Weeks before the Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Abigail Adams penned a now famous letter to her husband, John, admonishing him to “Remember the Ladies” when drawing up a new code of laws. “If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies,” she wrote, “we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” Within a few years of writing these words, Adams did something that has never been revealed until now. She carried out a mini-revolution in the arena that mattered to her the most: her own household.
Of all the means by which the Founding Fathers and other men lorded it over women, none annoyed Adams more than the legal degradation that women had to submit to the moment they got married. Single women, including widows, were allowed to own and control property. Yet as Adams complained to her husband in a June 1782 letter, wives’ property was “subject to the controul and disposal of our partners, to whom the Laws have given a soverign Authority.” Historians have studied Abigail Adams’ denunciations of married women’s inability to control property for decades. But what they have overlooked is that she did not simply complain about the government’s denial of married women’s property rights. She defied it.
As the Revolutionary War drew to a close, Adams started setting aside a portion of her husband’s property and declaring it her own. She added more and more to this stash over the ensuing decades, and she invested it wisely. By the end of 1815 her “pocket money,” as she sometimes called it, had grown to more than $5,000—which would be about $100,000 today.
Finally in 1816, racked with pain and convinced she was dying, Adams delivered the parting shot in her household revolution. On January 18, she sat down to write a will. Since she had no legal right as a married woman to own property in her name and her husband was still very much alive, scratching out the four-page document was the ultimate act of rebellion. Moreover, a close look at the will reveals a curious fact that historians have mostly ignored. Apart from a couple of token gifts to her two sons, all the people Adams chose to bequeath money to were women. And many of those women were married.
Adams’ personal property rights revolution had its roots in her struggle to shield her family from the financial destruction that accompanied the Revolutionary War. Of all the patriot soldiers and statesmen who were forced to abandon their families for long periods, few stayed away as long as John Adams, who saw very little of his Braintree, Mass., farm from 1774 to 1784. John put Abigail in charge of all of the Adams family finances, and she ended up handling her husband’s money much better than he ever had, primarily because she was more open to risk. During the course of the war she became an import merchant and then a speculator in depreciated government securities and Vermont land titles. And as she repeatedly reinvested her profits, she increasingly thought of the money she earned as her own.
Abigail lived by the credo “nothing venture nothing have”—a notion that John found somewhat alarming. While he was an envoy in France, the couple confronted a seemingly mundane problem. How could he remit a portion of his salary home? Her solution was audacious. If he shipped her trunkloads of merchandise from Europe, she could extract the few items her family needed and arrange to sell the rest to New England shopkeepers whose shelves were nearly empty because of the war. She convinced John the scheme would allow her to avoid having to “pay extravagant prices” for basic necessities, downplaying that she could also turn a healthy profit by selling the imported goods at an enormous markup. When some of these shipments were captured by the British, John wanted to abandon the whole thing, but she wrote back, “If one in 3 arrives I should be a gainer.”
In the fall of 1781, Abigail decided to turn some income from her import business into productive capital. As she later reported to John, she placed 100 pounds sterling “in the hands of a Friend”—her uncle, Cotton Tufts—to invest for her. John, who had seen wartime inflation devastate his savings, reacted with the curt instruction: “Don’t trust Money to any Body.” But she chose not to call in the loan. She even speculated in depreciated government securities that had been inveigled from Continental Army soldiers at a fraction of their face value. John hated bond speculators, and used anti-Semitic language against them, but Abigail turned him into one, and she got him an annual return of as much as 24 percent.
By the winter of 1782, Adams had her sights on a new commercial venture. She set about purchasing a 1,650-acre tract in the projected town of Salem, Vt., near the Canadian border. The purchase would be highly speculative, for the sellers had a less than perfect right to the land. Moreover, the town charter prohibited anyone from buying more than 330 acres, but Adams was able to obtain one grant for her husband and one each in the name of four straw men, who then deeded their tracts to the Adams children. The only member of the family who received no parcel was Abigail herself, since as a married woman she was not allowed to purchase real estate in her own name. John thought the venture was far too risky and told Abigail in no uncertain terms, “Don’t meddle any more with Vermont.” But after the war, she pressed him to expand the family holdings there.
Out of all the money Abigail made for her husband, she set aside some of it and declared it “my own pocket money,” “my pin money” and “this money which I call mine.” She used it to help out her kids, her sisters, her father’s former slave Phoebe Abdee, and other needy neighbors. Even though Abigail believed she had full authority over these funds, she often concealed her activities from her husband. For example, since John had an annoying habit of opening her mail, she once devised a way for her correspondent to enclose her message in a letter addressed to her daughter, Nabby. “It will then fall into no hands but my own,” she explained.
But she didn’t always conceal her savings from her husband. Once, in December 1783, she tried to use some of this money to bribe John, who had spent the previous five years in Europe as an American diplomat, into coming home to her.
There was a farm he wanted to buy, but he didn’t have enough money on hand to complete the deal. So Abigail wrote him, “If my dear Friend you will promise to come home, take the Farm into your own hands and improve it, let me turn dairy woman, and assist you in getting our living this way; instead of running away to foreign courts and leaving me half my Life to mourn in widowhood, then I will run you in debt for this Farm.” Most of Abigail’s biographers quote this statement, since it went against Abigail and John’s shared abhorrence for borrowing money. But they haven’t noticed who it was that she was proposing John borrow money from. It was Abigail herself. Even though in the eyes of the law she owned no personal property, here she was offering to lend her husband a portion of what was technically his own money—but only if he would come home to her. John insisted on staying in Europe, and Abigail held on to the money.
Nearly all of Abigail Adams’ biographers mention her will, but they usually move on, overlooking not only the remarkable fact of its existence but its contents. In it, she made token gifts to her two surviving sons, but she gave nothing to her grandsons, nephews or male servants. Everything went to her granddaughters, nieces, female servants and daughters-in-law. In addition to gowns and small sums of cash to pay for mourning rings, Abigail handed out more than $4,000 worth of bank stock, a $1,200 IOU and a total of seven shares of stock in the companies managing the Weymouth and Haverhill toll bridges.
Each granddaughter received clothing, jewelry and a cash payment of anywhere from $400 to $750, depending on how wealthy she was. Her granddaughters Caroline De Windt and Susanna Adams each received $750. Susanna also got a gold watch, several gowns, “the upper part of my pearl Earings” and a share in the Haverhill toll-bridge company. The smallest bequests, $400 each, went to her son Thomas’ daughters, both of whom were still children. The cluster of granddaughters that headed up Abigail’s roll call of heirs contained one anomaly: Adams included Louisa Smith in this list, even though she was actually a niece. Having never married, Smith had become her aunt’s steadiest companion, her most faithful nurse—and her honorary granddaughter. Indeed, her inheritance was the largest of all. In addition to transferring the $1,200 promissory note to her, Abigail gave her a share in the company managing the Haverhill toll bridge. Additional bequests went to Adams’ nieces, her sisterin-law Catherine Smith, a pair of distant cousins who were sisters, and two female servants.
There is no indication that Adams had any animus against her male relatives. So why did she exclude all but two of them from her will? Having spent three decades asserting control over land and ownership of personal property despite being married, Adams now bequeathed the bulk of her estate to her granddaughters, nieces, daughters-in-law and female servants in order to enable them, as far as lay in her power, to make the same claim.
To her own surprise, Abigail held on for another year and a half after writing her will. She died about 1 p.m. on October 28, 1818, a few weeks shy of her 74th birthday. Abigail’s will was not a legal document that any court was bound to respect, and John would have been within his rights in throwing it in the fire. But he honored it to the letter.
Abigail had assigned her son Thomas the responsibility of supervising the distribution of her property. Thomas’ brother, John Quincy Adams, and their father assisted him in carrying out Abigail’s wishes. On November 9, less than two weeks after her death, John transferred the $1,200 promissory note to Louisa Smith, just as Abigail had directed. The former president’s compliance with the provisions of his wife’s will transformed it into a legally valid document. In the eyes of the law, she had acted as his agent and distributed property that belonged to him. In 1819 John Quincy replaced the promissory note he had given his mother years earlier with a new one made out to Louisa herself. No one could ever challenge his cousin’s legal right to recover these funds, for she had never married.
In January 1819, when Louisa Catherine Adams, John Quincy’s wife, learned that Abigail had left her an inheritance of $150, she set aside half of the bequest to be divided equally among her three sons, who seemed “to have a better title to it than I could boast.” By passing this money on to Abigail’s grandsons, Louisa may have indicated disapproval of her mother-in-law’s decision to exclude all male descendants other than her own sons from her will. Yet it seems unlikely that Abigail would have considered the younger woman’s gift a defeat. After all, by deciding on her own authority to present the money to her children instead of her husband, Louisa acknowledged what the law of the land denied and Abigail had always affirmed: that the money was hers to give.
Woody Holton, an associate professor of history at the University of Richmond, is the author of Abigail Adams and Unruly Americans. For a glimpse of a woman’s life at the other end of the economic spectrum in early America, see the online extra “Abigail Adams and Phoebe Abdee” at historynetstag.wpengine.com.
Originally published in the April 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.