#TheNew10 Abigail Adams

#TheNew10: Why Abigail Adams Deserves a Spot on the $10 Bill

11:48:00 AMKaitlin Fellrath

The United States Department of the Treasury announced last month that a woman will soon be featured on the $10 bill. This fresh face will make her debut in 2020, just in time for the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted suffrage to women. This new currency will mark the first time in more than a 130 years that a woman has appeared on US paper currency (Martha Washington appeared on a special edition of the $1 bill in 1886). The US Treasury also announced a social media campaign to allow the public to discuss the redesign of the bill and suggest women for inclusion, via the hashtag, #TheNew10. Candidates already being discussed on social media include Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, and Rosa Parks. While each of these women is certainly worthy of the honor, I would like make my own (and unlikely) nomination for consideration: Abigail Adams.

Abigail Smith was born in 1744 in Weymouth, Massachusetts. She never received a formal education, but her mother taught her to read and write. In 1764, she married John Adams, then a simple country lawyer. The couple had six children and were married more than fifty years, until Abigail’s death in 1818.

The passage above reads like the epitaphs of many women of eighteenth-century New England. Abigail Adams, however, was not the average wife and mother, and her husband was certainly not the average country lawyer. As a representative of Massachusetts, John Adams played a leading role in persuading the Continental Congress to declare independence from Great Britain. In 1778, he sailed to Europe to conduct diplomacy with France, Holland, and Great Britain, returning home only once until his homecoming in 1788.  John Adams served as the first Vice President of the United States under George Washington. In 1798, he was elected as the Second President of the United States.

Most Americans are at least somewhat familiar with John Adams, but who was Abigail, and why does she deserve to be included on the national currency?

My interest in Abigail Adams began with my early fascination with politics and history. As a child, I would frequently fall asleep at night reading a hard-backed book entitled, “Presidents of the United States.” I knew almost every fact in the book by the age of ten. The PBS show, “Liberty’s Kids,” provided me with an interest in colonial history, and I soon became a walking encyclopedia of the American Revolution, priding myself on my knowledge of obscure political figures and historical details. Dr. Joseph Warren, anyone?

As a girl, I was always attracted to the “idea” of Abigail Adams, a woman living in what I saw as the most exciting moment in the history of the world. I could marry my best friend, raise my children, run my own farm, and start my own country.

Because that is what Abigail Adams, nicknamed “Mrs. President” by one of her political enemies, did.  One of my favorite books is a Collection of the Letters of John and Abigail Adams. The Adamses wrote hundreds of letters to one another, as they spent nearly fourteen years of their marriage apart. These letters are revealing in so many ways of the character of Abigail Adams, who did indeed marry her “dearest friend.” The affection and love that they share is palpable in nearly every letter, yet this love never comes across as patronizing or silly. It is evident that the Adamses viewed each other as equals and as partners, both within their home and in political life.  Although Abigail Adams lacked the illustrious political titles of her husband and never once held an official seat in government, she was one of the most prominent voices for women during the Revolution and throughout the Founding Era.

In modern politics, we associate having a voice in government with having a political platform on which to air our grievances. Abigail Adams never stood on the floor of the Continental Congress and argued for independence, yet she saw herself as a political actor in the American Revolution. She was highly educated for a woman of her time, and an avid reader of political treatises, Shakespeare, and classical literature. The letters she wrote to her husband reflect a deep interest in politics, as well as the desire to serve her country. They contain detailed “intelligence” of  the movements of the war, at least what she could collect from others and see for herself from the Adams’ home outside Boston. She frequently offers advice to her husband on questions of politics, and their discussions reflect the political debates of the nascent United States. So great was her interest in politics that in November of 1775, she wrote to John: “If we separate from Britain, what code of laws will be established? How shall we be governed so as to retain our liberties? Can any government be free which is not administered by general stated laws? Who shall frame these laws? … I believe I have tired you with politics.” Abigail Adams (a stay-at-home mother) was effectively a war correspondent who feared that she bored her husband (a statesman) with her constant talk of politics.

My favorite passage from their letters is a tongue-in-cheek petition from Abigail to her husband. Knowing that he would play some role in the formation of the new national government, she wrote: “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  favorable to them than your ancestors.”  Abigail Adams was also an advocate for women’s education, telling her husband, “If we mean to have heroes, statesmen, and philosophers, we must have learned women.”

Correspondence with her husband was one of the limited methods of political action presented to Abigail Adams, and she seized it with a vivacity that should inspire all of us to action. As she wrote:

"These are the times in which a genius should wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman."

Kaitlin Fellrath

I have a passion for classic literature, history, and politics, and I hope to pursue an academic career in international affairs. I write best while sipping coffee, listening to beautiful music, and cuddling my cats.


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