Richly detailed biography of Abigail Adams (1744–1818), sprightly with quotes from letters and chockfull of legendary names.
The subtext of this compelling, though hardly news-breaking, biography seems to be: What would Abigail have done with her life if she had been well-educated and able to jostle with men in the greater world of politics and business? As it was, she was relegated to the domestic sphere, confined by the cares of her children, then grandchildren, forced to pour her wit and intelligence into letters to husband John and friends. Yet this parson’s daughter was not altogether a feminist as we imagine today, despite her now-famous “Remember the Ladies” letter to John in March 1776. Holton (History/Univ. of Richmond; Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, 2007, etc.) takes great pains to examine Abigail’s letters over a lifetime for clues to her emancipated thinking, dwelling on her advocacy of education for women, financial acuity—e.g., speculating during the war in exports, bonds and buying land—and elaborate will, in which she defied the law of coverture, whereby the husband assumed all legal rights over his wife’s property. However, her numerous dispatches from Europe, where she joined John when he was America’s first representative to the Court of St. James, reveal some provincial views; she criticized the “masculine attire” and lack of “softness” of British women. As John was often away, Abigail was compelled to act on her own and even seems to have indulged in an epistolary flirtation with a colleague in the Massachusetts congressional delegation, James Lovell.
The “saucy” lady gets a generous treatment in this entertaining gambol through the Founding era.