Connecting Past and Present through the Adams Papers

MAY 13, 2022

Sara Martin, Editor in Chief of the Adams Papers Editorial Project at the Massachusetts Historical Society, on the lasting legacy of John and Abigail’s correspondence

Oil portrait of Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams by Benjamin Blyth, 1766, Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The Massachusetts Historical Society strives to connect understanding of our nation’s past with the realities of our world today. Founded as the nation’s first historical society in 1791, the MHS provides access to a rich public collection that is used to educate, connect, and inspire audiences in diverse ways with the goal of building historical empathy, fostering civic responsibility, and creating an awareness of and respect for our shared humanity.

Through research, education, public programming, and publications, the MHS works to create a world where historical understanding is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. The Adams Papers Editorial Project at the MHS advances this vision by publishing the collected writings of three generations of the Adams family of Braintree and Quincy, Massachusetts, from Abigail Adams and John Adams through their grandchildren. With nearly sixty print volumes and two digital editions available to date, the Adamses’ writings offer insights into the social, cultural, and political evolution of American society as experienced by one founding family over 150 years.

The American Repertory Theater’s reimagining of Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards’ 1776 demonstrates the intersection between art and history and the many ways that art can challenge our historical understanding. The original 1969 musical centers John Adams within the evolution of American independence and the creation of the new nation. A.R.T.’s reconsideration complicates a historical narrative rooted in men and government by raising questions about who is included in the body politic. It is a question Abigail Adams might recognize and celebrate.

While John Adams was in Philadelphia serving in the Continental Congress through those pivotal months in 1776, his wife, Abigail Adams, remained in Massachusetts. Far from the periphery of Revolution, Abigail was in the thick of the battle. “I can no more sleep than if I had been in the ingagement,” Abigail wrote to John at the beginning of March, after the “ratling of the windows” and the “jar of the house” had viscerally brought home the realities of war with Great Britain and kept Abigail in “a continual State of anxiety” for months.

Remember the Ladies

Abigail’s “Remember the Ladies” letter (March 31, 1776), Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. For more of the correspondence between John and Abigail, please visit The Adams Papers Digital Edition, published by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

And yet the intellectual and political significance of revolution was not lost on her. In July 1776, after having read a previous draft of the Declaration of Independence, the Adams matriarch lamented that “the most Manly Sentiments”—those regarding slavery—had been expunged from the final, printed version, then in circulation in Boston. Back in March, she lobbied her husband John to “Remember the Ladies” by not placing “such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands” as the members of the Continental Congress considered independence from Britain and worked to establish a “new Code of Laws.” Abigail Adams, though more privileged than many women in the eighteenth century, keenly felt the inferiority of her position in a society where women, and married women especially, held few legal rights. Education was part of the solution. “If we mean to have Heroes, Statesmen and Philosophers,” she wrote to John later that summer, “we should have learned women.” Both John and Abigail supported the idea of public education and the need for an educated citizenry; for Abigail, female education was particularly important. It was a topic she repeatedly returned to in letters throughout her life.

The Adams Family Papers at the MHS contain nearly 1,200 extant letters between John and Abigail Adams, and for more than a generation the Adams Papers Editorial Project has worked to make the family’s writings accessible to scholars and the public. Many of these resources, like others by the MHS, are freely available on the MHS website. When the family’s letters are read against popular narratives of the Revolution, what emerges is a fuller picture that centers the experiences of women like Abigail. “If a woman does not hold the Reigns of Government,” the nation’s second first lady wrote twenty years after the Revolution, “I see no reason for her not judging how they are conducted.”

The work we do at the MHS, through programming and by making historical resources like the Adams Papers accessible, is to inspire the public to think critically about our past. It has been a privilege to connect some of those resources with A.R.T. as it reconsiders the pivotal events of 1776 and reexamines their telling in 1776.

Sara Martin is the Editor in Chief of the Adams Papers Editorial Project at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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