The Education of Abigail Adams

Written by Kerry Ellard on December 10, 2021

The history of female education is a fascinating topic. It is easy to get the impression that women were forced to be “non-entities” until sometime in the last century, but the published correspondence of notable women puts the lie to that. Their personalities radiate off the page. Which, incidentally, is the reason people read books like Letters of Mrs. Adams, The Wife of John Adams—tedious as it may sound, reading transcripts of letters written over time is the best way to get a true sense of who a person was, much like a text message log might be today. This is why it was once routine for academic publishers to print collections of letters for scholarly reference. Biographies are easier reads, but if you really want to get as close to the truth as possible, you can't rely on secondary sources.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, prominent men would often instruct their descendants to publish such collections after their deaths or donate their carefully preserved letter-books to historical societies. It was generally considered inappropriate for a woman's letters to be published by herself or anyone else, as she was considered a private figure by default. However, in 1840, a rare exception was made with the publication of first lady Abigail Adams’s correspondence, edited by her grandson, Charles Francis Adams, Sr.. This collection of letters and Charles’ accompanying commentary offer an insightful glimpse into the state of upper-class female education in the early United States.

Abigail had died in more than twenty years earlier, and Charles, like his father John Quincy and most of his male relatives, was pursuing a career as a “historical editor, writer, politician, and diplomat.”[1] This first foray as a historical editor was well-received, though the copy uploaded to Google Books contains an annotation by some exasperated reader:

I don’t know why he didn’t go with “Mrs. John Adams,” the standard way of publicly referring to married women at that time, but the more interesting thing is that the book was published at all. By 1840, it was hardly shocking for a respectable woman to pursue a literary career. But publishing the private correspondence of a deceased woman who had lived her life in the domestic sphere was something else. Only a close relative could have gotten away with it, and in this case, it helped that her relatives were highly respected. The prominent inclusion of the “Introductory Memoir By Her Grandson” on the title page and in advertisements can be understood as Charles positioning himself in the role of “guardian” of his grandmother’s legacy.

It seems that the goal was to give the public a glimpse at the personal lives of the Adams family, as Charles included an appendix with other family letters, and showcased Abigail’s impressiveness. (It was reprinted several times, with the 1848 edition including several new letters Charles had since received from descendants of Abigail’s correspondents.)

In his introductory commentary, Charles specifically refers to the “the defective nature of female education before the Revolution,” suggesting that it improved significantly afterward. I assume he is referring to things like literacy here--the literacy rates of New England women were relatively low in 1750, but almost 100% of them could read by 1820.[2]

While Abigail was born in 1744, she had an above-average education (much of it informal), and the letters Charles published showed her to be highly literate and capable of intelligently commenting on political affairs. Charles then described the cultural background of Abigail’s youth, emphasizing her Puritan ancestry and character, and noting that many of her relatives were distinguished ministers and that the high status of ministers influenced the nature of education and social roles in eighteenth-century Massachusetts.

"...They were among the most noted of the most reputed class of their day. In a colony, founded so exclusively upon motives of religious zeal as Massachusetts was, it necessarily followed, that the ordinary distinctions of society were in a great degree subverted, and that the leaders of the church, though without worldly possessions to boast of, were the most in honor everywhere. Education was promoted only as it was subsidiary to the great end of studying or expounding the Scriptures; and whatever of advance was made in the intellectual pursuits of society, was rather the incidental than the direct result of studies necessary to fit men for a holy calling. Hence it was, that the higher departments of knowledge were entered almost exclusively by the clergy. Classical learning was a natural, though indirect consequence of the acquisition of those languages, in which the New Testament and the Fathers were to be studied; and dialectics formed the armour, of which men were compelled to learn the use, as a preparation for the wars of religious controversy. The mastery of these gave power and authority to their possessors, who, by a very natural transition, passed from being the guides of religious faith to their fellow-men, to be guardians of their education. To them, as the fountains of knowledge, and possessing the gifts most prized in the community, all other ranks in society cheerfully gave place… nearly half the number [who pursued education] did so for the sake of devoting themselves to the service of the gospel.”

According to Charles, this view of education led to “utter indifference” to “the cultivation of the female mind.” He speculates that this may have related to “the early example of Mrs. Hutchinson, and the difficulties in which the public exercise of her gifts involved the colony.”[3] It’s hard to know whether this was a major factor, but the doctrinal disputes of Hutchinson’s day were still ongoing, and the strong connection between education and religion made it hard to separate any kind of female education from “female preaching.” Abigail certainly felt that her early environment was discouraging on this point, writing in one of her letters that “it was fashionable to ridicule female learning.”

Because of this, “the only chance for much intellectual improvement” was being born into the “educated class,” which secured women who belonged to it opportunities to interact with or at least observe the most "learned” people of the time.[4]Towards the end of her life, in 1817, Abigail wrote:

“My early education did not partake of the abundant opportunities which the present days offer, and which even our common country schools now afford. I never was sent to any school. I was always sick. Female education, in the best families, went no further than writing and arithmetic; in some few and rare instances, music and dancing."

She also described “the excellent lessons which I received from my grandmother, at a very early period of life.”

“I frequently think they made a more durable impression upon my mind, than those which I received from my own parents. Whether it was owing to the happy method of mixing instruction and amusement together, or from an inflexible adherence to certain principles, the utility of which I could not but see and approve when a child, I know not; but maturer [sic] years have rendered them oracles of wisdom to me. I love and revere her memory ; her lively, cheerful disposition animated all around her, whilst she edified all by her unaffected piety...”

Charles concluded that most of Abigail’s education consisted of being “an eager gatherer from the society into which she was thrown, rather than acquired from any systematic instruction,” and that this lack of schooling and “seclusion from peers” had led her to develop a strong “imaginative faculty,” driven by “romantic and exaggerated sentiments drawn from books.” He then reassured readers that this impulse had been counteracted by her religious devotion and common sense, and explained that the reason for the seclusion was poor health and living too far from her similarly-aged friends and relatives to see them routinely. “The substitute for [this] was a rapid interchange of written communications...in this youthful circle.” Interestingly, Charles concluded this passage by speculating that writing letters in early life was perhaps the best activity for producing “results useful to the mind.” This is a claim difficult for most modern readers to assess, but Charles argued that it was the best way to learn how to construct sentences, and that “the interest with which [letter-writing] is commonly pursued, gives an extraordinary impulse to the intellect." He is referring to the impulse of young people to express themselves and communicate with people outside their immediate surroundings, which is very much still in evidence in the digital era. It is interesting to compare this point with John Dewey’s emphasis on the connection between learning and communication.

Amusingly, Charles notes that this impulse varies with the level of boredom in the community: “Where there is little gossip, the want of it must be supplied from books. The flowers of literature spring up where the weeds of scandal take no root."

The social world of the young Abigail Adams was low on scandal, and the result was that, as her grandson put it, the “young ladies” of eighteenth-century Massachusetts “were certainly readers" of “the deepest wells of English literature.” And writing well into the nineteenth century, he suspected that while they were “only self-taught,” they had put what they learned from these “poets and moralists” to better use than could be expected from his more “elaborately” educated contemporaries.[5]

[1] Wikipedia contributors, "Charles Francis Adams Sr.," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Charles_Francis_Adams_Sr.&oldid=1050035179 (accessed October 17, 2021). Charles went on to publish the diary and letters of his grandfather, John Adams, a project left unfinished by his father, John Quincy Adams.

[2] This was established by looking at the first census measuring female literacy, which took place in 1850. It showed nearly all white men and women in New England were literate. However, the non-white minority was likely not far behind, because by the 1850s, Massachusetts had implemented compulsory free education for all children. See K. Sklar, “The Schooling of Girls and Changing Community Values in Massachusetts Towns, 1750–1820,” History of Education Quarterly, 33(4), 1993, 511-542, doi:10.2307/369611 (“An example of this differential [in the eighteenth century] is the case of Elbridge Gerry, who courted but did not marry a young woman who, though she was the daughter of a Harvard graduate and state legislator, could neither read nor answer his letters to her from the Continental Congress.”)

[3] Wikipedia contributors, “Anne Hutchinson”. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Hutchinson. (accessed December 9, 2021) “Anne Hutchinson (née Marbury; July 1591 – August 1643) was a Puritan spiritual advisor, religious reformer, and an important participant in the Antinomian Controversy which shook the infant Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1636 to 1638. Her strong religious convictions were at odds with the established Puritan clergy in the Boston area and her popularity and charisma helped create a theological schism that threatened the Puritan religious community in New England. She was eventually tried and convicted, then banished from the colony with many of her supporters.”

[4] Charles writes, “Whatever of useful instruction was received in the practical conduct of life, came from maternal lips; and what of further mental development, depended more upon the eagerness with which the casual teachings of daily conversation were treasured up, than upon any labor expended purposely to promote it.”

[5] See the remarks of Mary Clemmer Ames quoted in https://ke.substack.com/p/mary-clemmer-ames-pt-i (“Her pictures of the social life of her time are among the most acute, lively and graphic on record. While in her letters to her son, to her husband, to Jefferson and other statesmen, we find some of the grandest utterances of the Revolutionary period.”)

Kerry Ellard

Kerry Ellard earned a B.S. in Communication and a B.A. in Political Science from Boston University, and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. During school and after graduation, she worked in law, education, and government. Most recently, she has worked as a tutor, independent historian, and sociological analyst. Kerry lives in Boston, where she enjoys playing with her dog and attending concerts.