Abigail Adams was certainly an accomplished woman. An Englishman who visited her and her husband John Adams in Massachusetts told her she was “the most accomplished Lady, he had seen since he left England.”
It’s almost indecent what an intimate glimpse we have of the Adams’s marriage, due to the numerous letters (most written during lengthy separations) we have today going back and forth between them, covering topics both practical, political, familial and intimate. So what can the 2nd first lady (and 1st feminist, some say) teach us about our men? Plenty.
1. Tell him what you want. Don’t expect him to guess! Abigail had real concerns during their courtship about John’s tendencies towards arrogance. She set out her concerns in a letter and demanded an explanation, telling him, “I expect you to clear up these matters without being in the least saucy.”
2. Adopt a pleasant tone. Adams’s biographer says she often introduced a discussion of weighty or controversial matters with a joke. Her famous “Remember the Ladies” letter is a good example. Are colonial women really going to rise up and rebel if they don’t have a voice in the new government? Hardly. But Abigail gets her point across.
3. Say what’s in your heart. If you can’t say what you really feel in one medium, switch to another. Abigal and John were forced to communicate by letters due to numerous lengthy separations, but even this had its upside, as you can see in Abigail’s words to her husband: “My pen is always freer than my tongue. I have wrote many things to you that I suppose I never could have talk’d.”
4. Never criticize your man in public. Abigail was a preacher’s kid, and her father taught her to watch what she said. He taught her “To say all the handsome Things she could of Persons but no evil.” This goes for your man, too!
5. Don’t gossip. Abigail was raised with the advice to “Make Things rather than Persons the Subjects of Conversation.” Now, there is definitely some gossip in the letters Abigail wrote to her husband. But she never gossiped about her man. And neither should you.
6. Compliment before you criticize. Criticize gently. Abigail piled on the praise, which far outweighed critical comments and complaints about John.
7. Avoid sarcasm. Even Abigail Adams resorted to it at times. At one point during John’s lengthy solo trip to France, his letters grew infrequent, and short. So Abigail wrote to him: ”I determine very soon to coppy and adopt the very concise method of my Friend, and as I wish to do every thing agreeable to him, send him Billits containing not more than a dozen lines at the utmost.” John didn’t like it. It didn’t go over then, and it doesn’t go over now.
8. Apologize when you’re wrong. Abigail wrote to John in 1779, “Bury my dear Sir, in oblivion every expression of complaint” that she had expressed in her letters of the previous months.
9. Draw the line. John angered Abigail during their courtship by harshly criticizing a mutual friend. Abigail considered his behavior far too harsh and told him his comments “really discomposed me….I have only mentioned it, that when ever there is occasion a different method may be taken.”
10. Let him know what he means to you. Tell him often. Abigail frequently opened her letters to her husband with the greeting “Dearest Friend” and she often called him “my best Friend.” That may not sound like much today, but it was an intimate address in the 18th century.
I’ve been reading Woody Holton’s excellent biography Abigail Adams and the quotations cited from Adams’s letters are from that work.