The letters of Mrs. Adams are well known to American readers. Her history and character have been so well unfolded in these and in the memoir by her grandson, that an extended sketch of her would be superfluous. Only a brief notice, therefore, is here required.
Abigail Smith was descended from the genuine stock of the Puritan settlers of Massachusetts. Her father, the Reverend William Smith, was for more than forty years minister of the Congregational Church at Weymouth. The ancestors of her mother, Elizabeth Quincy, were persons distinguished in the sacred office, and first in honor among the leaders of the church. From this ancestry, it may be inferred that her earliest associations were among those whose tastes and habits were marked by the love of literature. She was the second of three daughters, and was born at Weymouth, Nov. 11 th, 1744. Not being sent to any school, on account of the delicate state of her health, the knowledge she evinced in after life was the result of her reading and observation, rather than of what is commonly called education. The lessons that most deeply impressed her mind were received from Mrs. Quincy, her grandmother, whose beneficial influence she frequently acknowledges. Her marriage took place October 25th, 1764. She passed quietly the ten years that succeeded, devoting herself to domestic life, and the care of her young family. In 1775 she was called to pass through scenes of great distress, amid the horrors of war and the ravages of pestilence.
She sympathized deeply in the sufferings of those around her. "My hand and heart," she says, " still tremble at this domestic fury and fierce civil strife. I feel for the unhappy wretches, who know not where to fly for succor. I feel still more for my bleeding countrymen, who are hazarding their lives and their limbs !" To the agonized hearts of thousands of women went the roar of the cannon booming over those hills ! Many a bosom joined in breathing that prayer: "Almighty God! cover the heads of our countrymen, and be a shield to our dear friends."
When the neighborhood was no longer the field of military action, she occupied herself with the management of the household and farm. Mr. Adams was appointed joint commissioner at the court of France, and embarked in February, 1778, with his eldest son, John Quincy. During the years in which Mrs. Adams was deprived of his society, she devoted herself to the various duties devolving on her, submitting with patience to the difficulties of the times. In all her anxieties, her calm and lofty spirit never deserted her; nor did she regret the sacrifice of her own feelings for the good of the community. After the return of peace, Mr. Adams was appointed the first representative of the nation at the British court, and his wife departed to join him; moving from this time amidst new scenes and new characters, but preserving, in the variety and splendor of life in the luxurious cities of the old world, the simplicity and singleness of heart which had adorned her seclusion at home. In the prime of life, with a mind free from prejudice, her record of the impressions she received is instructive as well as interesting. She resided for a time in France, and visited the Netherlands, enjoying all she saw, with that delicate perception of beauty which belongs to a poetic spirit. When the official duties of Mr. Adams called him to the court of St. James, the unaffected republican simplicity and exquisite union of frankness and refinement in her manners, charmed the proud circles of the English aristocracy. As was to be expected, neither she nor her husband were exempted from annoyances growing out of the late controversy. She writes to Mrs. Warren: "Whoever in Europe is known to have adopted republican principles must expect to have all the engines of every court and courtier in the world displayed against him."
The aspect of independence she maintained, considering what was due to her country, did not tend to propitiate the pride of royalty; yet notwithstanding the drawbacks that sometimes troubled her, her residence in London seems to have been an agreeable one. Her letters to her sisters are a faithful transcript of her feelings. She observed with mingled pleasure and pain the contrast between the condition of her own country and that of the prosperous kingdoms she visited. Writing to Mrs. Shaw she says: "When I reflect on the advantages which the people of America possess over the most polished of other nations, the ease with which property is obtained, the plenty which is so equally distributed, - their personal liberty and security of life and property, I feel grateful to Heaven who marked out thy lot in that happy land; at the same time I deprecate that restless spirit, and that baneful ambition and thirst for power, which will finally make us as wretched as our neighbors."
When Mr. Adams, having returned with his family to the United States, became Vice President, his wife appeared, as in other situations, the purehearted patriot, the accomplished woman, the worthy partner of his cares and honors. He was called to the Presidency, and the widest field was opened for the exercise of her talents. Her letter written on the day that decided the people's choice shows a sense of the solemn responsibility he had assumed, with a spirit of reliance upon Divine guidance, and forgetfulness of all thoughts of pride in higher sentiments - honorable to the heart of a Daughter of America. Well might the husband thus addressed bear the testimony he does in one of his letters, in the midst of the perils of war: "A soul as pure, as benevolent, as virtuous, and pious as yours, has nothing to fear, but every thing to hope and expect from the last of human evils."
In her elevated position, the grace and elegance of Mrs. Adams, with her charms of conversation, were rendered more attractive by her frank sincerity. Her close observation, discrimination of character, and clear judgment gave her an influence which failed not to be acknowledged. Her husband ever appreciated her worth, and was sustained in spirit by her buoyant cheerfulness and affectionate sympathy in the multiplicity of his cares and labors. It was hers, too, to disarm the demon of party spirit, to calm agitations, heal the rankling wounds of pride, and pluck the root of bitterness away.
After the retirement of her husband, Mrs. Adams continued to take a deep interest in public affairs, and communicated to her friends her opinions both of men and measures. Writing to Mrs. Warren, March 9th, 1807, she says: "If we were to count our years by the revolutions we have witnessed, we might number them with the Antediluvians. So rapid have been the changes that the mind, though fleet in its progress, has been outstripped by them, and we are left like statues gazing at what we can neither fathom nor comprehend. You inquire, what does Mr. Adams think of Napoleon ? If you had asked Mrs. Adams, she would have replied to you in the words of Pope,
"If plagues and earthquakes break not heaven's design, Why then a Borgia or a Napoline ?"
Her health was much impaired; and from this time she remained in her rural seclusion at Quincy. With faculties unimpaired in old age, her serenity and benign cheerfulness continued to the last; the shadows of a life full of changes never deepened into gloom; she was still a minister of blessing to all within her influence, and in the settled calm of Christian contentment awaited the change that was to terminate her connection with the things of earth. To this she was summoned on the twenty-eighth of October, 1818.
Her character is a worthy subject of contemplation for her countrywomen. With intellectual gifts of the highest order she combined sensibility, tact, and much practical knowledge of life. Thus was she qualified for eminent usefulness in her distinguished position as the companion of one great statesman, and the guide of another. Few may rise to such pre-eminence; but many can emulate the firmness that sustained her in all vicissitudes, and can imitate her Christian virtues. These are pictured in her Letters, the publication of which was the first attempt to give tradition a palpable form, by laying open the thoughts and feelings of one who had borne an important part in our nation's early history.
The mother of Abigail Adams, it is said, took her last illness from a soldier who had served in her daughter's family, and whom she visited at Braintree, he having returned sick from the army.
She was the daughter of the Hon. John Quincy, of Braintree, and died in 1775, at the age of fifty-three. Without the least tincture of what is called pride of family, she possessed a true dignity of character, with great kindness of heart; and her efforts to relieve those in need extended to all objects of distress within her reach. Prudent and industrious in her own domestic management, she was attentive to provide employment for her poor neighbors; and was mild, frank and friendly in her intercourse with the parishioners, who regarded her with unbounded esteem and affection.
Another of her three celebrated daughters, Elizabeth, was remarkable in character and influence. She was born in 1750, and married the Rev. John Shaw of Haverhill. Her second husband was the Rev. Stephen Peabody, of Atkinson. Like her sister, she possessed superior powers of conversation, with a fine person, and polished and courtly manners. Her reading was extensive, and when speaking to youthful listeners on some improving topic, she would frequently recite passages from Shakespeare, Dryden, and the other English poets. Attentive to her domestic duties, and economical from Christian principle, to purity of heart and highly cultivated intellectual powers she united the most winning feminine grace. Her house at Haverhill was the centre of an elegant little circle of society for many years after the Revolution, and resorted to by the most cultivated residents of Boston and its vicinity. In Atkinson her gentle and friendly deportment won the lasting regard of the parishioners. She loved to instruct the ignorant, feed the poor, and comfort the afflicted; and the young were particularly the objects of her solicitude. Thus dispensing light and joy wherever she moved, she passed a useful, and therefore a happy life, which terminated at the age of sixty-six.
Mrs. Peabody formed an early and enduring friendship with Mrs. Warren, for whose character and intellect her letters express the highest respect. Her correspondence contains frequent remarks upon the prospects of the country, and the movements of the army. "Lost to virtue," she says to John Adams - "lost to humanity must that person be, who can view without emotion the complicated distress of this injured land. Evil tidings molest our habitations, and wound our peace. Oh, my brother! oppression is enough to make a wise people mad."
On her road to Plymouth to visit Mrs. Warren, her MS. journal mentions that she stopped at the house of Dr. Hall, where she dined on salt bacon and eggs. Three of the daughters were grown, and appeared sensible as well as pretty. "But," she says, "in order to discover whether their sensibility reached further than their faces, I sat down after dinner, while they were quilting a very nice homespun bedquilt, and read in a book I had brought with me several detached pieces - "Virtue and Constancy rewarded," "Zulima the Coquette, etc." This little memorandum throws light not only on the writer's character, but the manners of the time. The result appeared satisfactory; the young ladies being so well pleased with the reading that they begged their visitor to continue it.
The eldest daughter, Mary, was married in 1762, to Richard Cranch, afterwards judge of the Court of Common Pleas in Massachusetts. In 1775, the family removed from Boston to Quincy, then a part of Braintree, where they continued to reside till 1811. In October of that year both Mr. and Mrs. Cranch died, and were buried on the same day. The life of Mrs. Cranch was spent in deeds of charity and kindness. She was remarkable for her cheerfulness and fortitude, with earnestness in the discharge of her Christian duties. The Hon. judge William Cranch, of Washington, is her son.
In those portions of the country which were, at different periods, the scene of military operations, the energy, heroism, and magnanimity of woman were called by necessity into continual exercise. But there were other women whose more homely heroism was not without its effect; whose unacknowledged influence extended widely into the future. Their sphere of action limited to the bosom of their own families, the influence wrought quietly and unmarked, yet sent forth an impulse and an energy, like the life-blood propelled from the heart, through our whole national system. The mothers, who through years of adverse fortune were true to American principles, and who kept them pure in their homes in the season of prosperity, although no brilliant acts illustrate their simple history, rendered real service to the country. Their duties during the war, or after the return of peace, were fulfilled in a spirit of self-sacrifice, without the wish or expectation of reward. The noblest reward, however, was theirs; the sons in whose minds they had nursed the germs of patriotism and virtue, rose up to call them blessed.
Our country offers abundant examples of men who have attained the highest eminence, ascribing all to early maternal influence and training. For the mother of Henry Clay, that great man, the pride and honor of his country has ever expressed feelings of profound affection and veneration. Though her life afforded no incidents of striking or romantic interest, she was what expresses the perfection of female character - an excellent mother. She was the youngest of two daughters, who were the only children of George and Elizabeth Hudson. Her name also was Elizabeth. She was born in the county of Hanover, in Virginia, in 1750. Her early education was such as was attainable at that period in the colony. In her fifteenth year she was married to John Clay, a preacher of the Baptist denomination, and became the mother of eight children. Mr. Clay died during the war of the Revolution. Some years afterwards, Mrs. Clay contracted a second marriage with Mr. Henry Watkins; and in course of time eight children more were added to her family. The cares devolving upon her, in the charge of so many children, and the superintendence of domestic concerns, of course occupied her time to the exclusion of participation in matters of public interest. She must, however, have borne her share in the agitations and dangers of the time, in behalf of those who claimed her maternal solicitude and guidance.
Her son, Henry, was separated from her when only thirteen years of age, having before that period been occasionally absent from home for months in going to school. In 1792, his step-father removed, with his mother and family, from Hanover County to Woodford County in Kentucky, leaving him at Richmond, in Virginia. He did not again see his mother till the fall of 1797, when he himself emigrated to Kentucky. His estimable and beloved parent died in 1827, having survived most of her children, of whom there are now but four remaining - two by her first, and two by her last marriage.
She was from her youth a member of the Baptist Church, and eminent in piety. Her distinguishing traits of, character were energy and industry; and she was most faithful in the performance of all her domestic duties.