Moving Into the Dorms, Circa 1785

Harvard sjketcg

My youngest daughter went to her first college class yesterday morning (Spanish I).  She moved into the dorms last week and has managed to survive four full days of new student orientation.  I think I will send her J.L. Bell’s recent piece at Boston 1775 on Charles Adams’s move into the Harvard dorms in 1785.

Here is a taste:

Fifteen-year-old Charles Adams started at Harvard College that year. His parents, Abigail and John, were across the Atlantic in London, so he was under the wing of relatives on his mother’s side. 

Charles had been studying for the entrance exam with the Rev. John Shaw of Haverhill, an uncle by marriage. On 9 May Charles wrote to his cousin William Cranch: “we study in the bedroom as usual two young fellows from Bradford being added to our number, One of whom will be my chum if we get in and who I should be very glad to introduce to you.”

By “chum,” Charles meant a college roommate. That prospect was Samuel Walker (1768–1846). When Charles’s older brother John Quincy Adams visited that summer, he immediately assured their mother that Samuel was “a youth, whose thirst for knowledge is insatiable.” 

Read the rest here.

Episode 50: The Religious Beliefs of the Adams Family

PodcastDon’t be confused by the title, we are not talking about the spooky family from the 1960s. Rather, in this episode, we turn to the religious history of one of America’s founding families. By focusing on the Adams family, one can trace the evolution of American religion as John, Abigail, JQA, and others wrestle with Providence, the Enlightenment, and a changing political landscape. Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling are joined by Sara Georgini (@sarageorgini), the author of Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family.

Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group (lyndhurstgroup.org) and Jennings College Consulting (drj4college.com).

Teaching “Remember the Ladies”

Abigail

Abigail Adams

Over at The Panorama, Texas State University history professor Sara T. Damiano reflects on teaching women’s history in the era of the American Revolution. She gives particular attention to Abigail Adams’s famous “Remember the Ladies” letter.

Here is a taste:

The well-known exchange between Abigail and John Adams offers a pithy example of opportunities foreclosed for women during the revolutionary era. On March 31, 1776, Abigail urged John to “Remember the Ladies” and to “not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands” because “all men would be tyrants if they could.” Two weeks later, John brushed off Abigail’s “saucy” admonition, stating, “I cannot but laugh.” He maintained that men “have only the Name of Masters” and that surrendering this “would completely subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat.”[ii]

As a teacher, I am tempted to play up this exchange between Abigail and John. It seemingly stands in for the revolution writ large: Despite some women’s urging, the Founders failed to “Remember the Ladies.” And, it captures undergraduate interest. Particularly in my upper-level women’s history courses, students admire the spunk and assertiveness of Abigail Adams, whom they see as articulating an early version of modern feminism.

Yet, especially in light of my contribution to the October joint issue of the William and Mary Quarterly and the Journal of the Early Republic on “Writing to and from the American Revolution,” I worry about my role in facilitating such views of the American Revolution and Abigail Adams. If we aim to teach students to analyze the foreignness of the past, then we undercut our work by focusing only on the quest for “rights.” Doing so arguably flattens other aspects of historical actors’ lives and even marginalizes those individuals who were not necessarily thinking in terms of “rights.”

Read the entire piece here.

 

The Author’s Corner with Jeanne Abrams

abrams comp final (004)Jeanne Abrams is a Professor, University Libraries at the University of Denver. This interview is based on her new book, First Ladies of the Republic: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, and the Creation of an Iconic American Role (NYU Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write First Ladies of the Republic?

JA: It was actually my last book, Revolutionary Medicine: The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health, which sparked my interest in the way our inaugural first three ladies carved out a role for themselves in the political life of the early American republic. Revolutionary Medicine examined the lives of George and Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James and Dolley Madison from the perspective of sickness, health, and medicine in their era. In the process of writing that book I gained a deeper appreciation for the role these formidable and path-breaking women, Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madison, played in the grand experiment which transformed America from a colonial outpost to an independent nation.

JF: What is the argument of First Ladies of the Republic?

JA: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madison, the three “first” First Ladies of the United States, invented the position without a roadmap to follow to accommodate the demands of a new republican government. Although they had to walk a fine line between bringing dignity to the position and distancing themselves from the courtly styles of European royalty that were seen as inimical to the values of a republic, these three spirited women, who in their time could not even vote or hold office, exercised intelligence and initiative to play a substantial role in the nation’s early political life.

JF: Why do we need to read First Ladies of the Republic?

JA: First Ladies of the Republic demonstrates that the creation of the United States was not only a male enterprise. Although they were constrained by the customs of their era, elite women like the inaugural First Ladies played a substantial role in the nation’s early political life. All three helped shape the nation’s political culture and were able to transcend boundaries between the private and public sphere. The lives of these three extraordinary women intersected on many occasions, and they learned from one another as the brand new position of First Lady evolved. Moreover, though most historians have looked at male and female socio-political roles in their era as a binary divide, I argue that it is more useful to view the manner in which they operated together with their presidential husbands as members of a family unit. For early members of America’s governing elite, political life was often a joint cooperative undertaking, an effort in which they participated actively as part of a close-knit family circle. The three First Ladies were all deeply committed to the public good and the principles of independence and liberty which had first emerged in Revolutionary America and continued to develop in the early national period, but at the same time, they also worked to burnish the public images of their presidential spouses and advance their family interests.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JA: As a freshman in college many decades ago, I had to write a paper on American Loyalists in the American Revolution for a history class. I paid a visit to the New York Historical Society, and too my astonishment and gratitude, I was handed a box of letters written by Loyalists in the 1760s and 1770s. I couldn’t believe I was holding historical documents from two centuries prior in my hands, and the experience launched my on the road to becoming an historian. That fateful day, I immediately fell in love with primary sources, and it is a love affair that has endured to this day.

JF: What is your next project?

JA: I am now working on a book manuscript about the European journeys of John and Abigail Adams and how their time abroad influenced their increasing admiration for their home country of America and commitment to the republic of the United States.

JF: Thanks, Jeanne!

The Founding Fathers Wanted You To Be Polite

PoliteIn his recent piece at Aeon, historian Steven Bullock reminds us that “18th-century Britons and American believed that politeness was essential for a free society.”  This required “respect for other people” and having “sensitivity to their expectations and concerns.”  In fact, it was even an important way of “challenging authoritarian rule.”

Here is a taste:

Jefferson and Lafayette’s extraordinary acceptance of limits on their power (so unlike the impatient Nicholson) points to the formative influence of the politics of politeness. If Revolutionary leaders were not all as cautious about demanding obedience, they still brought with them almost a century of thinking about the need to ground power in restraint and responsiveness. Tellingly calling themselves ‘Whigs’ (and their opponents ‘Tories’), patriots celebrated their military leader, the Virginian George Washington, as a powerful exemplar of these values. Jefferson reported to the general in 1784 that many Americans believed his ‘moderation and virtue’ had kept the Revolution from ending like ‘most others’ – by destroying the ‘liberty it was intended to establish’.

The politics of politeness also helped revolutionaries reconsider social relationships. Resisting attempts to punish loyalists after the war, Alexander Hamilton declared the spirit of the Revolution ‘generous’ and ‘humane’ – and therefore in the best tradition of ‘moderation’. Even captive enemies, Jefferson had similarly argued earlier, should be treated ‘with politeness’. Abigail Adams counselled legal changes in her call to ‘Remember the Ladies’ in 1776, but conceded that new laws were needed primarily for the ‘vicious and Lawless’. More enlightened men, Adams noted, had already willingly ‘give[n] up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend’

Read the rest here.

Abigail Adams: Letters

LOA jacket templateThe Library of America has announced the publication of Abigail Adams: Letters.  The collection of 430 letters from the former first lady is edited by historian and Adams scholar Edith Gelles.

In a post at The Library of America blog, Gelles discusses Abigail’s remarks on the election of 1800:

“The Spirit of party has overpowerd the Spirit of Patriotism,” observes Abigail Adams in her January 29, 1801, letter to her eldest son John Quincy, then American minister to the Prussian court in Berlin. Written after having learned that her husband John had been defeated for a second term as president, Adams’s letter vividly conveys the unsettled nature of American politics in the early republic.

The election of 1800 was perhaps the most vituperative in our history. Federalist John Adams, the incumbent, was despised by a prominent faction of his own party, the so-called Essex Junto. Alexander Hamilton, the de facto leader of the Federalist party, had written a pamphlet denouncing the President as a madman. This fratricidal conflict opened the door for the two Republican candidates, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who, by a fluke of the original electoral process established by the Constitution, ended up tied in the Electoral College, with Adams coming third. The deadlock shifted the decision to the House of Representatives, where it would take 36 ballots for Jefferson to secure election. Denied a second term, President Adams, in a move that was as controversial then as it would be today, made a series of “midnight appointments” in the final days of his administration, including that of John Marshall to be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. As the young nation prepared for the first transfer of power from one party to another, the outgoing First Lady despaired for the future.

Adams’s mood in this letter is melancholy for more personal reasons as well. She had recently arrived in the swampy new capital, the first First Lady to occupy what would become known as the White House. On her journey to Washington, over roads that were so rutted that “it was like a ploughd field,” she had passed through New York City to pay a “dying visit” to her beloved second son, Charles, who was fast fading from the effects of alcoholism. Not yet regarded as a disease, alcoholism was then considered a sign of personal weakness and a sin. She prays that Charles, the son she remembers as the charming and loveable man “he once was,” will be forgiven, and that John Quincy will become a surrogate father to his younger daughter. Abigail and John took Charles’s older daughter, Susanna, home with them to Quincy, Massachusetts, where she remained until her marriage in 1817.

Read the rest here.

Abigail Adams and Alexander Hamilton

Abigail_Adams_by_Gilbert_StuartUnlike many Americans who visit to Broadway today, John and Abigail Adams were not fans of Alexander Hamilton.  In 1806 John called Hamilton the “bastard brat of a Scotch Pedler.”  Abigail also had some choice words for the Secretary of the Treasury.

Here is a taste of Amanda Norton’s post at the blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society:

…The next few years did nothing to improve Abigail’s opinion. Hamilton was widely believed to have unsuccessfully meddled in the 1796 Election, attempting to keep Thomas Jefferson out of the vice presidency, even, or perhaps, especially, if it meant sacrificing John Adams’ candidacy. Hearing of Hamilton’s interference in December 1796, Abigail wrote, “I have often said to you, H——n is a Man ambitious as Julius Ceasar, a subtle intriguer. his abilities would make him Dangerous if he was to espouse a wrong side. his thirst for Fame is insatiable. I have ever kept My Eye upon him.”

The revelation of Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds in 1797 was a breaking point for Abigail, leading to some of her most vitriolic comments. As the Quasi-War with France was building and the United States formed a new army, Abigail could not understand those who wanted Hamilton to be commander-in-chief. “That man would in my mind become a second Buonaparty if he was possessd of equal power,” she wrote to her cousin in July 1798. By January 1799, Abigail was increasingly heated. Learning that her son Thomas Boylston Adams who had been in Europe was to return to the United States on board the ship Alexander Hamilton, Abigail sneered, “I dont like even the Name of the ship in which he is to embark” and in letters written to John on 12 and 13 January, she railed against Hamilton. Abigail firmly believed that Hamilton’s failure to uphold his private marriage vow inevitably made any public vow he made suspect. In a Biblical allusion to King David, she warned that with Hamilton in charge of the army, “Every Uriah must tremble for his Bathsheba.”

Read the entire post here.

 

Are You Doing Research on John and Abigail Adams?

J.L. Bell at Boston 1775 just brought my attention to a conference called “Abigail and John: 250 Years Together”  The conference will take place on October 25 to mark the 250th wedding anniversary of this revolutionary-era couple.  Here is the call for papers:

The conference organizers have issued a invitation to scholars to propose individual papers or complete panels. Those can cover “all aspects of the life and union of these two extraordinary individuals and their world,” though organizers ask for proposals to be keyed to one of these general topics:

  • Adams Family Lives
  • Courtship and Commitments in Colonial Massachusetts
  • Home and Hearth in Colonial Massachusetts

If you wish to propose a paper or session, e-mail a 300-500-word abstract to Michelle Marchetti Coughlin by 16 May. Presenters will be notified in June. Papers will have to be completed in time to be circulated to attendees before the conference, which will take place at or near the Abigail Adams Birthplace in Weymouth.