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Politics

Abigail Adams Persisted

A letter from the First Lady defending a black servant from prejudice.

illustration of abigail adams
Illustration by Louisa Bertman

In this new column, Alexis Coe, Lenny's historian at large, conducts Q&As with specialists across the country, focusing on one primary source. For this edition, Alexis spoke with Sara Georgini, series editor for the Papers of John Adams at the Massachusetts Historical Society, about a letter Abigail Adams sent to John on February 13, 1797, about James, a black servant she'd educated at home and eventually sent to school — despite the objections of her white neighbors.

Alexis Coe: Fortunately for our collective memory, Abigail and John Adams were apart a good deal and had an awful lot to say to each other — and to us, as they clearly wrote for the archive. Today, we are discussing one of thousands of letters we have from them, but this particular one was written at a significant moment: John was a month away from becoming the second president of the United States. Abigail was preparing to meet him in Philadelphia (then the site of the President's House). She wrote to him about taking care of loose ends in Quincy, Massachusetts, but the main focus of the letter is James, a black servant she'd been educating in their home. Who was James, and how long had he worked for them?

Sara Georgini: This 13 Feb. 1797 letter is good evidence of the pastiche of information and opinion that Abigail regularly sent to her often-distant husband. She ran the farm back in New England with the rigor and innovation of a modern-day CEO.

James, a paid African-American servant of the family, picked apples, mowed and harvested crops, tended oxen, prepped the cider mill, trimmed trees, built the stone walls bordering the property, and tended to general agricultural duties.James also learned how to read and write from Abigail. When lessons in the front parlor with the First Lady waned, sending him to Samuel Heath's school must have seemed like a natural next step. Abigail's plan for James's higher education, however, meets with serious pushback. So with her husband away and enmeshed in political troubles, Abigail steps in and resolves the issue. It's signature Abigail: She's candid and feisty, fiercely set on broadening others' rights to keep her community intact and improving. She protests, she persists, she perseveres.

AC: At the time, slavery was legal, and most of the Founding Fathers — Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe — owned at least 75 men, women, and children, but not the Adams family. Why?

SG: "I wish most sincerely there was not a Slave in the province," Abigail wrote in 1774, as demands for American liberty grew. A lifelong anti-slavery advocate, Abigail was irate when she learned that the Declaration of Independence's "most Manly Sentiments," denouncing the slave trade, were, after great debate, heavily struck out of the final draft. The Adams family's New England roots may have placed them far from the realities of Southern plantation slavery, but they were conscious of its cruelty. In towns like Braintree and Quincy, clergymen owned slaves well into the 1780s, when the practice was legally abolished by the Massachusetts constitution (largely drafted by John Adams). John and Abigail found slavery abhorrent and taught their children so. Eldest son John Quincy Adams, well-known for his anti-slavery crusade, lived up to their lessons.

AC: Abigail wanted to send James to school. Was that because she was leaving Philadelphia, or was he a particularly promising student? What sort of future did she envision for him?

SG: Whether in London, Paris, or Quincy, Abigail Adams kept a sharp eye on her staff's progress and behavior. She celebrated their weddings and new children, regularly reevaluated their pay, and swiftly dismissed more than one coachman for insobriety. We do not know what she had in mind for James, but Abigail championed literacy and the pursuit of knowledge for family and servants alike. After all, she had borrowed her brother's books during his Harvard years, learned theology from her father's lending library, and even read plays in Auteuil in order to teach herself French. Like many eighteenth-century elite women on both sides of the Atlantic, Abigail indulged in education as both intellectual entertainment and as moral improvement. I think that she'd want anyone to have the same experience, including James, and therefore loathed any attempt to bar it.

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AC: James goes off to school, and all seems well until "Neighbour Faxon" stops by and tells Abigail that her servant is ruining everything. At first, she's confused. Had James misbehaved? "O no, there was no complaint of that kind," he replied, "but [the other boys] did not chuse to go to School with a Black Boy." Abigail, true to form, grills Neighbour Faxon.

SG: Since she tells the story best, putting her argument in perfect pitch with a "ladylike" appeal to religious sentimentality, I'll hand over the tale to Abigail here. In her words:

"is this the Christian Principle of doing to others, as we would have others do to us? O Mam, You are quite right. I hope You wont take any offence. none at all mr Faxon, only be so good as to send the Young Men to me. I think I can convince them that they are wrong."

AC: Classic Abigail. I distinctly recall Abigail's "Remember the Ladies" letter, in which she stresses that women's contributions to the American Revolution should not be forgotten in the formation of the country (which they basically were), as my introduction to women's history. I think that's true for a lot of times; it seems like she was always sticking up for some disenfranchised group.

SG: We're fortunate to hold Abigail's "Remember the Ladies" letter here at the Historical Society, and it's one of my favorite manuscripts to show. She wields a powerful pen. Skim the content, and you'll see how she builds the letter with feeling and detail. She opens with a salvo against the Virginia militia, demonstrating how much sensitive intelligence she knows, and voicing concern about whether Southern slaveholders will bolster New England's cause. She describes how British soldiers have trashed their Boston property during the recent evacuation and outlines plans for spring planting on the farm. Then, near the bottom of the second page, Abigail pivots to her main argument to "Remember the Ladies" in the new government's code of laws. Now, as a seasoned letter-writer, Abigail is a drafter. Often she writes a few words, cancels them in a heavy line, and starts again. But here, in one of her most famous pieces of writing, take a closer look: Her pen never slips. Not only is she sure-footed on the page — it's likely because she and John and her sisters and her neighbors have had this conversation before. It's evident in John's teasing reply and worth thinking about more.

AC: How did Abigail come to be this way? Did her parents encourage her and her sisters to be outspoken when women were expected to be silent?

SG: As a young woman, Abigail helped run her father's bustling parish and farm. She grew up at the community's center. She watched her father (and grandfather) settle religious disagreements. She helped fellow parishioners rebuild after a catastrophic fire. And Abigail had her father's library, filled with radical English dissenters' works, to enjoy. To understand Abigail, stroll through her correspondence with her sisters, Mary Smith Cranch and Elizabeth Smith Shaw Peabody. Their letters brim with literary insights, spiritual views, dating rituals, political chats, and much more. We cannot know for sure, but based on that correspondence, I've always thought Abigail grew up in a household where good manners and informed opinions all measured a woman's worth.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Alexis Coe is a historian and the author of Alice+Freda Forever. Follow her on Twitter @AlexisCoe.