A Founding Mother – Abigail Adams

It's Fourth of July weekend! Time to think about our Founding Fathers . . . but what about our Founding Mothers?

Abigail Adams was the wife our second president, John Adams, and the mother of our sixth president, John Quincy Adams. She was far more than just a pretty face!

While the country was new there was no skimping on the education of boys and young men. Boys were taught reading, arithmetic, foreign languages, business and science. Harvard began in 1636, the College of William & Mary in 1693 and Yale University in 1701. Of course, they only admitted male students.

Early American girls, however, were taught far fewer subjects, with the emphasis on reading, knitting and needlework. The idea wasn't to produce well-educated women, but rather to raise women who were capable of running their household. Abigail Adams was appalled by the "trifling narrow, contracted education of the females of my own country."

Abigail Adams in 1766, age 22 *

... and who better to be unimpressed with the education of American women! The daughter of a minister, Abigail Adams was noted for her extraordinary education - an unusual accomplishment for a woman of her time. Educated at home, her mother taught her how to read and write. From there the vast libraries of her father and uncle educated her in English and French literature. A devoted reader, she studied philosophy, theology, Shakespeare, the classics, ancient history, government and law. Family dinners often included her grandfather, John Quincy ... a member of the colonial Governor's council and Speaker of the Massachusetts Assembly. Double helpings of daily politics were typically served.

Abigail and John Adams were third cousins and had met as children, but things didn't click until the two met at a social gathering in 1762 when Abigail was 17 (John was about ten years older than her). Three years later they married, and nine months later their first baby was born. They had six children in total, four of which lived to adulthood.

Abigail Adams in 1810, age 66 **

Abigail and John Adams were frequently apart during their marriage. Adams is best known as the second President of the U.S., but he also served as Vice President under Washington and served terms as ambassador to England, the Netherlands and France. For much of that time Abigail was at home to manage their farm. While separated she sent frequent long letters to Adams, detailing her life at home, comments on their children, and politics. Today over 1,000 letters between Abigail and John Adams are in the Massachusetts Historical Society where they give us a personal look into domestic and political life during the revolutionary era.

My favorite quote is from an April 5th addition to her letter of March 31, 1776. She says she will try to find some time to make saltpeter (a component of gunpowder, no doubt for the ongoing Revolutionary War), at Adam's request. But she also says "I find as much as I can do to manufacture cloathing for my family which would else be Naked." The idea of making homespun clothing in revolt against the Wool Act of 1699 and the Stamp Act of 1765 instead of purchasing wool and clothing exported from England was a lofty goal - but she was finding that it was very difficult to clothe herself and her five children entirely in homemade garments! The letter implies that she has vowed to clothe her family in homespun or have them go naked!

However, her most famous quote is from the same letter when she urges her husband and the other members of the Continental Congress to remember the importance of women in the founding of their new nation:

I long to hear that you have declared an independancy—and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would 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 perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

Written almost 150 years before women were given the right to vote, the letter would have invoked a patronizing pat on the head and an "Oh, isn't she cute!" sort of response from most men at a time. In fact her own husband replied with "As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh." Her preposterous suggestion of giving some power to women was treated as a joke at the time, but today it is viewed as the first effort in a long line of women who fought for women's equality.

Abigail Adams was almost certainly a knitter. While I found no reference to her knitting, it was such a common part of a woman's everyday life that it would have been noted if she was not a knitter. So when you knit this weekend think of Abigail Adams and her silly little suggestion that the new laws of the land be more favorable to women!

Looking for a new knitting project? Or just want another one? Give us a call at FiberWild, we are glad to provide lots of new project ideas - or perhaps two or three!

Happy Knitting . . . . Scout

* Painting by Benjamin Blythe, 1766

** Painting by Gilbert Stuart, 1810-1815. Yes, it took him five years to finish the portrait! The original is in the National Gallery of Art.

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