Rhetorical Devices Used in Abigail Adams' Letter to John Adams

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In the opening paragraph, Abigail Adams strongly appeals to ethos. Credibility is established through the specificity of the questions she asked. It is clear that Abigail was educated and kept up with the war efforts. Abigail inquires as to where the fleets are, what defense the state of Virginia has now and then states that the colonists are not uncivilized or unintelligent as the British perceive them to be (Adams 386). With this, along with her blunt, straightforward tone in this paragraph, there is a clear appeal to ethos.

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The questions she presents show her knowledge of the ongoings of the war. The questions also show her persona as she expressed her interest and concern toward John and what he was doing in the war and as part of the Continental Congress. Abigail was an intelligent woman who cared deeply about her husband and supported the cause he was fighting for. The questions that she asked John reflect this persona.

Abigail describes Boston in great detail in order to help John understand what life was like at home. Since he was away in the war, John was unaware of how the city has adapted in a time of crisis. She tells him that she has inquired as to their house which was left dirty but otherwise in decent shape. Abigail continues by describing the mistreatment of personal property inmany of the homes occupied by the British soldiers.

It seems that she is disgusted at the poor manners and way of life of many who took possession of stately homes in Boston. The soldiers disregard for the property of others mak]des her upset. Abigail wrote to John: “I look upon it a new acquisition of property, a property which a month ago I did not value at a single Shilling and could with pleasure have seen it in flames.” (Adams 386). With this, there was some hope that things would improve. Specific details were included as they related personally to their lives and provided just enough information to keep John informed without causing unnecessary concern.

In saying “remember the ladies” Abigail was referring to basic protections like inheritance rights and abuse by their husbands. Society was extremely patriarchal, and Abigail felt that her husband should support her cause as she supported his. She stated: “do not put such unlimited power into the hand of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could,” (Adams 387). When making this bold claim, she is not referring to her husband as they see each other almost as equals; rather, she is standing up for women whose husbands do not think of their wives as equals or even believe they are deserving of rights.

Abigail makes these statements without alienating her husband by mentioning men as a whole. She called for change through her husband, making him a pioneer for change for women in her eyes. As a result, this would exclude him from being a “tyrant” like other males. It is clear that Abigail and John respected each other and if he “remember[ed] the ladies” he would be helping the cause, not creating issues like most men. She also refers to men as a group, without accusing John specifically.

In her letter, Abigail gave suggestions to John about making sure that women’s rights were addressed in the freedoms which were being drafted at the Congress. As John’s letter is lighthearted, he is not mocking her when he writes that he “cannot but laugh” at her extraordinary code of laws. (Adams 388). He continues to banter with her in playful jest on the subject and her enthusiasm in obtaining women’s rights.

John mentions that this is the first he hears on the subject of women’s rights, and that this “tribe,” had become discontented. This is something to take into account because women are a tribe which are powerful and large in number. In continuing his discussion on the topic, he writes to Abigail: “This is rather too coarse a compliment but you are so saucy, I won’t blot it out.” (Adams 388). This was his way of expressing that he is interested in her and her ideas, while managing to be playful with his choice of words.

Most of the ideas presented in the final paragraph were not very serious. John forcefully talked about how men “knew better than to repeal [their] masculine systems” (Adams 388) to create humor. He also coined the phrase “despotism of the petticoat” to poke fun at the women’s rights his wife was asking about, though he did believe in its importance. In saying this, John was referring to the power women had.

He tries to lighten the mood of the letter by mentioning a laundry list of minority groups trying to obtain rights like women. He claimed that they “…stimulated the [women] to demand new Privileges and threaten to rebel” (Adams 389). In saying this, John acknowledges the validity of women trying to obtain some basic rights, but does not think it is feasible because so many other groups were attempting to do the same.

The overall tone of both letters was blunt and assertive. They both avoided being aggressive through the usage of humor. It was playful banter which was respectful to the other while maintaining the seriousness of the topics discussed in their letters. The letters could almost be conversational, rather than formal like a typical letter.

It is clear that there is a mutual respect between Abigail and John. Abigail supports John, despite asking for him to write more, and does all she can to help him from home. They also bantered with each other in the letter, displaying intimacy. Abigail wrote “I wish you would ever write me a letter half as long as I write you…” (Adams 386), to which John replied “you justly complain of my short letter, but the… multiplicity of avocations must plead my excuse” (Adams 387). This type of banter and joking between Abigail and John was seen in both letters. 

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