Friday, February 16, 2018

Becoming a First Lady

Abigail Adams (1744–1818)
From Abigail Adams: Letters

“Residence of Washington in High Street,” 1795, watercolor by American artist William L. Breton (c. 1773–1855). Soon after becoming President, John Adams moved into the residence, the site of which is at Sixth Street and Market Street (formerly High Street). Abigail joined him there when she arrived in Philadelphia on May 10, 1797. From the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Even after it became apparent that her husband John would be the second President of the United States, Abigail Adams was reluctant to leave her home in Quincy, Massachusetts, and she decided to put off a trip to the capital (which was then in Philadelphia) for nearly a year. One of several candidates supported by Federalists, John Adams won the ballot cast by electors on December 7, 1796, with 71 votes, and Republican Thomas Jefferson, with 68 votes, would be vice president. The remaining 137 votes were spread among twelve other candidates. (Each of the 138 electors voted for two candidates, and thus Adams was elected with a two-vote majority.) Writing to her son Charles on February 5, Abigail remarked, “it is the will of Providence to place me in a very conspicious [sic] station.” She would have no official role in the new administration—the term “First Lady” wouldn’t be commonly used until the middle of the next century—but the expectation was that she would join her husband during his presidency.

Her husband begged her to come to Philadelphia immediately rather than wait until the fall. On January 15, Abigail responded, “You ask me what I think of comeing on in Feb’ry? I answer that I had rather not if I may be excused. I have not for Many Years enjoyd so good Health as this Winter. I feel loth to put it to risk by passing a spring in Philadelphia.” Not only was Abigail still recovering from an extended illness, but the family finances were a shambles (“at present I am living on credit”), she was responsible for running the family farm, and John’s 88-year-old mother, Susanna Boylston Adams, was no longer able to live alone and would move into the Adams’s residence in late March.

As Vice President under Washington, John Adams was also president of the Senate, so on March 4 he presided over the counting of the electoral votes and announced his own election. “You have this Day to declare Yourself Head of a Nation,” Abigail wrote a month earlier in anticipation of the occasion. George Washington (“the General”) was in attendance, and John wrote to Abigail, “He Seem’d to me to enjoy a Tryumph over me. Methought I heard him think Ay! I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which of Us will be happiest.” In a later letter he joked nervously, “It is the general Report that there was more Weeping than there has ever been at the Representation of any Tragedy. But whether it was from Grief or Joy, whether from the Loss of their beloved President, or from the Accession of an unbeloved one . . . I know not.”

He was now the nation’s second President, but he still didn’t have a residence appropriate to the position. “There was no executive mansion in Philadelphia,” biographer Edith Gelles reminds us, “and the house in which the Washingtons had resided, though it would be available, appeared unaffordable to Adams. Furthermore, the Washingtons had used their own household furnishings, which they planned to take home to Mt. Vernon.” John found the prospect of moving into a new residence overwhelming and pleaded for Abigail’s help. She responded emphatically that he should have “a Committee appointed to Do it, if a sum Should be granted for the purpose. I desire to have nothing to Do with it. There are persons who know what is both necessary & proper.” Adams did decide to move into the Washingtons’ former residence, only to discover that the place had been trashed, allegedly by servants after the previous inhabitants had vacated the premises. Fortunately, Congress appropriated $14,000 for the furnishing of the home, an extravagant sum in 1797. Nevertheless, Gelles notes, “The Adamses entered the nation’s highest offices in debt,” and John was nervous about the expenses that the demands of the Presidency would require of him. He complained to Abigail in early February, “I hope you will not communicate to any body the hints I give you about our Prospects: but they appear every day worse and worse.”

In the weeks after the inauguration Adams sent increasingly frantic messages home to his wife. The next day, he wrote, “I must go to you or you must come to me. I cannot live without you till October.” Later that month: “I never wanted your Advice and assistance more in my Life.” In early April: “I can do nothing without you. We must resign every Thing but our public Duties, and they will be more than We can discharge, with Satisfaction to ourselves or others I fear.” Most of the letters John sent Abigail in March and April—there are twenty of them in all—contain similar pleas. His isolation in Philadelphia was aggravated by his choice to retain Washington’s entire cabinet rather than to appoint his own secretaries—a decision he soon had reason to regret.

Abigail surrendered to the inevitable and decided to travel to Philadelphia that spring, but the trip was postponed by the illnesses of both her eighteen-year-old niece, Mary Smith, who was suffering from tuberculosis, and John’s mother. Both of them died in mid-April. Abigail finally joined John in Philadelphia on May 10 and began immediately to take charge of household tasks and to help him with administrative duties.

For our Story of the Week selection, then, we present a series of letters written by Abigail in the months after John’s election. The first is her brief note to John a month prior to the inauguration. The second is a remarkable document, a lengthy and severe criticism of his farewell address to the Senate, in which he announced he no longer thought the office of senator should be hereditary. Abigail took him to task for his opening sentence (or “period”), particularly because its length obscured the meaning. (John answered, “I am highly pleased with your Criticisms and Observations on my Adieus to the Senate, their Answer and my Reply.”) The third letter, sent on April 17 when both her niece and mother-in-law were near death, reassured him that she still planned to leave for Philadelphia as soon as she was able. And the final selection, sent to her sister Mary Smith Cranch, describes her arrival in the capital and her first activities as a First Lady.

Notes: February 8 letter: The epigraph is from James Hervey’s “Ode from Casimire.”
      March 12 letter: Charles Jarvis, a political follower of Jefferson, had been reelected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives; in his Autobiography, John Adams wrote of Jarvis’s “virulence against me.” The man (H     n) whose conduct had been mysterious is Alexander Hamilton. Prior to leaving office, Washington had appointed Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina (1746–1825) as minister to France. The French, having been angered by Jay’s Treaty, refused to accept his diplomatic credentials and ordered him to leave the country. William Vans Murray was minister to Netherlands, an office previously held by John and Abigail’s son John Quincy. Benjamin Russell, identified as “Printer to the United States, for the Northern States,” was also the publisher of the Columbian Centinel, which reprinted Adam’s farewell address with several omissions and errors.
      April 17 letter: Oliver Ellsworth was the third Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
      May 16 letter: The speech to Congress John Adams delivered that day was his first message on relations with France. Abigail refers to the Minister at the Hague, who was in fact her son John Quincy. She also mentions the hiring of a new minister for their church in Quincy, where a search committee voted unanimously in favor of Peter Whitney over Jacob Flint. Susannah Tufts was the second wife of Cotton Tufts, a physician who was John Adams’s cousin.

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