The Reading Room
Abigail Adams Argues for More “Learned Women”
In the previous post on Abigail Adams, I noted that she was a staunch advocate of traditional American liberties and showed great fortitude during tough times.
But Abigail was no mere defender of the status quo. No insignificant amount of her attraction to the cause for independence is the prospect of fashioning new laws. With keen anticipation, she wondered what "code of Laws will be Established, how shall we be govern'd so as to retain our Liberties?”
More farsighted than others, Abigail understood that political independence presented a unique opportunity to reconsider and revise existing laws to be more consistent with the principles of liberty and theory of representation invoked by the colonists. She was a patriot who believed that America could meaningfully reform to make good on the promise of liberty inherent in the political principles advanced by the Declaration. She saw that these principles created a groundwork of mutually shared commitments that would one day be the instruments of advancing political and personal liberty for women.
In her deservedly famous “remember the ladies” letter, Abigail asked John that the Continental Congress advance a more “generous” policy towards women than their forebears have. Should the men of the Continental Congress fail to do so, she threatened that women will “foment a rebellion” and will not honor the laws in which they have neither voice nor representation. Abigail foresaw, even if some of the leading men of the revolution may not have, that the principles of the American founding pledged greater liberty to all Americans.
Abigail shrewdly observed that consistent application of the revolution’s principles require that women have a role in shaping how rights, liberties, and civic duties should be applied to them. The principles of the Declaration are not glittering generalities—all sparkle and no substance—and, as Abigail’s example makes clear, Americans then and up to the present day will look upon its principles in order to make principled claims for liberty.
One of the chief ways of improving the status and personal lives of American women was through education. Abigail’s education, though better than most women, was spotty compared to her brother’s and she felt the difference. In response to John lamenting the poor education of men in America, Abigail retorted sharply what about the sorry state of education for women. (In subsequent letters, John did not forget to mention the education of women.) What America needed was a “liberal plan” for education for America’s sons and daughters. Abigail argued that "If we mean to have Hero Statesmen and Philosophers, we should have learned women.” America cannot truly be a home for “learning and virtue” if the education of women is neglected.
In the republican dispensation of the founding, Abigail sought a foothold for women in political life that could be broadened in the future. Abigail connected women’s education to their civic responsibility. A woman might not “hold the Reigns of Government,” but, as Abigail argued, she should be educated so that she may “judg[e] how they are conducted.” Abigail reminds us that the one of the most fundamental premise of our government is the capacity of the people—women included—to judge their government. Though they could not hold elected officials accountable at the ballot box, women should cultivate their political judgment.
Abigail saw that reverence and love for one’s country is the starting point not the end point of patriotism. We must “add to.” America can be great if our citizens undertake to add something of themselves to it. What Abigail shows us is that love of one's county springs from the attachment and honor for what it is and a hope for what we can add to it.