Earlier this week the Boston Globe ran a review by Michael Kenney of Woody Holton’s Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution. That book has also been nominated for the National Book Award, which led to this online interview with Holton. He says:
It occurred to me that I could make the topic a lot more appealing to readers if I could find a compelling story about a single bond speculator; then that one guy could stand in for all the rest. For years I searched in vain for a speculator who left sufficient documentation. Near the end of the writing—almost too late—I found my speculator. It is Abigail Adams. Twenty years before becoming First Lady, in June 1777, Adams discovered this incredibly lucrative investment. And she was still buying bonds in the 1790s, when her husband was vice president.The same day I saw that review, I also received the October issue of the William & Mary Quarterly, which includes Holton’s short article, “Abigail Adams, Bond Speculator.” I’d heard about this research at the Massachusetts Historical Society a couple of years ago, so I’m interested to see what he’s made of it.
Adams’s financial speculation seems to have started simply as part of supplying her household needs when her husband John was out of town at the Continental Congress. On the day of the Battle of Bunker Hill, 16 June 1775, Abigail wrote to John asking him to look for bargains in pins in Philadelphia:
I have a request to make you. Something like the Barrel of Sand suppose you will think it, but really of much more importance to me. It is that you would send out Mr. Bass and purchase me a bundle of pins and put in your trunk for me. The cry for pins is so great that what we used to Buy for 7.6 are now 20 Shillings and not to be had for that. A bundle contains 6 thousand for which I used to give a Dollor, but if you can procure them for 50 [shillings] or 3 pound, pray let me have them.That sounds like nothing more than a housewife seeking necessities at the best prices in a time of local shortages. But within a few years John was at a diplomatic post in Europe and Abigail was using him to import goods not only to use herself but also, it’s clear, to sell at a profit. In a letter to John dated 15 April 1780:
All the articles you were so kind as to send me were very acceptable. . . . The Linnens tho rather coars were an article I stood in great need of, and they are in great demand here. The Tea proves of the best kind, the Hankerchiefs will turn to good account sold for hard Money, the only currency that can be delt in without immense loss.And 13 Nov 1780:
The Articles you were so kind as to send me were not all to my mind. . . . A large Quantity of ordinary black ribbon, which may possibly sell for double what it cost, if it had been coulourd there would have been no difficulty with it. The tape is of the coarsest kind, I shall not lose by it, but as I wanted it for family use, it was not the thing.And by 9 Dec 1781 Abigail was directing John to particular mercantile houses:
I shall inclose an invoice to the House of Ingraham Bromfild, and one to de Neufvilla. There is nothing from Bilboa that can be imported with advantage, hankerchiefs are sold here at 7 dollers & half per dozen.Abigail was also buying land in Braintree and, as Holton discusses, government bonds.
There are some articles which would be advantageous from Holland, but Goods there run high, and the retailing vendues which are tolerated here ruin the Shopkeepers. The articles put up, by the American House were better in Quality, for the price than those by the House of de Neufvilla. Small articles have the best profit, Gauze, ribbons, feathers and flowers to make the Ladies Gay, have the best advance. There are some articles which come from India I should suppose would be lower priced than many others—bengalls, Nankeens, persian Silk and Bandano hankerchiefs, but the House of Bromfeild & C. know best what articles will suit here.