In the letters between Abigail and John Adams, the reader is allowed a rare glimpse into the relationship of one of America’s most prolific and progressive presidents. Their correspondence in these letters has implications that continually transcend the boundaries of their personal relationship. The letters offer a unique vantage point with which to examine the cultural norms established during the period, of which the following are the most prominent: women’s rights, the political climate, and the constant struggles with the British empire.
Women’s rights, a topic not much discussed between husband and wife during the period (or even today for that matter), was much a part of the dialogue often shared between the two. This topic is particularly pervasive within their writings during the time period surrounding the drafting and ratification of the Declaration of Independence. A letter written by Abigail on March 31, 1776 to John concerning the inclusion of women’s rights within the document states, “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” In this passage she points out several radical ideas that were almost exclusively off limits as conversation topics during the period. She makes these comments concerning the inevitable rebellion of women if denied rights and the tyrannical nature of men, with such flippancy that one can only conclude that this blunt nature with which she speaks, was commonplace within their discourse. She goes on to further explain the notion of the men being “Naturally Tyrannical” and uses this to further her argument for proper representation under the Declaration. Even more surprising than the ease with which Abigail writes this passage, is the response given by John Adams. He writes, “We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient — that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent — that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented. — This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I wont blot it out.” This passage begins by acknowledging the presence of unrest amongst marginalized populations as result of leaving the Crown’s rule. This sentiment is soon followed by the acknowledgement of the rising tensions amongst the largest marginalized group, Women. Understanding this notion is highly important when examining the political climate of the period. It not only shows that women are interested in breaking the bondage of a heavily patriarchal society, but shows that a man in a position of power is willing to include this understanding in both his personal and political affairs. This directly contradicts the established societal norm of the period, in which marriage was seen as a means of social advancement, rather than a partnership based on understanding and equality. These relationships established as a means for social advancement, were often predicated upon the subjugation and relegation of women into support roles.
The matter of fact way in which the two communicate during their writings, stands in stark contrast with the political culture of the period. However, it is not only representative of the times, but additionally offers insight into the nature of modern American Politics. John quite often writes Abigail describing the tiresome nature of his work, especially in his younger years. One of his more common complaints is that he wishes the posturing and bureaucracy surrounding politics would cease to exist. To this end, on October 9, 1774 he writes, “…Business is drawn and spun out to an immeasurable Length,” referring of course to the matters which pass in front of congress. He explains this phenomenon as a consequence of the heavily partisan politics that seem to be of more importance than the actual issue being addressed. The aforementioned parallel between past and present politics, is all but too obvious during this passage, as today we seem stuck in the same cycle of political alignments. Equally interesting, are his comments concerning the patronage he is forced to pay to the Episcopal and Presbyterian Churches. He remarks, “They are both Slaves to the Domination of the Priesthood,” and comments on how this forced attendance continues to “….make the Pilgrimage more tedious to me.” The disdain for the bureaucracy surrounding politics that he explains, excluding some grammar and specific details, is a very modern sentiment amongst political commentators and the general public. As such, It can be easily inferred that this notion of political frustration is nothing new, but rather a tradition which can have its roots traced back to the forging of American Politics.
Finally, these papers seem to both directly and indirectly comment on the persistent struggles between the United States (whether or not formally established), and the English Crown. John writes, “We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would compleatly subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat, I hope General Washington, and all our brave Heroes would fight. I am sure every good Politician would plot, as long as he would against Despotism, Empire, Monarchy, Aristocracy, Oligarchy, or Ochlocracy. — A fine Story indeed.” This rather lengthy quotation is included because it best summarizes the amalgamation of the discourse between the two concerning sentiments against the Crown. John’s unyielding patriotism and desire to squash English rule serves as a perpetual driving force within both personally and politically. Specifically, during these letters he seems to have a deeply rooted respect for George Washington, a sentiment that was quite popular during the period. Additionally, Abigail often shares the same lust for independence that her husband so desires, but often offers up different explanations to the circumstances surround the issue. This is extremely important to the cultural development of the two as a couple and it additionally serves as a point of reflection upon which the overwhelming bipartisan support of American independence can be further understood.
The letters between these two highly influential individuals, serve as not only an informative series on their personal lives, but rather give the reader insight to the culture of the period. This is most prominent when taking a cultural vantage point on the issues of women’s rights, the political climate quickly establishing itself, and the constant struggles between the United States and the British Crown.
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