Abigail Adams exemplified what it meant to be a woman, an American, and a revolutionary in the transitional period between Colonial status and independence.
Abigail, first lady to the second president of the United States and mother of the sixth president, endured long separations from her husband, John Adams, throughout their marriage. As a result, Abigail became a prodigious correspondent to keep her husband apprised of her views on a wide variety of the day's issues.
Her letters are a remarkable source of information about the political climate of an emerging country and about her own concerns. Through her writings, the origins of her famous plea to her husband (when he was a delegate at the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia) to ''Remember the Ladies'' can be traced to her troubled conscience over how colonists could fight so passionately for liberty while at the same time depriving others of independence.
Much is known about the Adamses' lives through existing family letters and other documents that today number more than 20,000 and are stored at more than 200 American libraries and institutions.
But descendants of the Adamses - including two great-great-great-great granddaughters of Abigail Adams, Sarah Johnson and Gwyneth Johnson Lymberis - have now made public more documents, donating a collection of family papers to Cornell University Library in Ithaca, N.Y., last week.
The letters were stored for years in tin boxes in the Johnsons' California home. Among the papers are 17 letters from Abigail Adams, three from John Adams, and two from John Quincy Adams.
Cornell students are teaming up to transcribe and annotate photocopies of the Adamses' letters, viewing the originals when necessary. The transcriptions of the letters will eventually be placed on the World Wide Web global computer network.
Connection to today's women
For Joan Jacobs Brumberg, a social historian at Cornell who is using the letters in one of her classes, the letters of most consequence are a series written from 1806 to 1816 between Abigail Adams, her widowed daughter-in-law, and her granddaughters Susan and Abbe. Until now, little was known about these women.
Many of the Cornell students easily identify with the issues discussed in the letters. ''The female students are particularly interested in how women in other time periods negotiated this transition to adulthood, how families did or did not support or control marital choices,'' Professor Brumberg says.
The Johnson collection includes a letter to Abbe in 1811 that underscores Mrs. Adams's life-long concern that women obtain a good education:
''I would have your hand writing and arithmetic and grammar particularly attended to. Make yourself mistress of each branch. You may find them necessary to you to procure you a living.... No lady is qualified to pass through Life with credit to herself and usefulness to others without some knowledge of them all and why when you undertake a thing should you not excel in it.''
''She may not have been well-educated, and her handwriting is challenging,'' Brumberg says. ''But her letters reveal a vocabulary and grace of language that surpass Abigail's ability to control the pen.''
Close family ties
Both Abigail and John Adams keenly followed the lives of their offspring. After their son Charles died at a young age, they raised Susan in Quincy, Mass., and were deeply involved in raising Abbe, who lived with her mother in Utica, N.Y.
The letters from this period are full of the grandparents' concerns over both girls' sensibilities and suitors. As Abigail wrote to Abbe in 1814, ''...you cannot wonder that I am anxious to learn the age, abode, situation, prospects and connections of the gentleman you are to give me for a grandson.''
John Adams was just as concerned about the future of his granddaughters, as he indicated in a letter to Abbe's mother, Sarah Smith Adams:
''As the comfortable and reputable establishment in life of my grandchildren is very near my heart, your letter ... could not fail to give me much pleasure. Yesterday ... the 50th anniversary of my own marriage, your letter was brought to me.... I devoutly pray that my lovely Abigail may be as happy in her marriage as I have been.''