Abigail Adams - Living a new female role

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

23 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. The Letters of Abigail Adams

2. Women in 18th Century American Society

3. Abigail Adams – Living a New Female Role
3.1 Domestic Sphere
3.1.1 Housewifery
3.1.2 Childrearing
3.1.3 Abigail’s Relationship to John
3.2 Public Sphere
3.2.1 Government and State
3.2.2 Women Rights

4. Republican Motherhood and Virtue – the New Female Ideology

5. Republican Motherhood as a Pyrrhic Victory


1. The Letters of Abigail Adams

The time during the American Revolution from 1763 to 1789 was, for the American Colonies, a time of constant struggle for independence. It was an incessant search for a new form of government and a new society that would result out of it. Americans finally sought a state of independence after having had to endure hostilities and attacks of their mother country. When hopes for reconciliation with Britain eventually faded away, calls for independence of the American states became more prominent and consistent. However, nobody knew how American independence should look like, and the process of establishing a new government with all succeeding changes took its course. This was a time prone to changes in every sphere of live.

Abigail Adams was a contemporary of that time and an eyewitness of the revolutionary changes. She was the wife of the second president of the United States, John Adams. Her son John Quincy Adams was to become the 6th President. She gave birth to six children, three sons and three daughters, of which one died and one was stillborn. Though lacking formal education, Abigail was encouraged to read and write in her youth and continued to enjoy it throughout her lifetime. She lived together with her husband and 4 children on a small farm in Braintree, Massachusetts, and in Boston, as John’s public duties expanded. Abigail died in 1818 of typhoid fever.[1] She is believed to be a true revolutionary of her time.

Can Abigail Adams truly be regarded as a revolutionary of that time? Did she act in a revolutionary way? Did she even create a new female role during the American Revolution? If so, in what perspectives was this role revolutionary and new?

In order to answer these questions and investigate upon her conduct, the letters of Abigail and her husband between 1774 and 1777 will be the focus of this paper; they will be analyzed and interpreted in terms of the new female role. This corpus of letters is taken out of The Book of Abigail and John (1975) . Herein the focus lies on Abigail’s perspective, on her perception and account of war experiences and on her thoughts and opinions about government and politics. In addition to this, John’s letters have to be taken into account as well, as he represents the addressee Abigail is writing to. His letters and the way he addresses her, the topics and his experiences he mentions and the advice he asks from his wife or gives to her, do shed light onto the person of Abigail Adams as well as influence her.

Abigail Adams represents the perfect object for investigations on the revolutionary times and the impact on every day life of ordinary Americans. First of all, she was an eyewitness of this period of time and experienced all the political and revolutionary events and battles firsthand. Secondly, Abigail was especially close to these events as her husband was a leading statesman and held an important part in shaping the future of the new nation. He was a delegate in the Continental Congresses and in the Constitutional Convention and participated in drafting and framing basic documents of the United States, such as the Declaration of Independence. It is due to his accounts about the revolutionary situation and to the political discussions with him that Abigail was able to form an opinion of her own concerning politics and government. A third aspect as to why Abigail is a perfect object of observation is that she produced an enormous corpus of letters which she wrote during the long periods when she was separated from her husband. During those times, it was a custom to preserve any correspondence. “This massive corpus of letters was preserved by their descendents [...].”[2] Thus, the letters of Abigail constitute one of the best preserved records and complete accounts of the revolutionary times. Finally, the medium itself is perfect for investigating the life of the second First Lady. In letters, most intimate thoughts and opinions are written down which would never have been expressed in public, thus giving the reader much more insight and a closer understanding of the writer and the writers. “[...] [T]he disembodiment of the letter form sometimes allowed an author freedom to express an idea or a thought that was underdeveloped or inhibited by conversation.”[3] Letters represent most intimate thoughts as well as the personality of the writer. “Signed or unsigned, her letters bear the unmistakable marks of her perceptiveness, her total self-possession, and her artless but captivating personal style.”[4] On the other hand though, it was a common occurrence of those times that letters were intercepted and sometimes even published, or were not exclusively read by the addressee alone. Aware of these dangers, the authors of letters generally selected the content and tone of the letter carefully.[5]

In investigating the question as to whether or not Abigail Adams lived a new and revolutionary female role, the first point of interest lies on the female role and the social status of women in the 18th century from a general point of view. Adjacent the paper concentrates on the corpus of letters of Abigail and John from August 1774 – October 1777. An analysis and interpretation will be conducted in terms of Abigail’s private sphere and political sphere. An account on the new notion of American republicanism, feminism and virtue will follow. Finally, and as a conclusion, the accomplishment of a new female role will be portrayed as a pyrrhic victory of the revolutionary times.


[1] Cf. Edith B. Gelles, First thoughts: Life and Letters of Abigail Adams (New York, Twayne Publishers, 1998) 14ff.

[2] Gelles 5.

[3] Gelles 7f.

[4] Lyman H. Butterfield, et al., The Book of Abigail and John : Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784. (Boston, Northeastern University Press, 1975) 8.

[5] Cf. Gelles 8.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Abigail Adams - Living a new female role
University of Regensburg
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ISBN (Book)
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Adams, war of independece, women, Abigail Adams, John Adams, USA Unabhängigkeitskrieg, USA, Amerikanische Revolution, American Revolution
Quote paper
Christine Hildebrand (Author), 2006, Abigail Adams - Living a new female role, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/90630


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