CLIO TALKS BACK: Abigail Adams, Entrepreneurial Woman Extraordinaire

Clio scan / Indiana University Press design
Jacket cover of Portia, with Abigail Adams portrait
Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818) is perhaps best known as the second "First Lady" of the United States. What is less well known is that she became an enterprising woman and sole support of her family when, in the 1770s and 1780s her husband John Adams effectively gave up his law practice for public service. He was instrumental in launching the American Revolution against the British, serving as a member of the Continental Congress from Massachusetts and later representing the fledgling nation to (and negotiating with) the major European powers, in Amsterdam, in Paris, and in London. For over 20 years of their 54-year old marriage, Abigail and her “dearest friend” lived mostly apart, though keeping closely in touch through letters.

Abigail Adams first took over operation of the family farm, managing its tenants and coping with a shortage of farm hands and rising labor costs. She then turned to merchandising and brokering – selling desirable and scarce goods such as chinaware, calico, handkerchiefs and ribbons that John sent to her by ship from Europe. She also speculated in land and acquired extensive holdings, in the face of troubles with currency inflation, counterfeit paper money, and increasing taxation. All this she did in an era when wives were technically deprived of property and the ability to make financial transactions – but she accomplished all this in John’s name, serving in effect as her husband’s “deputy.”

Her biographer, Edith B. Gelles, describes Abigail’s activities in these terms, quoting from her very extensive correspondence, which has become a treasure of American history and literature:

Clio scan / William Morrow design
Jacket cover, Abigail and John, with portraits
“Since she could not own property in her own right, she was obliged to inform John [12 July 1782] that ‘You are named in the Charter as original proprietor, so no deed was necessary.’ Ironic indeed that John now owned over 1,600 acres of Vermont which he did not want, purchased by Abigail, who had the courage to speculate and the cleverness to negotiate for land she could not legally possess. If the situation appeared unjust to Abigail, she did not write about such a reaction in her surviving letters.”

“The Adamses didn’t become rich, but that was not Abigail’s ambition. Her aim was to maintain the family, to feed, clothe, and educate her children without going into debt. She found that a satisfying goal.”

For most women, economic enterpreneurship has been and remains first and foremost about survival. The remarkable Abigail Adams was no exception.

Edith B. Gelles, Portia: The World of Abigail Adams (Indiana University Press, 1992), chap. 3.
Edith B. Gelles, Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2009), chap. 6.