As part of our series examining documents from the American Revolution this month, we are contrasting Abigail Adams’s famous “Remember the Ladies” Letter with her husband’s response. Reading these two letters side-by-side showcases the tensions between two definitions of equality, as Abigail suggests her husband remember to keep the legal future of women in mind as he and the other male members of the Continental Congress begin drafting the contours of the new American republic.
Abigail’s letter of March 31, 1776, was written from Braintree, Massachusetts, to her husband, John Adams, who was in Philadelphia at the Continental Congress urging the case for American independence. The letter, commonly referred to by her admonition to John to “remember the ladies,” first speaks of the fighting in Virginia and the recent British troop withdrawal from Boston. The British position had become indefensible after General George Washington placed fortifications at Dorchester Heights, overlooking the city. Abigail voices optimism about a “temporary peace” in the spring. She then turns to the outlook for the more distant future, anticipating the formation of the new republic. In almost revolutionary language, she implores her husband in this context to keep in view the legal position of women and grant them more liberty.
Abigail writes: “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. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
On April 14, 1776, John Adams replied to his wife’s letter, dismissing her entreaty that the political rights of women be considered by the Continental Congress. His response reflects the prevailing attitudes on gender of the period. John and Abigail Adams were separated at the time their letters were written. She was managing their family and estates in war-torn Massachusetts, and he was in Philadelphia, engaged in spirited debates on patriotism and public policy. The pair exchanged many letters during their separation. These show that Abigail Adams was frank in her opinions on the war effort and political debates of the day. They also show that John Adams and his wife regarded one another as intellectual equals and that their relationship was built on a foundation of mutual trust and regard. Nevertheless, in reply to his wife’s insistence that the political rights of women be considered and protected, John Adams was dismissive. His reply testifies to the boundaries of the democratic spirit in the American Revolution and shows that modern conceptions of gender equality were hardly considered during the founding of the new republic.
As John Adams writes, “But your 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 Compliment but you are so saucy, I wont blot it out.”
An examination of these two documents reflects John Adams’s attitudes on gender and political representation during the time of the American Revolution, but it also showcases Abigail Adams’s revolutionary ideas about gender. As she draws a parallel between the plight of American women and the political status of the colonies, we see the seeds of the suffrage movement that would emerge in the next century.
Abigail Adams’s “Remember the Ladies” is featured in several of our titles, including The Schlager Anthology of the American Revolution and Milestone Documents in American History. The letter will also be included in our forthcoming anthology The Schlager Anthology of Women’s History.