Friday, April 1, 2016

“Remember the Ladies”

Abigail Adams (1744–1818) & John Adams (1735–1826)
From Abigail Adams: Letters and John Adams: Revolutionary Writings 1775–1783

Portraits of John and Abigail Adams, circa 1766, pastel on paper by American artist Benjamin Blyth (1746–1811).
On February 8, 1776, John Adams traveled to Philadelphia for the new session of the Continental Congress. His wife Abigail remained at their home in Braintree, south of Boston. The British garrison evacuated Boston on March 17, sailing to Nova Scotia and leaving the town in control of the colonists. During the spring months John wrote his influential essay Thoughts on Government, which he circulated first in letters and then published as a pamphlet. And, as they always did when apart, John and Abigail continued their remarkable correspondence, including Abigail’s now-famous letter urging John and his fellow representatives to “Remember the Ladies” in “the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make.”

Beginning her letter at the end of March, Abigail broached two sensitive subjects: slavery and the role of women in society. On slavery, she wrote, “the passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs.” And on women: “Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex.” Abigail’s petition was not for political equality but rather for legal protections: “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.”

Biographer Edith Gelles contends that the fact Abigail sent this letter at all—after holding on to it for nearly a week and adding a second part—hints that she thought John might be receptive to its message. “Slavery was the live specter that the delegates avoided,” writes Gelles, “but the idea of rights of women ran so contrary to anyone’s imagination, much less expression in the halls of Congress, that the issue would be considered amusing rather than alarming.” And John was indeed amused. “As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh,” he responded before teasingly dismissing women as yet “another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest.” His concession, if it can be considered such, is the assertion that although the “Masculine systems . . . are in full Force, you know they are little more than Theory. We dare not exert our Power in its full Latitude.”

For our Story of the Week selection, then, we present Abigail’s original letter (in both its parts), followed by John’s response of April 14 and Abigail’s subsequent letter to her friend, the political writer and playwright Mercy Otis Warren, in which she complains about John’s dismissiveness (“He is very sausy to me in return for a List of Female Grievances which I transmitted to him”).

Abigail did not let the matter drop, however, and a later letter (May 7) included a final retort:
I can not say that I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives. But you must remember that Arbitary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken—and notwithstanding all your wise Laws and Maxims we have it in our power not only to free ourselves but to subdue our Masters, and without voilence [sic] throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet. . . .

Notes: The two letters between Abigail and John mention John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, governor of the colony of Virginia, who issued a proclamation in November 1775 offering freedom to slaves who joined the British side. Both letters also discuss Samuel Quincy, the Solicitor General for the Massachusetts Colony, who became a Loyalist and returned to England in 1776, leaving behind his wife, who fervently supported the colonists. He died in exile in 1789. Abigail’s reference to “your President” is to John Hancock, president of the Second Continental Congress, and gaieti de Coar is her spelling of the French expression gaité de coeur (lightheartedness). John’s reference to Common Sense is to the famous pamphlet by Thomas Paine. Abigail’s letter to Mercy Otis Warren closes with a line from Alexander Pope’s “Epistle to a Lady,” followed by a stanza from “An Epistle to Lord Bathurst,” by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Abigail often signed her letters as Portia, the wife of the Roman politician Brutus.

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