Abigail Adams

image: Portrait of Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams
By Gilbert Stuart, 1800/1815. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC

Few couples of the American Revolution are as well known as John and Abigail Adams. Like many other wives, Abigail endured long periods of separation from her beloved friend and husband. Once the war ended, Abigail and her daughter embarked on the month-long, transatlantic voyage that reunited her with her "Dearest Friend" as well as her eldest son, John Quincy, whom she had not seen for five years. The happy family moved first to Auteuil, near Paris, where Adams was working with fellow commissioners Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to secure commercial treaties for the United States. The following winter, the Confederation Congress appointed John Adams the first United States minister to Great Britain. Abigail moved to London that May and in June she and her daughter Nabby were presented to Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III.(1)

During her years abroad, Abigail remained in close contact with friends and relatives at home in Massachusetts. She was determined to make profitable investments despite what observers agreed was a bleak and precarious American economy. Unlike her husband, who clung to the traditional belief that real estate was the best and most secure investment, Abigail pursued a riskier but potentially far more profitable venture. She instructed her financial representative, Cotton Tufts (who was also her uncle) to purchase as many state-backed Massachusetts securities as he could locate and she could afford. These securities, due to be redeemed with interest by the state in the future, were trading far below their face value. By buying low, Abigail reasoned that she would make a very large profit if Massachusetts made good on its promises to pay the holders of the certificates their original value plus interest. It was a gamble; who knew if the financially-embarrassed government would in fact be able to pay off its creditors? It was a risk Abigail was prepared to take. Cash-strapped Massachusetts citizens, including war veterans, sold the certificates they could not wait to redeem to Adams and other speculators who bought them up for only a fraction of their face value.(2)

In 1786, it seemed that Abigail's gamble would pay off. That March, the Massachusetts legislature laid the heaviest tax in the history of the state, in part to fund the state-issued certificates, including accrued interest. What Abigail did not anticipate was the response of Massachusetts residents to this enormous tax increase. Already pushed to the wall by the severe recession that followed the war, dozens of towns pelted the legislature with petitions pleading for tax relief. Thousands of citizens went still further, marching on judicial courts and demanding that the 1780 state constitution be amended. Those with guns carried them, and Abigail anxiously waited for news of the violence she feared must accompany such scenes of disorder and anarchy. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson on January 29, 1787, Abigail poured out her anxieties for Massachusetts and her disappointment in the behavior of some of its inhabitants:

With regard to the tumults in my Native State which you inquire about, I wish I could say that report had exaggerated them, it is too true Sir that they have been carried to so allarming a Height as to stop the courts of justice in several Counties. Ignorant, restless desperadoes, without conscience or principals, have led a deluded multitude to follow their standard, under pretence of grievances which have no existence but in their own imaginations. (3)

According to Abigail Adams, the grievances of those closing the courts in Massachusetts

Abigail snappishly dismissed the demands and grievances of these "mobish insurgents " who were "sapping the foundation, and destroying the whole fabrick" of the state:

Some of them were crying out for a paper currency, some for an equal distribution of property, some were for annihilating all debts, others complained that the Court of common pleas was unnecessary that the sitting of the general court in Boston was a grievance. By this list you will see the materials which compose this rebellion and the necessity there is of the wisest and more vigorus measures to quell & suppress it…(4)

She firmly believed that "these people make[?] only a small part of the State." Time and attention to the true causes of the problems by "the more Sensible and judicious" residents would resolve the situation. According to Abigail, "Luxury and extravagance both in furniture and dress had pervaded all orders of our Countrymen & women, and was hastning fast to sap their independence by involving every class of citizens in distress, and accumulating Debts upon them which they were unable to discharge." Disturbingly, "Vanity was becoming a more powerful principal than patriotism." Fortunately, she reported, the Legislature was already enacting a cure for these ills in the form of duties upon imported goods, while volunteers including "Lawyers physicians & merchants from Boston had formed a militia "party of Light horse" to pursue and arrest insurgent leaders. Among those taken was Job Shattuck of Groton, who was "wounded in his knee with a broadsword" while resisting capture. Abigail noted with satisfaction that Shattuck was "in jail in Boston & will no doubt be made an example of."(5)


This woodcut depicting Daniel Shays (left) and Job Shattuck (right) appeared in a Boston almanac in 1787. More info

Abigail could breathe a sigh of relief when local militia under General William Shepard successfully defended the United States Arsenal at Springfield from an advancing army of insurgents under the command of Captain Daniel Shays. "Sensible and judicious" citizens had prevented the overthrow of the government and constitution duly constituted by the people. General Benjamin Lincoln's army arrived from the eastern part of the state and routed Shays' men at Petersham. By early March, 1787 the worst seemed to be over.

One year later, Abigail and John returned home to Massachusetts. The following March, John was sworn in as the first vice president under the new United States Constitution. When the federal government adopted Alexander Hamilton's funding plan to assume the war debts of the states, including Massachusetts, Abigail Adams' investment strategy literally paid off.(6)

In 1796, John Adams succeeded George Washington as president. For the next four years, Abigail and her husband endured viciously partisan politics as Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans vied for political ascendency. When Jefferson defeated Adams' bid for reelection in the bitterly contested presidential election of 1800, Abigail and John returned home to Quincy, Massachusetts, where she died in 1818 at age 73.

About This Narrative

Note: All narratives about people are, to the extent possible, based on primary and secondary historical sources.

See Further Reading for a list of sources used in creating this narrative. For a discussion of issues related to telling people's stories on the site, see: Bringing History to Life: The People of Shays' Rebellion