Wednesday, July 26, 2017

George & Martha Dandridge Custis Washington's celebrated, enslaved cook, Hercules

Attributed to Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828) Assumed to be a Portrait of Hercules, George Washington's Cook, 1797

Hercules was an enslaved African held at Mount Vernon, George Washington's Virginia plantation on the Potomac River. He was the head cook at the mansion in the 1780s, cooking for the Washington family and their guests. Hercules was one of two cooks listed in the 1786 Mount Vernon Slave Census. He probably was born around 1755, and was either the child of Washington's slaves or was purchased following Washington's 1759 marriage to the widow Martha Custis.

After he became President of the United States, Washington was dissatisfied with the cook in the presidential residences in New York City, and brought Hercules to Philadelphia in November 1790.In 1790 President Washington brought him to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (then the national capital) to cook in the kitchen of the President's House. Hercules escaped to freedom from Mount Vernon in 1797, and later was legally manumitted under the terms of Washington's Will.

He took Alice, one of Martha Washington's "dower" slaves, as his wife, and they had three children: Richmond (born 1777), Evey (born 1782), and Delia (born 1785). He, his wife, and the three children were listed in the February 1786 Mount Vernon Slave Census, which records him as one of two cooks in the Mansion House. Alice died in 1787.

He was one of nine enslaved Africans brought to Philadelphia in 1790 by Washington to work in the presidential household. The others were his son Richmond (then 13 years old), Oney Judge, Moll, Austin, Christopher Sheels, Giles, Paris, and Joe (Richardson).

In the memoirs of G.W.P. Custis, Martha Washington's grandson, Hercules was recalled as "a celebrated artiste ... as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States." The cook was given the privilege of selling the extra food from the Philadelphia kitchen, which by Custis's estimate earned him nearly $200 a year, the annual salary of a hired cook. According to Custis, Hercules was a dapper dresser and was given freedom to walk about in the city.

Pennsylvania passed a gradual abolition law in 1780, which prohibited non-residents from holding slaves in the state longer than six months. If held beyond that period, the state's Gradual Abolition Act gave slaves the legal power to free themselves. Members of Congress were specifically exempted from the act. Officers of the executive and judicial branches of the federal government were not mentioned since those branches didn't exist until the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788.

When the national capital moved Philadelphia in 1790, there was a question about whether the state law would apply to federal officials. Washington argued that he was a citizen of Virginia, that his presence in Pennsylvania was solely a consequence of Philadelphia's being the temporary national capital, and that the state law should not apply to him. Rather than challenging the state law in court, Washington took the advice of his attorney general, Edmund Randolph, and systematically rotated the President's House slaves in and out of the state to prevent their establishing a six-month continuous residency. This rotation was itself a violation of Pennsylvania law, but no one challenged the President's actions. The U.S. Supreme Court later found Pennsylvania's 1788 amendment to the Gradual Abolition Act to be unconstitutional in Prigg v. Pennsylvania.

In reality, Washington left Hercules behind at Mount Vernon, when he returned to Philadelphia after Christmas 1796. The historian Anna Coxe Toogood found that the Mount Vernon farm records listed Hercules and Richmond at the plantation during the winter of 1796-97, where they were assigned as laborers, along with other domestic servants, to pulverize stone, dig brick clay, and grub out honeysuckle.

In November 2009, Mary V. Thompson, research specialist at Mount Vernon, was able to document that Hercules escaped to freedom from Mount Vernon, and that his escape occurred on February 22, 1797 – Washington's 65th birthday – which the president celebrated in Philadelphia. An entry in that week's Mount Vernon farm report noted that Hercules "absconded 4 [days ago]."

Louis-Philippe, the future king of the French, visited Mount Vernon in the spring of 1797. According to his April 5 diary entry: The general's cook ran away, being now in Philadelphia, and left a little daughter of six at Mount Vernon. Beaudoin ventured that the little girl must be deeply upset that she would never see her father again; she answered, "Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now."

Hercules remained in hiding. In 1798, the former-President's House steward, Frederick Kitt, informed Washington that the fugitive was living in Philadelphia: "Since your departure I have been making distant enquiries about Herculas but did not till about four weeks ago hear anything of him and that was only that [he] was in town neither do I yet know where he is, and that it will be very difficult to find out in the secret manner necessary to be observed on the occasion."

The 1799 Mount Vernon Slave Census listed 124 enslaved Africans owned by Washington and 153 "dower" slaves owned by Martha Washington's family. Washington's 1799 Will instructed that his slaves be freed upon Martha's death. Washington died on December 14, 1799.  At Martha Washington's request, the three executors of Washington's Estate freed her late husband's slaves on January 1, 1801. There is no evidence that Hercules knew he had been manumitted, and legally was no longer a fugitive.  In a December 15, 1801 letter, Martha Washington indicated, that she had learned that Hercules, by then legally free, was living in New York City. Nothing more is known of his whereabouts or life in freedom.

Because Alice had been a "dower" slave – owned by the estate of Martha Washington's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis – the children of Hercules and his wife were legally property of the Custis Estate. The children remained enslaved and were among the "dowers" divided among Martha Washington's four grandchildren following her 1802 death.

George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of the Life and Character of Washington. Benson J. Lossing, ed. (New York, 1860), 422-24. "The chief cook would have been termed in modern parlance, a celebrated artiste. He was named Hercules, and familiarly termed Uncle Harkless. Trained in the mysteries of his part from early youth, and in the palmy days of Virginia, when her thousand chimneys smoked to indicate the generous hospitality that reigned throughout the whole length and breadth of her wide domain, Uncle Harkless was, at the period of the first presidency, as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary arts as could be found in the United States. He was a dark-brown man, little, if any above the usual size, yet possessed of such great muscular power as to entitle him to be compared with his namesake of fabulous history.

"The chief cook gloried in the cleanliness and nicety of his kitchen. Under his iron discipline, wo[e] to his underlings if speck or spot could be discovered on the tables or dressers, or if the utensils did not shine like polished silver. With the luckless wights who had offended in these particulars there was no arrest of punishment, for judgment and execution went hand in hand.The steward, and indeed the whole household, treated the chief cook with such respect, as well for his valuable services as for his general good character and pleasing manners.

"It was while preparing the Thursday or Congress dinner that Uncle Harkless shone in all his splendor. During his labors upon this banquet he required some half dozen aprons, and napkins out of number. It was surprising the order and discipline that was observed in so bustling a scene. His underlings flew in all directions to execute his orders, while he, the great master-spirit, seemed to possess the power of ubiquity, and to be everywhere at the same moment.

"When the steward in snow-white apron, silk shorts and stockings, and hair in full powder, placed the first dish on the table, the clock being on the stroke of four, "the labors of Hercules" ceased.

"While the masters of the republic were engaged in discussing the savory viands of the Congress dinner, the chief cook retired to make his toilet for an evening promenade. His prerequisites from the slops of the kitchen were from one to two hundred dollars a year. Though homely in person, he lavished the most of these large avails upon dress. In making his toilet his linen was of unexceptional whiteness and quality, then black silk shorts, ditto waistcoat, ditto stockings, shoes highly polished, with large buckles covering a considerable part of the foot, blue cloth with velvet collar and bright metal buttons, a long watch-chain dangling from his fob, a cocked-hat and gold-headed cane completed the grand costume of the celebrated dandy (for there were dandies in those days) of the president's kitchen.

Thus arrayed, the chief cook invariably passed out at the front door, the porter making a low bow, which was promptly returned. Joining his brother-loungers of the pave, he proceeded up Market street, attracting considerable attention, that street being, in the old times, the resort where fashionables "did most congregate." Many were not a little surprised to behold so extraordinary a personage, while others who knew him would make a formal and respectful bow, that they might receive in return the salute of one of the most polished gentlemen and the veriest dandy of nearly sixty years ago."

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

1784 Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818), Mrs. John Adams, - Letter about French Women

Benjamin Blythe 1766 Portrait of Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818) 

39 year-old Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818) to 17 year-old Lucy Cranch
Sunday, 5 September 1784

Written from
Auteuil, Paris, Ville de Paris, Île-de-France, France

"This lady (Mme Helvétius) I dined with at Dr. Franklin's. She entered the room with a careless, jaunty air; upon seeing ladies who were strangers to her, she bawled out: “Ah! mon Dieu, where is Franklin? Why did you not tell me there were ladies here?” You must suppose her speaking all this in French. “How I look!” said she, taking hold of a chemise made of tiffany, which she had on over a blue lute-string, and which looked as much upon the decay as her beauty, for she was once a handsome woman; her hair was frizzled; over it she had a small straw hat, with a dirty gauze half-handkerchief round it, and a bit of dirtier gauze, than ever my maids wore, was bowed on behind. She had a black gauze scarf thrown over her shoulders. She ran out of the room; when she returned, the Doctor entered at one door, she at the other; upon which she ran forward to him, caught him by the hand: “Hélas! Franklin;” then gave him a double kiss, one upon each cheek, and another upon his forehead. When he went into the room to dine, she was placed between the Doctor and Mr. Adams. She carried on the chief of the conversation at dinner, frequently locking her hand into the Doctor's, and sometimes spreading her arms upon the backs of both the gentlemen's chairs, then throwing her arm carelesly upon the Doctor's neck.

"I should have been greatly astonished at this conduct if the good Doctor had not told me that in this lady I should see a genuine Frenchwoman, wholly free from affectation or stiffness of behaviour, and one of the best women in the world. For this I must take the Doctor's word, but I should have set her down for a very bad one, although sixty years of age, and a widow. I own I was highly disgusted, and never wish for an acquaintance with any ladies of this cast. After dinner she threw herself upon a settee, where she showed more than her feet. She had a little lap-dog, who was, next to the Doctor, her favorite. This she kissed, and when he wet the floor she wiped it up with her chemise. This is one of the Doctor's most intimate friends, with whom he dines once every week, and she with him. She is rich, and is my near neighbour, but I have not yet visited her. Thus you see, my dear, that manners differ exceedingly in different countries. I hope, however, to find amongst the French ladies manners more consistent with my ideas of decency, or I shall be a mere recluse."

Lucy Cranch was the daughter of Richard Cranch (1726–1811), a manufacturer, and his wife, Mary née Smith (1741–1811), sister of Abigail Adams. In 1791, she married her cousin John Greenleaf (1763–1848), a blind musician; they had 7 children.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Martha Dandridge Custis Washington 1731-1802 (Mrs George Washington) & Slavery

1790s Christian Gullager 1759-1826 George Washington.

When George Washington took over Mount Vernon at age 22, there were 18 slaves. When he married he gained control of 200 more which technically belonged to the estate of his wife’s first husband. By 1786, he owned 216 slaves. (Flexner, p 114)

While George Washington was serving as president in Philadelphia, a Pennsylvania law was passed freeing slaves whose owners had been citizens of the state for six months. George Washington sent his two most valuable slaves home, telling them it was for his wife’s convenience. (Wilkins, p 76)

When George Washington left the presidency, he apparently left some house slaves behind in Philadelphia, knowing that under state law they would be quietly freed by having spent a certain amount of time in Pennsylvania. (Flexner)

When he died in 1799, his will called for his manservant William Lee to be freed immediately, and given a pension. The other slaves were to be freed when his widow died. Martha chose to free them two years later. According to Abigail Adams, this was because Martha Washington feared her life might be in danger, since her death meant freedom for the slaves. (Hirschfield p 214)

Neither George Washington nor Martha Washington could legally free the dower slaves which still belonged to the Custis estate.

1766: George Washington sent a “rogue and runaway” slave to the islands to be sold for rum, molasses, etc. (Flexner, p 114)

1774: George Washington said new British laws would make Americans "as tame and abject slaves as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway." (Flexner, p 114)

1778/9: George Washington was reluctant to buy or sell slaves, although he felt that: “If these poor wretches are to be held in a state of slavery, I do not see that a change of masters will render it more irksome, provided husband and wife, and parents are not separated from each other, which is not my intention to do." (Flexner, p 118)

1786 George Washington complained about a Quaker abolitionist society: “I can only say that no man living wishes more sincerely than I do to see the abolition of (slavery)…But when slaves who are happy & content to remain with their present masters, are tampered with & seduced to leave them… it introduces more evils than it can cure." (Hirschfield, p 187)

Before 1793: "The unfortunate condition of the people whose labors I in part employed has been the only unavoidable subject of regret. To make the adults among them as easy and comfortable as their actual state of ignorance and improvidence would admit; and to lay a foundation to prepare the rising generation for a destiny different from that in which they were born, afforded some satisfaction to my mind, and could not, I hoped, be displeasing to the justice of the Creator." (Flexner, p 121)

1793: As president George Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act.

1793: George Washington hoped to rent and/or sell parts of his land, freeing the slaves to work as laborers. In a private letter he said his most powerful motive was: "to liberate a certain species of property which I possess very repugnantly to my own feelings, but which imperious necessity compels, and until I can substitute some other expedient by which expenses not in my power to avoid (however well disposed I may be to do it) can be defrayed." He was unable to find suitable renters or buyers and the plan fell through. (Flexner, p 113)

Approx 1794: One of George Washington’s slaves died: “I hope every necessary care and attention was afforded him. I expect little from (Overseer) McKoy, or indeed from most of his class, for they seem to consider a Negro much in the same light as they do the brute beasts on the farms, and often treat them as inhumanely.” (Wilkins, p83)

1796: Oney (or Ona) Judge ran away to New Hampshire.She was one of George Washington’s slaves – Martha’s personal servant. President George Washington asked the Treasury Secretary for help in getting her back: “I am sorry to give you, or any one else trouble on such a trifling occasion, but the ingratitude of the girl, who was brought up and treated more like a child than a Servant (and Mrs Washington’s desire to recover her) ought not to escape with impunity if it can be avoided.” (Wilkins,p82)

1796: A federal customs official in New Hampshire located George Washington’s runaway slave Oney Judge.George Washington asked him to “seize her and put her on board a Vessel bound immediately to this place or to Alexandria (Virginia).” The customs official warned that this would spark a riot.(Gerson )

In 1796, Oney (or Ona) Judge ran away to New Hampshire. She was one of the Washington’s slaves - Martha’s personal servant. President George Washington asked the Treasury Secretary and a customs agent for help in getting her back, by force, if necessary - but she never returned. (Wilkins. p 82. also: Gerson)

1796:, The customs official wrote that Oney Judge agreed to return if George Washington promised to free her in his will. George Washington wrote to the customs official: “I regret that the attempt you made to restore the Girl (Oney Judge as she called herself while with us, and who without the least provocation absconded from her Mistress) should have been attended with so little Success. To enter into such a compromise with her as she suggested to you is totally inadmissible, for reasons that must strike at first view: for however well disposed I might be to gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of People (if the latter was in itself practicable at this moment) it would neither be political or just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference; and thereby discontent before hand the minds of all her fellow-servants who by their steady attachments are far more deserving of favor.” Oney Judge remained free. (Wilkins, p82)

1799: George Washington complained that he had too many slaves. “To sell the overplus I cannot, because I am principled against this kind of traffic in the human species. To hire them out is almost as bad, because they could not be disposed of in families to any advantage, and to disperse the families I have an aversion.What then is to be done? Something must or I shall be ruined…” (Hirschfield,p74)

1799: When George Washington died his will called for his manservant William Lee to be freed immediately, and given a pension. The other slaves were to be freed when his widow died. Martha chose to free them two years later. According to Abigail Adams this was because Martha Washington feared her life might be in danger, since her death meant freedom for the slaves. (Hirschfield p 214) Neither George Washington nor Martha Washington could legally free the dower slaves (which Martha brought to the marriage) because they still belonged to the Custis estate.

This research is done by librarian Rob Lopresti and may be found on his website here..

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818), Mrs. John Adams, Disagrees with George Washington's Ownership of Slaves

Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818), Mrs. John Adams, by Gilbert Stuart, ca. 1800-1815. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Elizabeth Bissell Miller, “Abigail Adams,” The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington

George Washington owned slaves from an early age, & held conflicting views about the institution of slavery throughout his life. Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818), Mrs. John Adams, was impressed with Washington in general, but spoke of her disagreement with his position as a slaveholder. 

Throughout her life, Abigail Adams held steadfast to core principles: she was a humanitarian, activist, & leader with an acute sense of both America's successes & failures. Adams advocated for gender equality in public education & the need to pay attention to the social, political, & educational needs of women. She also firmly believed in the necessity for the emancipation of African Americans from slavery &, like her husband, firmly believed in dissolving the political union with Great Britain. In one final act of rebellion, Adams, a married woman whose property was controlled by her living husband, wrote a will & left the majority of her possessions to her female kin.

Frequently forsaking private joy for the greater public good, Adams voiced her views not only in quasi-political situations—such as during her appointment to the Massachusetts Colony General Court in 1775—but also to her husband during his numerous domestic & overseas diplomatic missions. It was in her role as unofficial advisor that she made her greatest contributions to the early American nation. It is believed that Abigail & John Adams exchanged more than 1,100 letters on topics ranging from government & politics to women's rights. Her firm views on American independence were succinctly expressed in a 1775 letter, explaining: "Let us separate, they are unworthy to be our Brethren. Let us renounce them..."


1792 George Washington before the Battle of Trenton by John Trumbull (1756-1843) 

Abigail Adams first met George Washington shortly after he took command of the Continental Army. Adams had initial hesitations regarding Washington as a slaveholder & member of the Virginia planter elite. However, after meeting, Adams wrote her husband that she was "struck with General Washington," & that his appointment was received with "universal satisfaction." Adams further explained that Washington was marked by "Dignity with ease. . .the Gentleman & Soldier look agreeably blended in him."

An ardent advocate for the cause of American liberty, Adams was uniquely able to express herself with eloquence at a time when women received little formal instruction. In a series of letters written beginning in 1776, Adams boldly argued for women’s rights. After learning that her husband would serve on the committee that would draft the Declaration of Independence, Adams admonished him to: "Remember the Ladies..." Although John Adams did not follow his wife's advice, ultimately his political agenda was shaped as much by his own opinions as by his valuable discourse with Abigail.

Abigail was John's all-encompassing aide-de-camp, chief of staff, & brain trust. However, her influence was not appreciated by all, particularly those who scathingly called her "Mrs. President." Abigail accompanied John to his diplomatic post in Paris in 1784. In 1785, she carefully handled the complex role of wife of the first United States Minister to Great Britain. And later she was wife of the first U.S. Vice President, & wife of the second U.S. President, serving as First Lady from March 4, 1797 to March 4, 1801.

A granddaughter of pre-revolutionary era politician John Quincy, & the daughter of a Congregationalist minister, Abigail married John Adams in October 1764 at the age of nineteen. Abigail's lifelong enjoyment of philosophy, theology, ancient history, government, & law, which was championed by her grandmother & other relatives, helped both Abigail & the young American nation chart a new course. Abigail played a vital role in America until her passing in 1818. She advocated for women's education, women's social & political needs, & the abolition of slavery.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818) & John Adams

Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818) was a smart, independent woman who said what she believed. Although she had strong feelings about women having an equal voice in the new United States of America, women would not get the right to vote in national elections until 1920.  “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.” .Abigail Adams



Even though her husband did not agree with her call for women's sufferage, she maintained a great appreciation for his work & that of his fellow patriots in helping establish a new nation.  "These are times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or in the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues." Abigail Adams



Even though his wife was outspoken & did not feel the need to constantly agree with him, President John Adams (1735-1826) dearly loved his partner. In one of their many letters, he wrote,  "Miss Adorable, I hereby order you to give [me], as many kisses, and as many hours of your company...as [I] shall please to demand, and charge them to my account.”

Thursday, June 22, 2017

John Adams writes to his wife Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818) on Thomas Paine & the coming Revolution

Thomas Paine. Painting by Auguste Millière (1876), based on an engraving by William Sharpe, based on a painting by George Romney, 1792.

"In the Course of this Winter appeared a Phenomenon in Philadelphia a Star of Disaster Disastrous Meteor, I mean Thomas Paine. He came from England, and got into such company as would converse with him, and ran about picking up what Information he could, concerning our Affairs, and finding the great Question was concerning Independence, he gleaned from those he saw the common place Arguments concerning Independence: such as the Necessity of Independence, at some time or other, the peculiar fitness at this time: the justice of it: the Provocation to it: the necessity of it: our Ability to maintain it &c. &c. Dr. Rush put him upon Writing on the Subject, furnished him with the Arguments which had been urged in Congress an hundred times, and gave him his title of common Sense. In the latter part of Winter, or the early in the Spring he came out, with his Pamphlet. The Arguments in favour of Independence I liked very well: but one third of the Book was filled with Arguments from the old Testiment, to prove the Unlawfulness of Monarchy, and another Third, in planning a form of Government, for the seperate States in One Assembly, and for the United States, in a Congress. His Arguments from the old Testiment, were ridiculous, but whether they proceeded from honest Ignorance, and or foolish [Superstition] on one hand, or from willfull Sophistry and knavish Hypocricy on the other I know not. The other third part relative to a form of Government I considered as flowing from simple Ignorance, and a mere desire to please the democratic Party in Philadelphia, at whose head were Mr. Matlock, Mr. Cannon and Dr. Young. I regretted however, to see so foolish a plan recommended to the People of the United States, who were all waiting only for the Countenance of Congress, to institute their State Governments. I dreaded the Effect so popular a pamphlet might have, among the People, and determined to do all in my Power, to counter Act the Effect of it. (Autobiography, Winter 1776).

"At this day it would be ridiculous to ask any questions about Tom Paines Veracity, Integrity or any other Virtue. (Autobiography).

"You ask, what is thought of Common sense. Sensible Men think there are some Whims, some Sophisms, some artfull Addresses to superstitious Notions, some keen attempts upon the Passions, in this Pamphlet. But all agree there is a great deal of good sense, delivered in a clear, simple, concise and nervous Style.

"His Sentiments of the Abilities of America, and of the Difficulties of a Reconciliation with G.B. are generally approved. But his Notions, and Plans of Continental Government are not much applauded. Indeed this Writer has a better Hand at pulling down than building.

"It has been very generally propagated through the Continent that I wrote this Pamphlet. But although I could not have written any Thing in so manly and striking a style, I flatter myself I should have made a more respectable Figure as an Architect, if I had undertaken such a World. This Writer seems to have very inadequate Ideas of what is proper and necessary to be done, in order to form Constitutions for single Colonies, as well as a great model of Union for the whole."

 (John Adams to Abigail Adams, 19 March 1776).


Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818), Mrs. John Adams, by Gilbert Stuart, ca. 1800-1815. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Portrait of an 18C American Woman

1795 Mrs. Joseph Anthony Jr. (Henrietta Hillegas) Gilbert Stuart (American, 1755–1828)

The Met tells us that Mrs. Joseph Anthony Jr., born Henrietta Hillegas in 1766, was one of ten children of Michael and Henrietta Hillegas of Philadelphia. Her father made his fortune in sugar refining and iron manufacturing, and served as the first treasurer of the United States. Henrietta married Joseph Anthony in 1785. As with many of Stuart’s portraits of Philadelphia society women, Mrs. Anthony’s likeness is endowed with an individuality and a sensuousness rare in American portraiture.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Monday, June 12, 2017

Martha Dandridge Custis Washington 1731-1802 (Mrs George Washington) - Portraits made during her lifetime

1757 John Wollaston, Martha Dandridge Custis (later Mrs George Washington)

This is the biography of Martha Dandridge Custis Washington from the White House website:

"I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else, there is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from..." So in one of her surviving letters, Martha Washington confided to a niece that she did not entirely enjoy her role as first of First Ladies. She once conceded that "many younger and gayer women would be extremely pleased" in her place; she would "much rather be at home."

1789-96 Edward Savage (1761-1817). The Washington Family (detail)

But when George Washington took his oath of office in New York City on April 30, 1789, and assumed the new duties of President of the United States, his wife brought to their position a tact and discretion developed over 58 years of life in Tidewater Virginia society.

1790 Edward Savage (1761-1817). Martha Washington.

Oldest daughter of John and Frances Dandridge, she was born June 2, 1731, on a plantation near Williamsburg. Typical for a girl in an 18th-century family, her education was almost negligible except in domestic and social skills, but she learned all the arts of a well-ordered household and how to keep a family contented.


1791-2 Archibald Robertson (1765-1835). Martha Washington.

As a girl of 18--about five feet tall, dark-haired, gentle of manner--she married the wealthy Daniel Parke Custis. Two babies died; two were hardly past infancy when her husband died in 1757.

1793 John Trumbull (1756-1843). Martha Washington.

From the day Martha married George Washington in 1759, her great concern was the comfort and happiness of her husband and children. When his career led him to the battlegrounds of the Revolutionary War and finally to the Presidency, she followed him bravely. Her love of private life equaled her husband's; but, as she wrote to her friend Mercy Otis Warren, "I cannot blame him for having acted according to his ideas of duty in obeying the voice of his country."

As for herself, "I am still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances."

1795 Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). Martha Washington.

At the President's House in temporary capitals, New York and Philadelphia, the Washingtons chose to entertain in formal style, deliberately emphasizing the new republic's wish to be accepted as the equal of the established governments of Europe. Still, Martha's warm hospitality made her guests feel welcome and put strangers at ease. She took little satisfaction in "formal compliments and empty ceremonies" and declared that "I am fond of only what comes from the heart."

Abigail Adams, who sat at her right during parties and receptions, praised her as "one of those unassuming characters which create Love and Esteem."

1796 Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828). Martha Washington

In 1797 the Washingtons said farewell to public life and returned to their beloved Mount Vernon, to live surrounded by kinfolk, friends, and a constant stream of guests eager to pay their respects to the celebrated couple. Martha's daughter Patsy had died, as had her son Jack at 26, but Jack's children figured in the household. After George Washington died in 1799, Martha assured a final privacy by burning their letters; she died of "severe fever" on May 22, 1802. Both lie buried at Mount Vernon, where Washington himself had planned an unpretentious tomb for them.

1796 James Peale ( 1749-1831). Martha Washington.


1796 James Sharples (1751-1811). Martha Washington.


1800 Unidentified Artist, Martha Washington

Sunday, June 11, 2017

18C Portrait of an American Woman

Mrs Sylvanus Bourne 1766 John Singleton Copley (American, Boston, Massachusetts 1738–1815 London)  The Metropolitan Museum of Art tells us that Mercy Gorham (1695–1782) was born and raised on Cape Cod, in the colony of Massachusetts. In 1718, she married Sylvanus Bourne, a prosperous merchant, and 2 years later they settled in the port town of Barnstable. The couple had 11 children. Copley painted Mrs. Bourne 3 years after her husband’s death, when she was 71 years old. She holds a book in her lap.

Friday, June 9, 2017

18C Portrait of an American Woman

Mrs. Jonathan Pinkney, Jr. (Elizabeth Munroe) 1798 by James Peale (American, Chestertown, Maryland 1749–1831 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) The Metropolitan Museum of Art tells us that she lived in Annapolis, Maryland.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

18C Portrait of an American Woman

Mrs. Francis Brinley (1698–1761) and Her Son Francis (1729–1816).  1729 by John Smibert (American, Edinburgh, Scotland 1688–1751 Boston, Massachusetts) The Metropolitan Museum of Art tells us that she was born Deborah Lyde,  & that Mrs. Francis Brinley (1698–1761) was the daughter of Edward and Catherine Lyde and the granddaughter of Judge Nathaniel Byfield. When she married Francis Brinley in 1718, she was a woman of wealth and social prominence. An entry in Smibert's notebook dated May 1729 identifies the infant as the Brinley's son Francis (1729–1816). Mrs. Brinley holds a sprig of orange blossoms, a gesture which may have been taken from an 18C print by Sir Peter Lely. The white orange blossom symbolizes both marriage and purity, while the fruit, a sign of fertility, emphasizes Mrs. Brinley's role as a mother. Orange trees, although fashionable in Europe, were expensive rarities in the colonies. The presence of one here reinforces the sitter's wealth.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Betty Washington (Mrs Fielding Lewis) 1733-1797 George Washington's Sister & The Revolution

Rebecca A. Johnson, “Betty Washington Lewis,” The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington, 

Betty Washington Fielding Lewis 1733-1797

Betty Washington Lewis was more than just the only sister of George Washington to survive to adulthood; she was also a patriot. Lewis & her husband, Fielding, contributed a considerable amount of their personal wealth & time toward the American Revolution. Their devotion & loyalty to the wartime effort & to its leader, George Washington, inadvertently led them to financial hardship.

Born on June 20, 1733, Betty Washington was the 2nd child & only surviving daughter of Augustine & Mary Ball Washington. Christened as Elizabeth, Betty was most likely named after her mother’s beloved half-sister, Elizabeth Johnson Bonhum. Along with her eventually famous older brother George, Betty had 3 other brothers, Samuel, John (Jack), & Charles, & a sister, Mildred, who died in infancy. From her father’s 1st marriage, she also had 3 half-brothers, Butler, Lawrence, & Augustine, only 2 (Lawrence & Augustine) of whom survived to adulthood, & a half-sister, Jane, who died when a child.1

Betty Washington was born at the family estate on Pope’s Creek in Westmoreland County. In 1735, the Washingtons moved to a property on the Upper Potomac, known at the time as Little Hunting Creek but eventually renamed Mount Vernon. In 1740, the family moved to Ferry Farm, overlooking the Rappahannock River, across from the town of Fredericksburg.2

Like many Virginia girls among the gentry, young Betty Washington no doubt received some practical & ornamental education. She learned to ride a horse at an early age & most likely became an expert horsewoman. Like all young Virginians, she must have learned to dance. Her mother taught her the domestic arts, such as sewing, knitting, & embroidery. Along with her 4 brothers, Betty attended a school taught by Reverend James Marye, a scholarly Huguenot. Betty & her family regularly attended Falmouth Church in Brunswick Parish, which contributed to her lasting faith & regular attendance at services in St. George’s Parish in the latter part of her life.3

Colonel Fielding Lewis (1725-1781)

Betty Washington was 16, when she married the widower Fielding Lewis, who was 8 years her senior, on May 7, 1750. The couple not only shared the same acquaintances & circulated in the same social circles, they were also 2nd cousins through their maternal grandmothers, who were sisters. Marriage between kin was common in 18C Virginia. Fielding Lewis’ 1st wife, Catharine Washington, was also a cousin. Betty Washington’s marriage settlement of £400 & 2 female slaves, left to her in her father’s will, along with Fielding Lewis’ wealth, enabled the newly married couple to live comfortably.4

In 1752, Fielding Lewis purchased 1,300 acres on the outskirts of Fredericksburg & asked his brother-in-law, George Washington, to survey the 861-acre portion that would be the site of Kenmore, the Lewises’ exquisite house.5 Together, Betty & Fielding Lewis had a total of 11 children, 6 of whom survived to adulthood. Betty Lewis also had 2 stepchildren, from Fielding's 1st marriage. It was at Kenmore where Betty & Fielding Lewis resided & raised their family during their 31 years of married life.6

Kenmore where Betty & Fielding Lewis resided

Kenmore was a Georgian-style 2 story home that consisted of 8 rooms, a full cellar, 12-foot high ceilings, & 4,000 square feet of living space.7  Many people lived & worked at Kenmore, including 80 slaves, whose quarters were among the many outbuildings on the estate. Records indicate it took several years to build the house, in part because the disruption of trade during the imperial crisis prevented the Lewsises from obtaining necessary supplies from England. Decorative plasterwork on the ceilings & mantles were added as late as 1775.8

Kenmore where Betty & Fielding Lewis resided

Fielding Lewis was often away from Kenmore due to his involvement in public life. He was a vestryman of St. George’s Church, a colonel in the Spotsylvania County militia, & from 1760 to 1768 served as a member of the House of Burgesses. In 1773, he joined Virginia’s pre-revolutionary Committee of Correspondence.9 Fielding’s absence left Betty in charge of running & maintaining their estate.  Although she had many slaves to do manual tasks, like other plantation mistresses, she supervised their work. She also oversaw the management of her gardens, spent much of her time attending to her children, offered hospitality to guests, & hosted various social gatherings. Betty’s brother George was one of Kenmore's many frequent visitors.10

Betty & Fielding Lewis were strong supporters of the Revolution, & their loyalty to the cause cost them financially. The Lewises owned a store, which originally belonged to Fielding’s father. During the war, Fielding supplied salt, flour, bacon, & clothing to patriot forces. Herbs & other produce from Betty’s gardens became teas & ointments that Fielding also supplied to the army. In July 1775, the Virginia assembly passed an ordinance providing for a “Manufactory of Small Arms in Fredericksburg, Va.” & named Fielding Lewis & four other men as its Commissioners. Appropriations of £25,000 were distributed & land was secured near Hunter’s Forge for the construction & operation of the gunnery. However, the appropriations ran out, & Betty & Fielding Lewis used £7,000 from their personal accounts to maintain the gunnery. They later borrowed between £30,000 & £40,000 to provide saltpeter, sulfur, gunpowder, & lead for the manufacture of ammunition during the war. Kenmore was heavily mortgaged to meet the costs of these patriotic endeavors.11

Betty Lewis handled family affairs for her brother George, while Fielding managed many of his financial concerns. Fielding collected outstanding debts for George, & he also handled several land transactions for his brother-in-law.12 Meanwhile, when George & Betty’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, died in 1789, shortly after he had left for New York to assume the presidency, George asked his sister to take care of their mother’s estate, providing her with detailed instructions, which she followed.13 In 1790, at George’s request, Betty cared for their niece Harriot Washington, the daughter of their deceased brother Samuel. Harriot resided at Mount Vernon, & her uncle George was her guardian.  Beginning in October 1792, due to the responsibilities of the presidency in Philadelphia, there were no women living at Mount Vernon to watch over her, so George Washington instructed Betty Lewis to move Harriot to Kenmore, which she did.14

When Fielding Lewis died December 1781, just two months after the American victory at Yorktown, the Commonwealth of Virginia still owed the Lewises some £7,000. In widowhood at age 49, Betty struggled financially & sometimes hired out her slaves to raise money. She also tried running a small boarding school at Kenmore, though she had to sell land in order to keep the school & Kenmore afloat.15  Betty Lewis remained at Kenmore fourteen years before she went to live with her daughter, Betty Carter, in Culpepper County. On March 31, 1797, she died at her daughter’s home, Western View, & was buried on the property.16 Eighteen days after she died, Kenmore & its contents were sold. The Lewis descendants were never compensated for Betty & Fielding Lewis’ enormous expenditures in support of the revolutionary cause.

Notes:

1. Fitzpatrick, John, ed. The Writings of George Washington (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing, 1939), 28.

2. Charles Moore, The Family Life of George Washington (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1926), Internet Archive, 12-13; Duke, Kenmore & the Lewises, 19.

3. Duke, Kenmore & the Lewises, 20-21, 37-38; Moore, The Family Life of George Washington, 206-7.

4. Fielding Lewis, “Genealogical notes of the Fielding Lewis family,” Fred W. Smith National Library, Mount Vernon, General Collection; Eugene Scheel, “Kenmore House One of the Finest Examples of American Colonial Architecture;” “Augustine Washington, April 11, 1743, Will,” American Memory, The Library of Congress, Source: George Washington Papers 1741-1799, Series 4, General Correspondence, 1697-1799, Library of Congress, Manuscripts Division; “Augustine Washington’s Will,”

5. “To George Washington from Fielding Lewis, 23 April 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 10, 21 March 1774?–?15 June 1775, ed. W. W. Abbot & Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 343–344; Vivian Minor Fleming, The Story of Kenmore (Fredericksburg, VA: Kenmore Association, 1927), 6.

6. Paula S. Felder, Fielding Lewis & the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg (Fredericksburg, VA: American History Company, 1998), 163.

7. Though Kenmore is the more commonly known name of the home of Colonel Fielding Lewis & Betty Washington Lewis, it was first called “Millbrook.” The name was changed to Kenmore by Samuel Gordon who purchased Kenmore in 1819. According to tradition, the Gordons named the house "Kenmore" after their ancestral Scottish home of Kenmuir.

8. Scheel, “Kenmore House;” “Historic Kenmore Plantation;” Fleming, Story of Kenmore, 6; Duke, Kenmore & the Lewises, 36, 68-69.

9. William Pitt Palmer, & Sherwin McRae, eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers & Other Manuscripts, 1652-1781, vol. 1 (Richmond: R. F. Walker, Superintendent of Public Printing, 1875), Internet Archive, 406; Scheel, “Kenmore House;” Duke, Kenmore & the Lewises, 62-65.

10. Duke, Kenmore & the Lewises, 50; Felder, Fielding Lewis & the Washington Family, 164-165; Moore, Family Life of George Washington, 12-13.

11. “Fielding Lewis Store: The Oldest Retail Building in America?,” Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, 2005; “Fielding Lewis;” Palmer, & McRae, eds. Calendar of Virginia State Papers, 456, 502-3; Duke, Kenmore & the Lewises, 94-96; Fleming, Story of Kenmore, 9; “To George Washington from Fielding Lewis, 14 November 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 2, 16 September 1775?–?31 December 1775, ed. Philander D. Chase (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987), 371–373. 

12. “From George Washington to Fielding Lewis, 20 April 1773,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 9, 8 January 1772?–?18 March 1774, ed. W. W. Abbot & Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994), 221–224; “To George Washington from Fielding Lewis, 8–9 May 1773,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: ibid., 229–230. “To George Washington from Fielding Lewis, 24 May 1773,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: ibid., 235. 

13. “From George Washington to Betty Washington Lewis, 13 September 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4, 8 September 1789?–?15 January 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993), 32–36. 

14. “To George Washington from Harriot Washington, 2 April 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 5, 16 January 1790?–?30 June 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig, Mark A. Mastromarino, & Jack D. Warren (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996), 310–311; “To George Washington from Betty Washington Lewis, 25 September 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 11, 16 August 1792?–?15 January 1793, ed. Christine Sternberg Patrick (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002), 155–156; “From George Washington to Betty Washington Lewis, 7 October 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: ibid., 201-202. 

15. “To George Washington from Betty Washington Lewis, 24 September 1793,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 14, 1 September–31 December 1793, ed. David R. Hoth (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2008), 131–132. 

16. Moncure Daniel Conway, ed. George Washington & Mount Vernon: A Collection of Washington’s Unpublished Agricultural & Personal Letters, vol. 4. (Brooklyn: Long Island Historical Society, 1889), lix; Fleming, Story of Kenmore, 10-11.

Bibliography:

Duke, Jane Taylor. Kenmore & the Lewises. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1949.

Felder, Paula S. Fielding Lewis & the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg. Fredericksburg, VA: American History Company, 1998.

Fleming, Vivian Minor. The Story of Kenmore. Fredericksburg, VA: Kenmore Association, 1927.

Kierner, Cynthia A. Beyond the Household: Women’s Place in the Early South, 1700-1835. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Moore, Charles. The Family Life of George Washington. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1926. Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/familylifeofgeor008680mbp

Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800. Ithaca, NY & London: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Monday, June 5, 2017

18C Portrait of an American Woman

 Mrs. John Dart, Henrietta Isabella Sommers (1750–1783).  1772 Jeremiah Theus (American, Chur, 1716–1774 Charleston, South Carolina)  The Metropolitan Museum of Art tells us that Henrietta Isabella Sommers (1750–1783) was the daughter of Humphrey Sommers, a successful building contractor in Charleston, South Carolina. She was married to John Dart. The costume in this portrait was probably based on a print, since it is unlikely that Mrs. Dart possessed an ermine-trimmed robe. Theus probably painted her face from life and the clothing in his studio, with a mezzotint before him.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Friday, June 2, 2017

Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818), Mrs. John Adams - The Adams' Home at Braintree, Massachusetts

Abigail Smith was born on November 11, 1744, in Weymouth, Massachusetts, the 2nd child of Elizabeth Quincy Smith & the Reverend William Smith. Her father was pastor of Weymouth's North Parish Congregational Church. Abigail's mother, Elizabeth, spent much of her time visiting the sick & distributing food, clothing, & firewood to needy families. Young Abigail accompanied her mother on these visits putting into practice the lessons her father taught at church.  Abigail educated herself in her father's library.
Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818), Mrs. John Adams, by Gilbert Stuart, ca. 1800-1815. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

When she was 18, Abigail met John Adams, a young lawyer from nearby Braintree. During their 2 year courtship, the young couple spent long periods apart & relied upon writing letters to keep in touch. On October 25, 1764, Abigail's father presided over their wedding. The young couple moved into the small house John had inherited from his father in Braintree to begin their life together.  Abigail proved to be exceptionally capable of managing the family's finances & household. Meanwhile, John's began to ride the court circuit (traveling from one district to another) building a successful law career.  On July 14, 1765,  John & Abigail's 1st child, Abigail, was born."Nabby," as she was called, was followed by son John Quincy Adams on July 11, 1767, Susanna (who died just after her 1st year), Charles, & Thomas Boylston.  The young couple continued to live on John's small farm at Braintree or in Boston as his practice expanded. In ten years she bore three sons & two daughters; she looked after family & home; when he went traveling as circuit judge. "Alas!" she wrote in December 1773, "How many snow banks divide thee and me...."

John Adams decided to move his family to Boston, because his work was located there. The Adamses friends inlcuded John's cousin Samuel Adams, John Hancock, James Otis, & Joseph Warren. Long separations kept Abigail from her husband while he served the country they loved, as delegate to the Continental Congress, envoy abroad, elected officer under the Constitution. Her letters--pungent, witty, & vivid, spelled just as she spoke--detail her life in times of revolution. They tell the story of the woman who stayed at home to struggle with wartime shortages & inflation; to run the farm with a minimum of help; to teach 4 children when formal education was interrupted. Most of all, they tell of her loneliness without her "dearest Friend."

The Boston Massacre occured on March 5, 1770. At the risk of his own popularity & career, John Adams chose to defend 8 British soldiers & their captain, accused of murdering 5 Americans.  Although John was an ardent patriot & favored independence, he felt the soldiers had acted properly & been provoked into firing by an unruly mob. Also, he felt it was important to prove to the world that the colonists were not under mob rule, lacking direction & principles, & that all men were entitled to due process of law. Most Americans, driven by emotion, were angry with Adams for defending the hated "redcoats," but throughout the ordeal Abigail supported her husband's decision. In the end, Adams was proved correct & all 9 of the men were acquitted of the murder charges. While the verdict diffused this crisis, far greater ones were destined for the colonies.


1798 Watercolor of the Old House of John & Abigail Adams by E. Malcom  The Old House, built in 1731, became the residence of the Adams family for 4 generations from 1788 to 1927.

In 1774 John traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as a delegate to the First Continental Congress; where America made its first legislative moves toward forming a government independent of Great Britain. Abigail remained in Braintree to manage the farm & educate their children. Again, letter writing was the only way the Adamses could communicate with each other. Their correspondence took on even greater meaning, for Abigail reported to her husband about the British & American military confrontations around Boston. Abigail took her son John Quincy to the top of Penn's Hill near their farm to witness the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775.

Not all Americans shared the Adamses' vision of an independent nation. To those that wavered, Abigail argued, "A people may let a king fall, yet still remain a people: but if a king lets his people slip from him, he is no longer a king. And this is most certainly our case, why not proclaim to the world in decisive terms, your own independence?" John agreed with his wife; & in June 1776, was appointed to a committee of five men to prepare a Declaration of Independence from Great Britain.


1820 Sketch of the Mansion by Abigail Adams Smith who lived with her grandfather John Adams in the Old House from 1818-1829

Abigail's vision of independence was broader than that of the delegates. She believed all people, & both sexes, should be granted equal rights. In a letter to John she wrote, "I wish most sincerely that there was not a slave in the province. It always seemed to me to fight ourselves for what we are robbing the Negroes of, who have as good a right to freedom as we have."  Later Abigail added that John & his fellow delegates should "remember the ladies, & be more generous & favorable to them than you ancestors" when they enact new codes of law. Her views were far too progressive for the delegates of the Continental Congress. 

John soon was appointed president of the Board of War & turned to Abigail for advice on carrying out his job.  Throughout his career, Adams had few confidants. Thus Abigail advised her husband, & John valued her judgment so much that he wrote his wife, "I want to hear you think or see your thoughts."


1828 A drawing of The Adams Seat in Quincy by Mrs. George Whitney

In 1778,  John Adams was sent to Paris on a special mission to negotiate an alliance with France. He remained in Europe from 1778 to 1787, through a succession of different appointments, except for a 3 month rest at home; during which time he drafted the Massachusetts Constitution.  Separated from her husband by the Atlantic Ocean, Abigail continued to keep their farm running, paid their bills, & served as teacher to their children. She particularity labored to develop the great abilities of her son John Quincy, who had joined his father in Europe. In one letter to her son, she inspired him to use his superior abilities to confront the challenges before him: "These are times in which a genius would wish to live. . . . Great necessities call out great virtues."


John Adams by William Joseph Williams, C. 1797.

In 1784, with independence & peace secured from Great Britain, Abigail sailed to Europe to join her husband & son. Abigail spent 4 years in France & England, while her husband served as U.S. minister to Great Britain. As the wife of a diplomat, she met & entertained many people in Paris & London. While never at home in these unfamiliar settings, Abigail did her best to enjoy the people & places of both countries. Abigail was pleased, when the time came to return home to Braintree in 1788.


1846 Woodcut of the Residence of John Quincy Adams

The next year, John Adams was elected the 1st vice president of the United States. During the course of the next 12 years as John Adams served 2 terms as vice president (1789-1797) & 1 term as president (1797-1801), he & Abigail moved back & forth between Braintree (the "Old House") & the successive political capitals of the United States: New York, Philadelphia, & then, briefly, at the unfinished White House in Washington, D.C.


Portrait of John Adams by William Winstanley, 1798.

Abigail had recurring bouts of rheumatism that forced her frequently to retreat to the peace of Braintree recover. After 1791, poor health forced her to spend as much time as possible in Quincy. Illness or trouble found her resolute; as she once declared, she would "not forget the blessings which sweeten life."  In 1796, John Adams was elected to succeed George Washington as president of the United States.  Party lines were forming. John Adams faced dissent in his cabinet & the vice president, Thomas Jefferson, was head of the opposition party. John realized the problems he faced & wrote to his wife, who was in Quincy recovering from a rheumatic bout, that "I never wanted your advice & assistance more in my life."  Abigail rushed to her husband's side & maintained a grueling schedule to perform all her duties as first lady. She entertained guests & visited people in support of her husband. The first lady had a limited budget to carry out her duties, but she compensated for this with her attentiveness & charm.


1849 Daguerreotype of the Old House of John & Abigail Adams by John Adams Whipple

Meanwhile, Great Britain was at war with France, & popular opinion held that America should jump in to aid Great Britain, especially after France insulted the United States by demanding bribes. The president felt that war would weaken the United States & decided on the unpopular course of neutrality. During this time many of Adams' opponents used the press to criticize his policies. Abigail was often referred to as "Mrs. President," for it was widely believed that the president's decisions were heavily influenced by his wife. In reality Abigail disagreed with her husband's stand of neutrality; but people believed she was setting his policies, & this weakened John Adams politically.


1849 Painting of the Old House of John & Abigail Adams by G. Frankenstein

In 1798, with John Adams' approval, Congress passed the Alien & Sedition Acts, which were aimed at restricting foreign influence over the United States & weakening the opposition press. Abigail supported these measures, because she felt they were necessary to stop the press from undermining her husband. The acts proved very unpopular, with Thomas Jefferson & James Madison leading the protest against them. Adams' support of these acts undermined his popular support, already suffering from his courageous but unpopular stand on war with France, & led to his failure to be reelected in 1800.


 1852 View of the Adams Mansion at Quincy by Mallory, C. 1852 from “Gleasons’ Pictorial Drawing Room Companion” Volume 3, August 21, 1852.

In March 1801, John & Abigail retired to Quincy. During her last years, Abigail occupied herself with improving her home & entertaining visiting children, grandchildren, nieces, & nephews. The proud mother watched as her son John Qunicy Adams distinguished himself as a U.S. senator, minister to Russia, & secretary of state. In October 1818, Abigail contracted typhoid fever. Surrounded by family members, she died on October 28. John Adams & his wife had shared 54 years of happiness & companionship, & John wrote, "I wish I could lay down beside her & die too."


Portrait of John Adams at age 88 by Jane Stuart, after Gilbert Stuart, 1824.

See National Park Service Adams House