J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

“Remember the Ladies” and More

The Panorama, the online magazine of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, just published an interesting article by Sara T. Damiano on “The Abigail Adams ‘Problem;’ or, Teaching Women’s History of the Revolutionary Era.”

Damiano considers Abigail Adams’s famous letter to her husband written over the week of 31 March to 5 April 1776, easily read at the Massachusetts Historical Society. This is the letter in which she wrote, “I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors…” But that’s not all she wrote.

Damiano points out:
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…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.” . . .

By reading more widely in the Adams letters, students can discover how Abigail Adams’s injunction to “Remember the Ladies” was but one component of the couple’s correspondence. To take just one example, in her March 31, 1776 letter, Abigail devoted only two paragraphs out of twelve to patriarchal authority. She also wrote about Virginia politics, conditions in Boston in the aftermath of the British occupation, neighbors’ illnesses, the health of the Adams’s children, Abigail’s home manufacturing efforts, and a manuscript concerning “the various sorts of powder, as fit for cannon, small arms, and pistols.” Even examining this single letter in its entirety provides a more complete snapshot of the Adams marriage than does the famous quotation extracted from its context.
John’s reply likewise runs through many topics, from privateering to the house of Loyalist colleague Samuel Quincy. But then he got to Abigail’s request concerning women’s rights (most likely property rights, not political rights) and wrote, “As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh.”

At the time, the Adamses were writing to each other every couple of days even though the letters took a week to travel, so their correspondence was a set of overlapping exchanges. As Elaine Forman Crane pointed out in her 1999 article “Political Dialogue and the Spring of Abigail's Discontent,” John’s reply broke that pattern. As soon as Abigail received it, she found other tasks besides writing were more important. It wasn’t until 7 May that she replied: “I believe tis near ten days since I wrote you a line. I have not felt in a humour to entertain you.” And then she returned to her plea:
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—
So some part of Abigail’s wide-ranging letters may have meant more to her than others.

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