Abigail Adams, Capitalist
By Woody Holton
New York: Free Press, 2009, 483 pp., $30.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Martha Saxton
Woody Holton’s biography of Abigail Adams gives us a provocative and in some ways disturbing portrait of the accomplished and brilliant woman we thought we knew. The focus on a figure such as Adams is a departure for Holton, whose previous work on the Revolution and the Constitution has examined history from the bottom up. However, in the process of reigniting debate over Charles Beard’s interpretation of the economic forces motivating the drafters and supporters of the Constitution, Holton discovered that Adams had speculated, with great success, in Revolutionary debt and subsequently in currency and bonds. When Alexander Hamilton’s controversial scheme of funding the states’ debts at full value to establish the credit of the new nation became policy, Adams was among the big winners. Holton thinks that the reason John Adams died wealthy, unlike his sometime friend Thomas Jefferson, was probably because of his wife’s shrewd financial operating. Holton’s stunning findings sharply distinguish his new study of Abigail from earlier ones, which have focused on her performance as deputy husband during John’s absences and her efforts to get her irascible spouse to “remember the ladies.”
Holton has excavated Adams’s financial records and her investing history, carried on through her uncle, the charmingly named Cotton Tufts. He shows that she understood early the ways in which economic dependence distorted women’s lives—first by delimiting their chances for marriage and then by shaping their experience of it. She worked diligently and successfully to avoid the fate of the dependent woman, at first by selling hard-to-find items during the Revolutionary embargo and then by investing the money in debt.
Holton’s economic discoveries force us to respond not simply to Adams’s desires to protect and promote women but also to her role as a merchant and a trader in securities and currency. He shows us not only the loving wife, caring mother, savvy consort, and skillful farm manager but also the avid money-maker, manipulator of both information and individuals and, with time, political conservative.
A lifelong dispenser of charity, particularly to women, Adams used her wealth to aid her relatives. Ironically, in the process she created dependencies that often ended up distorting her beneficiaries’ lives. A significant part of Holton’s story deals with Adams’s use of her growing capital to underwrite the control that she enjoyed exercising over her extended family. She kept her husband, children, siblings and other family members close and compliant with offers—bribes, really—of houses, income, and other benefits. Holton points out, “Given Adams’ abiding compulsion to exercise her charitable instincts, once wonders whether she ever reflected on the tendency of philanthropy to create bitterness instead of gratitude.”
Opportunist and entrepreneur, Adams was both feisty and coercive, generous and controlling. She did not just dream about power for women; she exercised it all her life. From adolescence, Adams was startlingly clear about how marriage would rescue her from the humiliations and irritants of dependence on her parents, particularly her mother. As she put it when she married John, “I desire to be very thankful that I can do as I please now!!!” Adams was well-aware that American marriage was potentially stifling for women and deliberately chose a husband who appreciated her power, confidence, and wit. But she never forgot that her legal relation to him was that of a subordinate. Perversely, her commitment to this model of marriage was such that she commended dutiful obedience to her daughter and daughters-in-law.
Holton suggests insightfully that Abigail was attracted to John in part because of his willingness to help her educate herself. He notes that she signed her letters to him “Friend”—which at the time connoted “considerable intimacy.” In fact, “friendship” represented the Enlightenment’s new, ideal connection between the sexes, a blend of rationality and affection. Abigail extolled “sensibility” to John, understanding it as sympathy and, especially, empathy with others. “Friends” would not be deceived by passion but rather informed by sensibility to choose their companions justly. Abigail clearly loved John, but she did not lose herself in passionate yearning for him. For a woman who wished for freedom, this must have been all-important to her. Her favorite writers, such as Samuel Richardson, pounded home this theme.
Despite her embrace of the role of “friend,” Holton shows that Adams’s growing conservatism and commitment to hierarchy inhibited her from broadly extending the liberatory possibilities of the sensibility and empathy she praised. This played out in her lifelong ambivalence toward Phoebe Abdee, a former slave to whom Adams was so close as a child that she once referred to her as a “Parent.” On the one hand, she loved Abdee and nursed through her final illness. She invited Abdee to live in and care for her and John’s house during their four-year absence in Europe. But on the other, Adams disapproved of Abdee’s lifelong charity to the needy black people in the neighborhood and tried to curtail it. Adams and her relatives clucked among themselves about Abdee’s failure to forego her generous caretaking despite their admonitions and ascribed it to her proud “African blood.” Empathy might have suggested to them that Abdee’s sense of obligation arose from her (admittedly limited) privileges, and that her habits of charity closely, indeed uncomfortably, resembled Adams’s. On a personal level, Abigail’s inability to empathize with Abdee warred with her love for her and blinded her to their similarities. On a political level, this selective absence of empathy for others paralleled the hatred and fear of democracy that, Holton demonstrates, Adams developed.
Similarly, while Adams self-consciously adopted and performed the emerging ideal of egalitarian marriage, neither she nor her husband seems to have given much thought to incorporating emerging liberal perspectives on childrearing into their family. Instead, both parents embraced older, decidedly undemocratic, Puritan ideals of parental authority and childish obedience. (Holton correctly cautions readers against a caricatured understanding of Puritanism, but I think he fails to stress sufficiently the hold of the real thing on both Adamses). Holton shows us not only the great affection but also the strong tensions between Adams and her children. However, he does not explain changing childrearing practices and philosophies sufficiently for us understand the Adams family conflicts.
Holton finds it “surprising, given [Abigail’s] fear for his life on a transatlantic voyage,” that she instructed her son, eleven-year-old John Quincy, upon his departure for England, that she would rather see him dead than an “immoral profligate or a Graceless [i.e., without God’s grace] child.” Yet Abigail’s ruthless insistence on her son’s good behavior and rightness with God during this dangerous interlude was exactly what Puritans had been saying to their children in similar situations for two-hundred years. (In the mid-seventeenth century, the Rev. Thomas Shepard recalled that his wife prayed that “if the Lord did not intend to glorify” their son with grace, she hoped “He would cut [him] off by death rather than live to dishonour Him by sin.”)
What is surprising about Abigail’s ideas about childrearing is that they were not altered by the liberatory ideas of the Enlightenment, unlike her ideas about love and marriage. As a young parent, John Quincy challenged his mother’s ideas about the kind of discipline his son needed and blamed her for the self-doubt that undermined him all his life. Unlike his mother, John Quincy was influenced by the emerging view of children as innocent, impressionable beings who should be encouraged in autonomous exploration rather than as sinful creatures whose childish self-love and willfulness must be “reduced”—as the Puritans had said and as the Adamses continued to say—to obedience. Although Abigail’s experience of her mother’s restraints fuelled her own desire for liberty and equality in marriage, she had limited ability to empathize with her daughter in this regard. As a result, her relationship with her daughter Nabby was extremely constricted—so much so that Nabby was well-known for never complaining, indeed, for never saying anything much at all.Perhaps the reason that Adams’s empathies were spotty rather than consistent was that so much of elite eighteenth-century life was a performance. Holton does not provide much context on the subject of performance, but many historians have documented the class basis of sensibility. Refined feelings were thought to be available only to the well-raised. Both Abigail and John Adams were well-aware that they were raising children for whom access to elite life and the elegant emotions that identified it were crucial. John Adams wrote that he was burdened with the expense of providing “polite Educations” to his children “and they will better not have been born than not have polite Educations.” Ironically, while both Abigail and John wished their children to learn to perform sensibility, the couple often failed to practice it on them.
I wish Holton had provided more religious, social, and family history to contextualize aspects of his story, although I appreciate his effort to keep his book to a reasonable length. I quibble with his quick dismissal of John Adams’s mother as a troublesome person when the historian David McCullough’s John Adams (2001) suggests that his father was quite a bit more problematic. I also found facile and misleading his characterization of the Revolutionary writer Mercy Otis Warren as “disagreeable,” with only briefest acknowledgment of her accomplishments and her trials. But of far greater importance are Holton’s discoveries and his reinterpretation of Abigail Adams. Her growing economic power may have undercut her feminism and shrunk its liberatory possibilities.
Adams was part of the dominant cohort of Americans who saw in the Constitution a way to stabilize the republic and to secure themselves financially at the expense of the poor. As wealthy Americans have ever since, they identified their self-interest with the good of the republic while seeing the interests of debtors and poor people as dangerous. That logic has made ours a spectacularly unequal society. What does this say about the assumptions that underpinned Abigail’s feminism? Should Abigail Adams, the creditor who cared nothing for the desperate struggles of the poor to pay their taxes (which were imposed on them to pay interest to her and other wealthy bond holders) be a person we admire? Did her hope for returns and investing strategies that penalized the poor facilitate her shift from patriot to political reactionary? Does the successful pursuit of wealth impair empathy? Holton largely leaves to us the task of becoming reconciled to this new Abigail. But his research and revelations show that although her concern for herself and other women helped motivate and drive her financial experiments and acquisitiveness, her wealth later distorted many of her own close relationships and diminished the potential scope of her feminism.
Martha Saxton teaches in the history and women’s and gender studies departments at Amherst College. She has written a biography of Louisa May Alcott, a study of women’s moral values in early America, and is now working on a book about Mary Ball Washington, the founder’s mother.