Volume 1 September 2022
FLARE Focus on The (Uncommon) Education of Abigail Adams
Editor’s Note: Dr. Abrams is a Professor and Curator of the Beck Archives at the University of Denver Libraries. This essay is based on her two books, First Ladies of the Republic: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madison, and the Creation of an Iconic American Role (NYU Press, 2018) and A View From Abroad: The Story of John and Abigail Adams in Europe (NYU Press, 2021).
“Learning is not attained by chance. It must be sought with ardor and attended with diligence,” Abigail Adams declared in 1780 to her teen-aged son, future president John Quincy Adams. It was a maxim the second First Lady of the United States followed faithfully her entire life. In 1779, during the American Revolution, Abigail’s husband John Adams was in Europe on a diplomatic mission to garner support for the cause. Abigail advised John Quincy, who had accompanied his father to France, that persistence, intellectual rigor, and plain hard work were the necessary ingredients for learning success. It is a lesson as important today as it was then.
Like most women in early America, Abigail never formally attended school. Due to her fragile health and the commonplace belief of her parents, Parson William Smith and Elizabeth Quincy Smith, who did not subscribe to the notion of advanced education for women, Abigail was what today we would term “home schooled.” Yet, she later became one of the most erudite citizens in the new republic, and she and her sisters received a superior education compared to most girls of their era. Still, as an adult, Abigail felt that it was unfair that her feckless only brother had been offered far more educational advantages than his sisters. “Why should children of the same family be thus distinguished?”i she complained to a relative.
Her voracious appetite for knowledge was fed by her relatives, and especially by her husband and soul mate, John Adams. Abigail read deeply and widely, from Shakespeare and novels to philosophy and political theory, especially during the 1770s, when she experienced many lonely nights while her husband was away, working on behalf of the fledgling American nation in Philadelphia. Reading was only possible after demanding days overseeing their Braintree, Massachusetts, household and family farm.
John and Abigail Adams were passionate about the value of education for Americans but differed in degree as to what was appropriate for women. John, for example, did not support Abigail’s plan to allow their only daughter, Nabby, to study Greek and Latin, subjects he felt were only suited for male scholars. She acquiesced but continued to view female education as central to the development of an enduring republic in order to raise committed American citizens.
Right after the Declaration of Independence of July 1776, Abigail made her case to John arguing that, “our new constitution be distinguished for Learning and Virtue. If we mean to have Heroes, Statesmen, and Philosophers, we should have learned women.”ii Although at the time her ideas were considered controversial, in one of her earliest letters to John while he was abroad, Abigail took the opportunity to disparage the general state of education of American women. In response to praise from John about the “brilliant accomplishments” of French women, Abigail responded strongly. She lamented the “trifling, narrow, contracted education of the females in my own country. . .you need not be told how much female education is neglected, nor how fashionable it has been to ridicule female learning; though I acknowledge it my happiness to be connected with a person [John] of a more generous mind and liberal sentiments.”iii
Abigail also concurred with her husband about the benefits of widespread education in a democracy. In 1786, John wrote a friend that, “a memorable change must be made in the styles of Education and knowledge must become so general as to raise the lower ranks of Society nearer to the higher. . .” He recommended a path that became a hallmark of American schooling: “. . .The Education of a Nation instead of being confined to a few schools & Universities, for the instruction of the few, must become the National Care and expence, for the information of the many. . .”
In the mid-1780s, Abigail joined John in Europe, where Abigail continued to expand her educational vistas. In London, she attended a series of scientific lectures, including talks about experiments dealing with electricity and magnetism. She commented wistfully to her niece back in America that the exposure to innovative scientific subjects was “like going into a Beautiful Country, which I never saw before, a Country which our American Females are not permitted to visit or inspect.”iv
Abigail and John Adams both viewed an educated populace as an essential ingredient to a thriving democratic republic, a legacy that can be seen in the literacy agendas of Barbara and Laura Bush, the Reach Higher and Let Girls Learn programs of Michelle Obama, and Dr. Jill Biden’s community college teaching. Abigail may not have had access to the educational opportunity women enjoy in our times, but she advocated for change and was a lifelong learner.
i First Ladies of the Republic, p. 126
ii First Ladies of the Republic, p. 126
iii First Ladies of the Republic, p. 127
iv A View From Abroad, p. 180