looked at the dates (of the marriage and birth).

But even if they did have premarital relations, it didn’t make them lose the Puritan sense of marriage. Once you were committed to someone and knew you were going to be married, it was considered proper to have sex. Paul Revere’s wife was pregnant when they married.

Q: Abigail is often cast as John’s closest political adviser – Mrs. President, as one of John’s critics called her. Did she really have a savvy political mind?

A: No. The biggest grievance I have against the HBO series is that it portrays her as the port in the storm and John as irascible and mercurial. The reality was, she often was the storm. Everybody he hated, she hated more.

She would have made a terrible diplomat. She was not a great compromiser. She didn’t think the Alien and Sedition Acts went far enough.

Q: If she time-traveled to 2009, what would she think to see her country with an African American president, a female Secretary of State and House speaker, and women on the Supreme Court?

A: She would be pleased but not at all surprised. She pointed out to John that the few times in history when women had become queen, they’d done a pretty good job of it.

The Patriot Ledger