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Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March - 5 April 1776

Adams, Abigail

Carol Berkin,  Revolutionary Mothers, New York: Vintage Books, 2005, p. 16

Abigail Adams was a mother, shrewd investor, and wife of John Adams, a leader in the American independence movement. Abigail and John Adams wrote letters back and forth to one another for years as his political and diplomatic work took him away from their Massachusetts farm. Their relationship, and especially the perspective of Abigail Adams, is well documented in their correspondence. In this letter, she wrote to John Adams as he was meeting to debate declaring independence at the Continental Congress. She wrote for him to "Remember the Ladies. " What do you think she wanted him to remember? She wrote that men would be tyrants if they could. Who else used the word "tyrant" in 1776? Free women had very few political and legal rights in this period. Many supported independence and understood that political change could mean a wide range of new laws. What do you think Abigail was asking her husband to remember? What were women's roles during the war? Based on reading this letter, what role would Abigail Adams want women to have in the new independent country?

Historians assert that when Abigail Adams asks John Adams to "Remember the Ladies" and threatened a "Rebellion, " she was not talking about the right to vote, which would not happen until the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, well over a century later. Rather, she was highlighting the ways that the laws of a newly independent nation, of which her husband was contemplating, should not put all power over women into the hands of men. By law, free married women were "feme coverts" with no rights to own or buy property and no rights to their children. John Adams's response highlights the fact that despite the Declaration of Independence's statement that "all men are created equal" entitled to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, " authority would remain with free white men. He wrote, "As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government everywhere. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient -- that schools and Colleges were grown turbulent -- that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. " He acknowledges that revolutionary talk had the potential to overturn hierarchies. Yet he dismisses her request with a "laugh, " linking free white women to other groups who he considered subordinates--children, apprentices, Native Americans, and African Americans. All of these groups contributed to the struggle for independence from Britain, yet attaining rights protected by law required centuries of activism on behalf of civil rights and additional wars. Ask your students to read this transcribed letter carefully, encouraging them to understand Adams as an exceptional woman, but also a representative voice expressing views on womanhood and citizenship. It is worth noting that Abigail Adams managed the family farm and investments in the many prolonged absences of her husband.

I long to hear that you have declared an independence -- 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 Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.