Today will be filled with flower deliveries, heart shaped balloons and perhaps a marriage proposal or two. Valentine’s Day is the one day during the calendar year where sappy glittery cards and frothy opined love notes are accepted and, more often than not, expected.
Within a week or so as the last petal falls from a once beautiful bouquet and the previously filled helium balloon lays motionless on the kitchen table, Americans will get back to business as usual and wait for the next holiday to declare their love, thankfulness or whatever else Hallmark has in store for us, the spending public.
With Valentine’s Day not even a speck on my radar or perhaps just wanting to avoid it, instead I’ve found myself diving back into my college history books and Founding Father biographies.
Then last night upon chance, I became reacquainted with the John and Abigail Adams love story when I pulled from my shelf a book entitled, “My Dearest Friend, Letters of Abigail and John Adams.” Their relationship was an enduring, profound and revolutionary (in more ways than one) story captured in letters written between the two while John was away from home working and later organizing and orchestrating a new country and its government.
John Adams grew up as a farm boy with little means. Being the first born son, however, his parents were determined to send him to college and while attending Harvard, he became a voracious reader. He would become a school teacher but soon realized that being around children all day was not his calling. He decided to further his education and became a lawyer and a quite successful one at that, even defending the soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre in 1770. That trial would enhance his reputation as a gifted lawyer and he would eventually ascend to the Massachusetts legislature.
Abigail Smith, on the other hand, was a descendent of a well-known political family. Sickly as a child and because she was a female, Abigail lacked a formal education. Her mother, however, insisted she and her two sisters be taught to read and write and she did just that in their home. Abigail’s passion for reading carried on throughout her life.
With nearly a decade between them in age, John and Abigail would meet through mutual acquaintances at her father’s home. Although definitely not love at first sight, the two would eventually fall madly in love through their correspondence, marry and remain partners for fifty years.
Their early letters were sensual with declarations of love, want and need for each other. But like all progressing relationships, those letters were replaced with talk of work, children’s activities and home needs. However, a steadfast devotion between the two would remain and it continued through the Revolution, the White House years, retirement and up until their deaths.
What makes their story even more remarkable was the timeframe of their relationship. Considering that women would not even have the right to vote until well over 100 years later, the fact that Abigail was indeed John’s confidant and advisor while forming this great nation is astounding.
In the 1700s and under English common law, an unmarried woman had some legal rights but a married woman had virtually no rights whatsoever. Everything she owned and earned belonged to her husband. She had no legal authority over her children, could not initiate divorce proceedings nor could a woman engage in any legal transactions.
But John and Abigail were centuries ahead of their time in their relationship and views on government and its people. In fact, a letter dated May 7, 1776 before the Declaration of Independence was adopted, declaring the thirteen colonies independent from Great Britain in which John was instrumental, Abigail defiantly wrote, “I can not say that I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives. But you must remember that Arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken -- and notwithstanding all your wise Laws and Maxims we have it in our power not only to free ourselves but to subdue our Masters, and without violence throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet.”
While John Adams forged ahead for independence from a tyrannical government and became one of our nation’s Founding Fathers, Abigail was also instrumental in the formation of our country. She was the first Second Lady and second First Lady and she would also become known as a staunch supporter of women’s rights and freedom from slavery.
It is well documented that throughout their time together, John considered Abigail his equal. At the end of his presidency, he lovingly wrote, “It is fit and proper that you and I should retire together and not one before the other. I am with unabated confidence and affection your - John Adams.”
Happy Valentine's Day, Patriots!