Although America hasn’t had a female president—yet—the history of presidents’ spouses is a fascinating one.
The First Ladies’ stories include: a woman who held the office at the age of 20, several who buried husbands killed while in office and one who ran the White House in a time of war. It also includes Abigail Adams, known to her husband as “Portia,” and John Adams, the second President and first Vice President of the United States.
The Adamses wrote to one another constantly when apart, sometimes multiple times per day. On this day in 1777, for instance, the couple exchanged a total of five letters, though for obvious reasons (the slow speed of travel in the 18th century for one), the letters weren't direct responses to each other. John was with the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, while Abigail, was overseeing their farm in Braintree, Massachusetts.
“It gives me great pleasure to find that you have received so many Letters from me, altho I know they contain nothing of importance,” John wrote in one of his three March 7 letters. He lamented the fact that he couldn’t write openly to her of important matters, but said he would “go on trifling.”
Her two letters written February 8 had just reached him by the hands of George Washington, he wrote, who had carried them from the Susquehannah River. “I long to be at Home, at the Opening Spring,” he concluded, “but this is not my Felicity—I am tenderly anxious for your health and for the Welfare of the whole House.”
One letter John received contained Abigail’s assessment of the political situation near their home and some domestic news. “I feel as if you were gone to a foreign Country,” she wrote. “Philadelphia seem’d close by but now I hardly know how to reconcile my self to the Thought that you are 500 miles distant.”
These letters, like all of the 1,160 examples of their correspondence preserved in archives today, provide valuable historical evidence about the founding of America. But they also provide a snapshot of a marriage of equals in a time when women were unable to vote or directly participate in public life, according to History.com. Their remarkable correspondence “covered topics ranging from politics and military strategy to household economy and family health,” the website reads.
Their correspondence began when John first went to Philadelphia in 1774, according to The National First Ladies’ Library. “The letters reflect not only Abigail Adams’ reactive advice to the political contentions and questions that John posed to her, but also her own observant reporting of New England newspapers’ and citizens’ response to legislation and news events of the American Revolution,” the library notes.
When John Adams took office in 1797, Abigail expressed her concerns about what the role of First Lady would do to her as well as their correspondence, which continued throughout the four years he spent in office. “My pen runs riot,” she wrote in one letter. “I forget that it must grow cautious and prudent. I fear I shall make a dull business when such restrictions are laid upon it.”
During his presidency, however, she became known for writing public letters in support of her husband's policies, the library notes. She was also the first president's wife to reside in the White House, for eight months, during which she infamously hung laundry to dry in the East Room, which was still undergoing construction.