So Far Ahead of Her Time

One of Joseph Ellis’ contributions to the historiography of the revolutionary era is that he proves that when Abigail Adams wrote her famous, “remember the ladies,” letter to her husband John in the spring of 1776, she meant it. She was being playful—it was another episode in the never ending good-humored “war” between the sexes—and yet she was perfectly serious, too, as her letters to others, including Mercy Otis Warren, indicate. Here’s what Abigail Adams actually wrote in the famous letter.

I long to hear that you have declared an independency 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.

If you didn’t know the context, you would not necessarily see these words as playful. Abigail is playing the language of the revolution right back at her husband. If the Revolution is about freedom and equality, she argues, if you are really saying that human beings have an inherent right to life, liberty, property, and self-government, which humans, precisely, do you have in mind? Or rather, which are you willfully choosing to exclude from your glittering and seemingly-universal formula of liberty?

Historians have tended to think Abigail’s famous pronouncement was more playful than pointed because of the mock-outrage of her husband John’s response. He called his wife “saucy.”  He said he and his revolutionary colleagues would fight rather than submit to what he called “the despotism of the petticoat.” and he dismissed her petition: “as for your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh.”

Perhaps it was a nervous laugh. Maybe he was just lame. Maybe John Adams just didn’t get it. As Thomas Jefferson was about to learn, once you throw open the doors to revolution, you cannot control everything that gets stirred up. With his usual bludgeoning wit, Great Britain’s Samuel Johnson skewered the hypocrisy of men like Jefferson: "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" How do you write that all men are created equal and buy and sell them for farm profit?

Ellis praises Abigail for what he calls “her recognition that the very arguments her husband was hurling at Parliament and the British ministry had latent implications that undermined all coercive or nonvoluntary systems of arbitrary power.” He speaks of “the Pandora’s box that John and his colleagues in the Continental Congress had opened.” Particularly Jefferson, of course, the author of the famous preamble to the Declaration of Independence. The lesson seems to be: beware of employing universalist rhetoric. Some folks will conclude that you actually meant it to have universal application.

Although Abigail Adams could be sharp-tongued (just ask Thomas Jefferson), she was seldom tart with her husband John, whom she loved deeply, passionately, and perpetually, in spite of her awareness that he was a rotund, bald, toothless man with what he called a quiveration in his hands, in spite of the fact that she knew John Adams was vain, boastful, pompous, thin-skinned, and beset with insecurities and personal demons. Managing John’s volatilities was a significant part of Abigail’s life work. She knew he was under tremendous pressure in the spring of 1776, and she did not want to be as angry-assertive as the famous feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.

Still, she saw that there was no legitimate reason to exclude women from the revolutionary formula being bandied about by her famous husband and his male pals. She knew that the law of logical consistency meant that any attempt to deny women equal rights was arbitrary, the triumph of power over justice, and she reminded John Adams that demanding rights against those who would arbitrarily curtail or cancel them was, wasn’t it, the very principle of the American Revolution?

Did John Adams squirm or wince or sigh heavily when he read his wife’s spirited letter? We want to hope that he rejoiced to have such a wife, someone who would stretch him, challenge him, tease him, push him, lure him, and at times even rebuke him. In other words, you want to hope that John Adams understood that public equality couldn’t thrive on a foundation of private inequality. You hope that he understood that human rights begin at home.

Adams’ response to Abigail’s remember the ladies letter was pretty lame, but at least it wasn’t as lame as Jefferson’s would have been. Adams had the good sense to disarm the discourse with humor—trembling over the despotism of the petticoat and all of that. Jefferson would have written one of his earnest dissertations about the God of Nature and natural gender specialization, arguing that the benign creator had designed women for the sacred duties of the nursery. Blah blah blah, Mr. Jefferson.

Still, it was Jefferson and no one else who launched those magnificent revolutionary words. As usual, he tried to pierce through the immediate issue—independence from Britain—to the universal principle, and as usual he nailed it. Nobody has ever understood this genius of Jefferson as well as the sixteenth president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

In a letter written in 1859, Lincoln wrote, “All honor to Jefferson--to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”

Do you see what Lincoln is saying? Under concrete pressure to write a merely revolutionary document, Jefferson wrote an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and what he wrote will forever serve as a rebuke and a stumbling block to even the first hint, the harbingers of reappearing tyranny. In other words, under incredible pressure and on the fly in June 1776, Jefferson wrote sentences in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence that represent, better than anything else ever written, the eternal universal standard of human rights. The fact that those very sentences now convict Jefferson of being a relatively bad exemplar of his own perfectly-stated principles is perhaps too bad for Jefferson the man, but they illustrate Jefferson the magnificent revolutionary genius, and they have helped to liberate hundreds of millions of people worldwide, perhaps billions, which seems to me infinitely more important than Jefferson’s personal and behavioral limitations.

In other words, Jefferson did, in some sense, remember the ladies.