Advisor: Marjorie Spruill, Professor of History, University of South Carolina.
Copyright National Humanities Center, 2015
How does Abigail Adams’s famous appeal to “Remember the Ladies” reflect the status of women in eighteenth-century America?
In correspondence with her husband John as he and other leaders were framing a government for the United States, Abigail Adams (1744–1818) argued that the laws of the new nation should recognize women as something more than property and protect them from the arbitrary and unrestrained power men held over them.
The letters of Abigail Adams, 1775–1776.
- Abigail Adams to John Adams, 5 November 1775
- Abigail Adams to John Adams, 27 November 1775
- Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March 1776
- Abigail Adams to Mercy Otis Warren, 27 April 1776
Find more correspondence at Founders Online from the National Archives.
Letter, Literary nonfiction.
Grade 11-CCR complexity band.
In the Text Analysis section, Tier 2 vocabulary words are defined in pop-ups, and Tier 3 words are explained in brackets.
Click here for standards and skills for this lesson.
Common Core State Standards
- ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.1 (Cite evidence to analyze specifically and by inference.)
- ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.6 (Determine author’s point of view.)
Advanced Placement US History
- 3.1(IIC) (American Independence was energized by… popular movements…)
In this lesson students will investigate concerns about the dangers of unrestrained power during the revolutionary period through four letters, written in 1775 and 1776, by Abigail Adams to her husband John and her close friend Mercy Otis Warren. The selections include and contextualize the letter in which she makes her famous appeal to her husband to “Remember the Ladies.” We have excerpted key passages from the letters and posed close reading questions for students to answer. The first and second excerpts focus upon Adams’s views of the human nature and how it is corrupted by unrestrained power, while the third and fourth discuss what might be done to protect women from that power.
This lesson looks at the revolutionary period as a time of questions and uncertainties for women as well as men. The question of power and its use in both broad and narrow contexts was much on peoples’ minds, especially since American political leaders were meeting to form a new government. Abigail Adams’s thoughts provide a distinctive lens through which to look at issues of power, quite different from the more commonly considered perspective of the Founders.
The second correspondent in this lesson, Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814), was a close friend of Adams, who, like her, was unusually well educated for a woman of the time. Warren — a poet, writer and propagandist for the Patriot cause — was the first woman to write a history of the Revolution.
This lesson is divided into two parts, both accessible below. The teacher’s guide includes the background note, the text analysis with responses to the close reading questions, access to the interactive exercises, and an optional follow-up assignment that extends the lesson. The student’s version, an interactive worksheet that can be e-mailed, contains all of the above except the responses to the close reading questions, and the follow-up assignment. This lesson features two interactive exercises: the first is designed to build vocabulary; the second reviews the main points Adams makes in her letters. Please note to your students that the letters retain their original spelling.
|Teacher’s Guide (continues below)
|Student Version (click to open)
- What kind of text are we dealing with?
- When was it written?
- Who wrote it?
- For what audience was it intended?
- For what purpose was it written?
“Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors,” wrote Abigail Adams (1744–1818) to her husband John in 1776, as he and other colonial leaders were meeting in Philadelphia in the Second Continental Congress. Adams wrote from Braintree, Massachusetts, where she was raising her four young children and managing the family farm. Although her days were busy with the duties of a single parent living both in a war zone — the British Army was only about twelve miles away in Boston — and in an area ravaged by a smallpox epidemic, she still contemplated the political changes taking place, and those changes are reflected in her appeal to her husband. Today that appeal may seem little more than a bit of advice — sassy, flirtatious, but ultimately trivial — offered by a spirited wife to her powerful husband. Indeed, John Adams (1735–1826), who became the second president of the United States (1797–1801), dismissed it with patronizing humor. Yet as the letters offered in this lesson show, Abigail was quite serious when she made her request and for good reason.
In the 1700s the lives of colonial married women were governed by the legal doctrine of femme covert or coverture. Under this doctrine a husband and wife were considered one person, and that person was the husband. A married woman could not own property, sign legal documents, enter into contracts, obtain an education against her husband’s wishes, or keep wages for herself. Since only property owners could vote, coverture effectively denied women that right. Like other “dependent” persons, women were not assumed to have separate interests of their own that needed to be represented in politics. Moreover, dependent persons were considered undesirable as voters because they would be under the influence of the person on whom they depended: it would be equal to giving that person two votes. In other words, the welfare of women was completely in the hands of men, and the law offered them little protection from the “tyranick” among them.
It is not surprising, therefore, that in the letters excerpted here Abigail Adams focuses on the character of men and on the need for laws to protect women. As we see, she is not at all sure that men are sufficiently virtuous to wield the power they possess; put another way, she is certain that some men are not. In the first letter she discusses the relationship between virtue and power and concludes that men tempted by “revenge, or ambition, pride, lust, or profit” will descend to “base and vile action.” While she refers to humankind when, in the second letter, she asserts that “Man is a dangerous creature,” she relates that danger to unrestrained power, and it is clear who holds the power in colonial society. In the third letter she rebukes her husband with the charge that men “are Naturally Tyrannical.” When she pleads with John to “Remember the Ladies” as he and his colleagues write a new “Code of Laws,” she does so as one acutely aware of the vulnerability of women.
In her letter to her friend Mercy Otis Warren, the fourth excerpt in this lesson, Abigail points to one of the few safeguards women possessed at this time, the “Delicacy and Sentiment” of men. In the 1700s those terms did not mean what they mean today. Now we take “delicacy” to refer to fragility and “sentiment” to mean emotion. In the eighteenth century, however, both referred to the ability to respond to another person’s suffering or happiness, the ability to feel sympathy for the condition of others. At that time this ability to feel for another person was considered a source of virtue. Women had to rely on delicacy and sentiment to stop men from oppressing them, to make them, as Adams writes, “averse to Exercising the power they possess.” Yet she knows that along with “Men of Decency and Sentiment,” there exist “the Arbitary and tyranick,” who would “injure [women] with impunity.” Virtue, she is saying, is not going to be enough. Those “visionary chains of Decency” she mentions in the first letter have all the holding power of a cobweb. Something stronger is going to be needed. Thus she calls for “Establishing some Laws in our favor upon just and Liberal principals.” She asks her husband to “Remember the Ladies.”
Letter 1: Abigail Adams to John Adams, 5 November 1775
Close Reading Questions
Learn definitions by exploring how words are used in context.
1. In the paragraph prior to this one Abigail Adams describes a dinner with Benjamin Franklin, a man she highly respects. She follows that description with this reflection upon the relationship between a person’s duty toward “his Maker” and duty toward the public. Summarize the relationship that Abigail believes exists.
Abigail believes that someone who is not guided by the moral precepts of religion will not honestly fulfill his duty to the public. Even if his pubic life appears honorable, his private immorality will show through and corrupt public morality.
2. How does the image of restraining a tiger with a cobweb illuminate her view of power in the hands of “debauched” men?
It suggests that she sees such power as threatening and irrational, like that of an animal, and ultimately uncontrollable.
3. With what does Adams contrast the weak restraint of a cobweb?
She contrasts it to “the visionary chains of Decency” and “the intellectual Beauty of Truth and reason.”
4. How effective does Adams think “the visionary chains of Decency” and “the intellectual Beauty of Truth and reason” would be in the face of immorality and temptation?
She acknowledges that those particular moral restraints would be ineffective when a less-than-virtuous person encounters temptation.
…I have been led to think…that he who neglects his duty to his Maker, may well be expected to be deficient and insincere in his duty towards the public. Even suppose Him to possess a large share of what is called honour and publick Spirit yet do not these Men by their bad Example, by a loose immoral conduct corrupt the Minds of youth, and vitiate the Morrals of the age, and thus injure the publick more than they can compensate by intrepidity, Generosity and Honour?
Let revenge or ambition, pride, lust or profit tempt these Men to a base and vile action, you may as well hope to bind up a hungry tiger with a cobweb as to hold such debauched patriots in the visionary chains of Decency or to charm them with the intellectual Beauty of Truth and reason….
Letter 2: Abigail Adams to John Adams, 27 November 1775
Close Reading Questions
5. Abigail Adams begins this excerpt with a series of rhetorical questions. What is her main concern in the first paragraph?
She is questioning her husband as to what new form of government will be established. She is curious as to the nature of this new government, and she is concerned that the delegates might not be able to come to consensus as to the form of the government.
6. In paragraph 2, how does Abigail characterize power?
She says it is uncontrollable, “ever grasping, and like the grave cries give, give”.
7. How does the fish imagery illuminate her view of power?
Like the tiger image in the first letter, it is drawn from the animal world and suggests that she thinks power is irrational. Thus we can see why in the first letter, she offers reason as a potential restraint, even though a rather weak one.
8. Her husband wrote to her in a previous letter that man can be capable of good. Does she agree? How do you know?
She states that she does believe that humans can act virtuously but that it happens very rarely.
9. How would you characterize Abigail Adams’s opinion of human nature?
She takes a rather dark view of it.
10. In paragraph 3, why does Abigail believe that citizens might not accept a new government?
She believes that the rules and regulations of government have been “so long slackened” that people may ignore a new government. Citizens haven’t had to follow rules in a while from England, and they might not want to start following strict laws from the new government.
11. In paragraph 3 Abigail follows up with another series of rhetorical questions. Her concern has now shifted from whether a government will be established, as in paragraph 1, to the relationship between government and individuals. What questions does Abigail ask regarding the code of law which she feels must be established?
She asks five questions. She asks what code of laws will be established; who will establish them; how the laws will be administered; how the laws will protect individual liberties; and who will enforce the laws.
12. In paragraph 4 Abigail puts forth another reason that citizens might not accept the new government. What is it?
She believes people will cling to “Ancient customs and Regulations” and reject the new.
13. How would you summarize the main themes of this excerpt?
Here Adams is holding forth on human nature and the need to restrain it, while recognizing the difficulty of establishing a new state that will successfully do so.
I wish I knew what mighty things were fabricating. If a form of Goverment is to be established here what one will be assumed? Will it be left to our assemblies to chuse one? and will not many men have many minds? and shall we not run into Dissentions among ourselves?
I am more and more convinced that Man is a dangerous creature, and that power whether vested in many or a few is ever grasping, and like the grave cries give, give. The great fish swallow up the small, and he who is most strenuous for the Rights of the people, when vested with power, is as eager after the perogatives of Goverment. You tell me of degrees of perfection to which Humane Nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances.
The Building up a Great Empire, which was only hinted at by my correspondent may now I suppose be realized even by the unbelievers. Yet will not ten thousand Difficulties arise in the formation of it? The Reigns of Goverment have been so long slakned, that I fear the people will not quietly submit to those restraints which are necessary for the peace, and security, of the community; if we seperate from Brittain, what Code of Laws will be established. How shall we be governd so as to retain our Liberties? Can any goverment be free which is not adminstred by general stated Laws? Who shall frame these Laws? Who will give them force and energy? Tis true your Resolution[s] as a Body have heithertoo had the force of Laws. But will they continue to have?
When I consider these things and the prejudices of people in favour of Ancient customs and Regulations, I feel anxious for the fate of our Monarchy or Democracy or what ever is to take place. I soon get lost in a Labyrinth of perplexities, but whatever occurs, may justice and righteousness be the Stability of our times, and order arise out of confusion. Great difficulties may be surmounted, by patience and perseverance.
Letter 3: Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March 1776
Close Reading Questions
14. How in the first paragraph does Adams parallel the plight of women with the political condition of the colonies?
She does so by making the same case against men that the Patriots make against the King of England. They and he are tyrants. They give women no voice in the laws that govern their lives, just as the King gives the colonies no voice in the laws that govern them. If the King’s rule over the colonies is unjust, so, too, is men’s rule over women. If the King’s rule over the colonies warrants rebellion, so, too, does that of men over women.
15. What does Adams mean when she says that “such of you [men] as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend”?
She means that some men can overcome their natural tendency to be tyrants and treat women justly and that such men will be happier for doing so.
16. What argument does she make in the second paragraph?
If men are “Naturally Tyrannical,” why not take from them the power to exercise this natural propensity; why not “put it out of the power of…vicious and Lawless [men] to use [abuse] women with cruelty and indignity.”
17. Is she asking for full women’s independence? How do you know? Cite evidence from the text.
She is not asking for full women’s rights as we know it today because she states, “regard us [women] then as beings placed by Providence under your protection…”
…I long to hear that you have declared an independancy — and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.
That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend. Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in immitation of the Supreem Being make use of that power only for our happiness.
Letter 4: Abigail Adams to Mercy Otis Warren, 27 April 1776
Close Reading Questions
18. In this letter Abigail specifically writes about the laws which she thinks should be changed. Which laws are those?
She believes that the laws of England give unlimited power to the husband to “use his wife ill” and she wants to make sure that the new American government does not adopt these types of laws.
19. Why does she think these laws to protect women are necessary?
She says that even though some men would not treat their wives badly, she believes that “there is a natural propensity in Humane Nature to domination….” Abigail states that men have a natural instinct toward domination, and laws would help them remember not to treat women in abusive ways.
20. Why does Abigail believe women must be protected from men who are “arbitrary and tyranick”?
She believes men who are arbitrary tyrants, unreasonable and unpredictable, display man’s “natural propensity in Humane Nature to domination.” Abigail is reminding her husband that laws must protect women against men who cannot control this natural propensity to domination which might strike at any time.
21. What was John’s tone in his response to Abigail’s ideas? Cite evidence from the text.
His tone was derisive and mocking. He laughed at her suggestions, stating that the current state of rebellion had led to a lessening of respect for laws in a number of groups (children, apprentices, students, Indians, and Negroes) and that he would now add women to that list.
22. Why does John Adams characterize women as the most powerful of the discontented “tribes”?
John Adams is alluding to the familiar and often invoked power-behind-the-throne argument, which holds that, for all their seeming power, husbands really follow the dictates of wives. In his response to Abigail he wrote, “Although they [systems of masculine power] are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and, in practice, you know we are the subjects. We have only the name of masters…[giving up power] would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat….”
Review the central points of the textual analysis.
He [John Adams] is very sausy to me in return for a List of Female Grievances which I transmitted to him. I think I will get you to join me in a petition to Congress. I thought it was very probable our wise Statesmen would erect a New Goverment and form a new code of Laws. I ventured to speak a word in behalf of our Sex, who are rather hardly dealt with by the Laws of England which gives such unlimitted power to the Husband to use his wife Ill.
I requested that our Legislators would consider our case and as all Men of Delicacy and Sentiment are averse to Excercising the power they possess, yet as there is a natural propensity in Humane Nature to domination, I thought the most generous plan was to put it out of the power of the Arbitary and tyranick to injure us with impunity by Establishing some Laws in our favour upon just and Liberal principals.
I believe I even threatned fomenting a Rebellion in case we were not considerd, and assured him we would not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we had neither a voice, nor representation.
In return he tells me he cannot but Laugh at My Extrodonary Code of Laws. That he had heard their Struggle had loosned the bands of Goverment, that children and apprentices were dissabedient, that Schools and Colledges were grown turbulent, that Indians slighted their Guardians, and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But my Letter was the first intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented. This is rather too coarse a complement, he adds, but that I am so sausy he wont blot it out.
In the first letter, Abigail states, “…Even supposed Him to possess a large share of what is called honour and publick Spirit yet do not these Men by their bad Example, by a loose immoral conduct corrupt the Minds of youth, and vitiate the Morrals of the age, and thus injure the publick more than they can compensate by intrepidity, Generosity and Honour?” She is commenting on the relationship between the public life and the private life. Is it possible to live a strong public life but have a weak private life? Today this question most often comes up in the context of politicians. Within your class, research and debate the question, “a politician’s private life is unrelated to his public life.” Use specific examples from history and current events to support your position.
- vitiate: weaken
- intrepidity: fearlessness
- base: lacking in decency
- vile: disgusting
- debauched: corrupted, especially through excessive pleasure
- fabricating: being created
- perogatives: a right or privilege due to rank or office
- lament: regret
- slakned [slackened]: loosened
- labyrinth: difficult maze
- perplexities: puzzles
- foment: encourage
- tyrannical: oppressive
- sausy [saucy]: humorously disrespectful
- averse: opposed
- propensity: tendency
- arbitrary: unrestricted
- tyranick: oppressive
- impunity: exempt from punishment
- turbulent: violently agitated
- slighted: disregarded
- insolent: rude
- intimation: hint
- “Abigail Adams to John Adams, 5 November 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-01-02-0212, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 1, December 1761–May 1776, ed. Lyman H. Butterfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963, pp. 320–322.
- “Abigail Adams to John Adams, 27 November 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-01-02-0218, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 1, December 1761–May 1776, ed. Lyman H. Butterfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963, pp. 328–331.
- “Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-01-02-0241, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 1, December 1761–May 1776, ed. Lyman H. Butterfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963, pp. 369–371.
- “Abigail Adams to Mercy Otis Warren, 27 April 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-01-02-0257, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 1, December 1761–May 1776, ed. Lyman H. Butterfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963, pp. 396–398.
- Harris & Ewing, photographer. [Portrait of Abigail Adams by Benjamin Blyth]. Photograph. From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Harris & Ewing collection. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/hec2009000215/ (accessed September 3, 2014).