Abigail Adams’ Birthplace: American History Through a Woman’s Eyes

PRESERVATION NATION.com – “Abigail Adams is most commonly known for being the wife of one president and the mother of another,” says Cathy Torrey, President Emeritus of Abigail Adams Historical Society, an organization dedicated to the conservation and educational upkeep of Abigail Adams Birthplace in North Weymouth, Massachusetts. “She is also known for her letter writing and most commonly, her letters between herself and John [Adams, the 2nd President of the United States]. Abigail is also a letter writer to her friends, family, and notable historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Mercy Otis Warren.”

The second first lady lived in her birthplace for the first 20 years of her life. Education was important to her and her father, Reverend Smith, who regularly taught boys who were going to attend Harvard University subjects like law, ministry, and medicine at the home. Her mother taught Abigail how to read and write, and Abigail would later read from her father’s many books in the study’s library. She and President John Adams left to make a life of their own after exchanging vows at the home in 1764.

Such an early introduction to the world of learning would follow her for the rest of her life, manifesting in the famous correspondence between her and her husband that started while she was still living at the house. The letters provided a descriptive picture of what the era looked like through the eyes of a woman, says Torrey.

(left) A portrait of the 2nd First Lady of the United States. (right) This 1953 photo shows two workers creating the home’s new chimney. Credit: Abigail Adams Historical Society Archives
(left) A portrait of the 2nd First Lady of the United States. (right) This 1953 photo shows two workers creating the home’s new chimney.

“She was in a home that recognized the importance of education and she also had her daughters educated,” Torrey says. “They were encouraged to read and I think it’s evident from her letters she wrote to John that she learned how to debate and hold her own in a conversation.”

Abigail’s father also had what Torrey says “one of the best libraries of the day.” As a result, numerous visitors ranging from clergy members to students would often visit the home to read.

“This is a home of education, and the study represents education and the place where her father would have taught and where Abigail would have access to the books that were in his library,” says Torrey. “The 18th century handmade desk would’ve represented her writing and the place where she might have written her letters.”

Although learning was integral to Abigail’s life, she also recognized her womanly duties that were expected of her and other women in the 17th to 18th century.

“The colonial kitchen would’ve represented a place where she learned her managerial skills from her mother like how to run a household, how much food to cook, how much material do you need to make a piece of clothing,” says Torrey.

Torrey also explains that people might think Abigail was an early feminist, but that was not her intent.

“She was keenly aware of her role as a woman, as a wife and a married woman,” says Torrey. “She had a responsibility to maintain the home, manage the children, and she could see beyond that which clearly shows in those letters that she wrote not only to John but to her family.”

Abigail Adams' birthplace in North Weymouth, Massachusetts, after restoration. Credit: Michelle McGrath
Abigail Adams’ birthplace in North Weymouth, Massachusetts, after restoration.

Abigail Adams Birthplace recently had its grand reopening on June 29, 2013 after renovations were done to resize the house, find new and rightly fitting clapboards to complement the original structure’s exterior, install a heating and air conditioning system, and fix the termite damage. All the house’s windows had to be restored due to wet and dry rot.

The house was originally located at 450 Bridge Street, North Weymouth. But in 1949, it was meticulously carved in half, each side transferred by flat bed trailers, and reunited at its current residence at Norton Street.

“The Abigail Adams Historical Society was formed in 1947 and the members of that day made a concerted effort to take in donations and purchased furnishings that would’ve represented the home, as it would’ve looked like if Abigail and her family lived there,” says Torrey.

Preserving the house keeps Abigail Adams’ influence on American history alive.

“She kept coming back here to visit her father and her family,” says Torrey. “It shows how important your family home is to who you are and who you will become.”

by Paulina Tam, The National Historic Trust for Historic Preservation

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