'Regard Us Then as Beings…': Abigail Adams’ Love Letter for a Nation Yet to Be
62 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2013 Last revised: 31 Mar 2013
Date Written: March 27, 2013
Early on a Monday morning in the late spring of 1860, an otherwise non-descript Illinois wife and mother of six (6) children, including an 18-month-old suckling, found her night’s sleep shattered by a determined group of men battering their way into her sleeping/dressing area. Four (4) in number, and including among them her Calvinist minister husband of 21-years, and two familiar parish congregants both medical physicians, on gaining entrance the group immediately set about its pre-arranged task. While the husband and fourth member of the group stood by as sentry, the other two wordlessly took her racing pulse and, with no further examination or explanation of any kind, pronounced her to be insane. A short, terse communication ensued, in which husband instructed wife to prepare immediately for a trip against her own strong protestations, the group springing into determined action thereafter. Literally physically carried from her own home and family, past a small, incredulous crowd of stunned neighbors in the Manteno, Illinois morning, she soon found herself at the town train station and the awaiting train, hurtling toward her own private asylum oblivion, in Jacksonville, Illinois.
While patriot extraordinaire Abigail Smith Adams would have been similarly stunned at the sight, could she have been among the crowd watching those events occurring 40-plus years after her own death, famously, she would not have been surprised. History has remained fascinated with a short, rich letter exchange between her and her star-appointed husband John, in which she assumed revolution, endorsed independence declaration, anticipated government following victory, and urged “in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies...”. Taken by her almost quaint, colorful phrasing and John’s equally famous colorful response, historians have heretofore expended great energy decoding the words and seeking to distill their reflective value on the bona fides of Abigail Adams’ credentials as a proto-feminist and/or ‘women’s rights’ pioneer. Well and good. However, with all due respect to value of that exercise and the legitimacy of the question at its heart, this paper will suggest that in doing so, we may be missing a bigger, more fundamental point.
Using the tragic story of the first woman – Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard – as both legitimate backdrop and cautionary example, this paper seeks to revisit the famous letter exchange between Abigail and John Adams in that portentous, unprecedented spring of 1776, in search of deeper lessons. On their own and in service of the feminist/women’s rights question to which they have usually been put, it is not unfair to acknowledge that these words have produced ‘more smoke than light’. However, placing the historic documents in the broader context of the full exchange of letters between these famous two of the 1-year-plus around that portentous time, this paper will attempt to recover a fuller, more nuanced appreciation of their acknowledged historically significant words. In this way our consideration moves smoothly to the deeper matters of government and jurisprudence and political philosophy and ‘republic’, so much ‘in the air’ at the time of their writing to one another. In this way we can put the matter of ‘women’s rights’ so very critical to Elizabeth Packard and her many similarly situated thousands imprisoned in the midst of the pristine American republic, in a more vital context.
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