The American Revolution and her husband's career brought Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson together. In time she grew to enjoy "Mr Jeffersons Society." Yet politics would drive them apart for years, only to rekindle their friendship. Today we will explore the story of, in Jefferson's words, "one of the most estimable characters on earth."
Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.
Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation — from the past and from the present.
Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton.
Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.
Kyle Chattleton: Thank you for joining us. We hope you'll learn something new.
Abigail Adams, much like her husband John, had a close relationship with Thomas Jefferson that lasted many years. In time, the two of them would come to share similar interests, enjoy each other’s company, keep a friendly correspondence, and together witness the creation and evolution of the United States from up-close and abroad. Yet, their friendship cooled for a period, only to be rekindled.
For today’s episode, we will explore the life of Abigail Adams and her relationship with Thomas Jefferson.
Abigail Smith was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts on November 22, 1744. She was the youngest of three daughters by Elizabeth and William Smith. Through her mother, she was a descendant of the politically powerful Quincy family. Her father was an important minister of the Congregationalist faith. In a time when women did not have easy access to formal education, Smith read books voraciously and was schooled by family members at home.
She was intelligent, cheerful, candid, and strong-minded. Her future husband, John Adams, was drawn to these qualities, leading to their marriage on October 25, 1764. As her husband financially supported the family through his law practice, she brought into the world five children, and raised them at the family homes in Braintree and Boston. The two developed a deep attachment to one another, captured in the way they addressed each other in their letters: “my dearest friend.” She was in many ways his equal, and he relied upon her counsel.
Yet, Abigail Adams lived in an unequal and gendered society that treated her as a second-class citizen in a male dominated world. When her husband was serving in the Continental Congress with others deciding the fate of the thirteen colonies, she implored him to “Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.” John disagreed, responding that “We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems.” While he thought the request silly, she clearly saw it otherwise: “whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives.”
The American Revolution forced the two Adamses apart for many years — as Abigail stayed at home to raise the family, John grew as a political leader, first serving in the Continental Congress and then becoming a diplomat abroad. For five years, an ocean separated them. On the anniversary of their wedding, Abigail wrote to her husband:
“My Dearest Friend. […] Look to the date of this Letter — and tell me, what are the thoughts which arise in your mind? Do you not recollect that Eighteen years have run their anual Circuit, since we pledged our mutual Faith to each other, and the Hymeneal torch was Lighted at the Alter of Love. Yet, yet it Burns with unabating fervour, old ocean has not Quenched it, nor old Time smootherd it.”
Eventually, it was decided that Abigail Adams would join her spouse in France. Before sailing off, however, she met Thomas Jefferson. “I have hastened myself on my journey hither in hopes of having the pleasure of attending Mrs. Adams to Paris,” Jefferson wrote to Mr. Adams, “but after some unexpected delays at Philadelphia and New York I arrived here yesterday and find her engaged for her passage to London and to sail tomorrow. […] I hope [she] will have soon the pleasure of meeting with you.”
When Adams arrived, she joined her husband at the Hôtel Roualt just outside of Paris. Jefferson became a frequent guest, and reciprocated by inviting the Adamses to his abode at the Hôtel Landron. She explained to her sister that:
“We have as much company in a formal way as our Revenues will admit, and Mr. Jefferson with one or two Americans visits us in the Social friendly way. I shall realy regreet to leave Mr. Jefferson, he is one of the choice ones of the Earth. On Thursday I dine with him at his house, on Sunday he is to dine here, on Monday, we all dine with the Marquis [de Lafayette], and on Thursday we dine with the Sweedish Ambassador.”
Through their regular engagements, they discovered a mutual love of gardens. The two were also well-read, and no doubt conversed about books. When John was appointed an ambassador to the English court in London, Abigail was saddened at the loss of “Mr. Jeffersons Society.” She wrote her first letter to Jefferson from London in 1785. She apologized to him for “freely scribling to you. I will not deny that there may be a little vanity in the hope of being honoured with a little line from you.” Jefferson was more than happy to write back, and for her initiating a correspondence between the two of them “which I so much desired.” In time, Adams and Jefferson wrote more than forty letters to one another across the English Channel from 1785-1788.
In December 1786, the Adamses received notice that Jefferson’s youngest daughter, Maria Jefferson, and Sally Hemings were traveling to Europe from the United States. Both were making their way to Jefferson in France, but first they would arrive in England. Jefferson clearly came to trust the Adamses, and especially Abigail, when he charged her with watching over Maria.
Maria only saw Abigail for a short while before she continued her journey to Paris, but in that span of time she became close to Mrs. Adams, and she to her: “If I had thought you would so soon have sent for your dear little Girl,” Adams wrote to Jefferson, “I should have been tempted to have kept her arrival here, from you a secret.” In careful language, however, she also conveyed to Jefferson that he should have came for her, and that she should not be sent to a Parisian convent like her sister, Martha.
Abigail and John Adams, as well as Thomas Jefferson all found themselves back in the United States by 1789. Mr. Adams was to be the Vice President in George Washington’s administration, while Jefferson was named Washington’s Secretary of State. Over more than ten years, these two politicians grew politically apart, with Adams supporting the work of the Federalist Party and Jefferson the Democratic-Republican Party. As a result, the friendship between the Adamses and Jefferson was becoming strained. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson ran against one another for president in 1796. When her husband was declared the winner of the contest, Abigail confidently wrote to her sister that friendship would rule the day in politics:
“The vice Presidency having been allotted to mr Jefferson: will serve as a bond of union between the States. I have long known mr Jefferson, and have ever entertaind a Friendship for him; he is a Man of understanding, and of probity. […] between him and mr Adams there has ever subsisted harmony. […] mr Jefferson, I have not a Doubt will Support the President.”
Unfortunately, friendships would not last much longer. In fact, the next four years of John Adams’ presidency found politics increasingly separating the two families. And the election of 1800 — pitting John Adams against Thomas Jefferson once more — would be the nail in the coffin. The campaign was acrimonious — filled with lies and attacks from both sides. Although neither Adams or Jefferson personally contributed to the hostile exchange of words, the damage was done. Jefferson won the election, Adams lost, and the companionship shared by all was ended.
The two Adamses and the newly elected President were no longer on speaking terms. When Jefferson’s daughter Maria passed away in 1804, however, Abigail Adams could not resist sending her condolences over the little girl she grew attached to in London. She wished Jefferson “comfort and consolation,” but described herself as someone “who once took pleasure in subscribing Herself Your Friend.”
Jefferson hoped for reconciliation, and wrote back to Adams that he valued the friendship they had cultivated. But Jefferson also held grievances and told Mrs. Adams that it was “personally unkind” for Mr. Adams to have appointed Federalist judges on the eve of Jefferson’s presidency. Abigail Adams responded that the grievances were not one-sided; Jefferson had pardoned James Callender, a political writer who wrote slanderous articles about John Adams and was prosecuted for doing so. In a time when society treated politics as inappropriate for women, Abigail Adams made her thoughts on the subject known through her characteristic candor:
“One of the first acts of your administration was to liberate a wretch who was suffering the just punishment of the Law due to his crimes […] If the Chief Majestrate of a Nation […] permits his public conduct to be influenced by private resentment […] is he not answerable for the influence which his example has upon the manners and morals of the community?”
A few more letters were exchanged between the two, but nothing came of it; the friendship would lie dormant for more years. Eventually, through the efforts of Dr. Benjamin Rush (which will be covered in our next podcast episode on the aforementioned physician), John Adams and Thomas Jefferson started a lengthy letter correspondence in 1812 that lasted until their deaths in 1826. Mr. Adams signaled to his newfound friend that Mrs. Adams was ready to move forward too: “Madam joins and Sends her kind Regards to your Daughter and your Grand Children as well as to yourself.”
In August 1813, Abigail Adams received her first letter from Jefferson in nine years. Time was on his mind:
“I will now take time to ask you how you do, how you have done? and to express the interest I take in whatever affects your happiness. […] Under all circumstances of health or sickness, of blessing or affliction, I tender you assurances of my sincere affection and respect; and my prayers that the hand of time and of providence may press lightly on you, till your own wishes shall withdraw you from all mortal feeling.”
When she responded, death was on her mind: her only surviving daughter, Nabby Smith, had passed away. She thanked Jefferson for his letter and kind words. And then, drawing from their shared love of Shakespeare yet also acknowledging the pause in their relationship, she concluded her letter:
“You call,d upon me to talk of myself, and I have obey,d the Summons from the assureance you gave me, that you took an interest in what ever affected my happiness.
‘Greif has changed me since you saw me last
And carefull hours, with times deformed hand
hath written Strange defeatures o’er my face’
“But altho, time has changed the outward form, and political ‘Back wounding calumny’ for a period interruped the Friendly intercourse and harmony which Subsisted, it is again renewed, purified from the dross.
“with this assureance I beg leave To Subscribe myself
“Your Friend, Abigail Adams”
Over the next few years, Adams and Jefferson resumed their friendship. And in one of the last letters he wrote to her, he remembered a past life in which they spent much time with one another, and yet wondered when they might see each other again:
“But those 20. years, alas! where are they? with those beyond the flood. our next meeting must then be in the country to which they have flown. a country, for us, not now very distant. […] you & I, dear Madam, have already had more than an ordinary portion of life, and more too of health than the general measure. on this score I have boundless thankfulness. […] I hope […] that life and health may be continued to you as many years as yourself shall wish is the sincere prayer of your affectionate & respectful friend
Abigail Adams passed away one year later on October 28, 1818. Through her counsel and companionship, hers was a life that had an indelible impact on those around her. Jefferson referred to her as “one of the most estimable characters on earth.”
Olivia Brown: This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
Kyle Chattleton: Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple and Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and the Virginia Audio Collective.
Olivia Brown: To learn more about Monticello or to plan your next trip, visit us online at Monticello.org.