Dec. 19, 2023

Episode 46: The Ambassadress Is Nothing But Blunt

Episode 46: The Ambassadress Is Nothing But Blunt

Abigail Adams to John Quincy Adams, 16 Febuary 1786. In which Abigail reports from London to her son on dining with wealthy South Carolinians and the tribulations of her daughter Nabby in matters of the heart.

Abigail Adams to John Quincy Adams, 16 Febuary 1786. In which Abigail reports from London to her son on dining with wealthy South Carolinians and the tribulations of her daughter Nabby in matters of the heart. Featuring Dr. Miriam Liebman of the Massachusetts Historical Society. 

Note: The quoted letters referenced in this episode are available as follows:

Abigail Adams to John Quincy Adams, 16 February 1786. Adams Papers, Digital Edition. Massachusetts Historical Society. 

Abigail Adams to John Adams, 22 September 1774. Adams Papers, Digital Edition. Massachusetts Historical Society. 

Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March - 5 April 1776. Adams Papers, Digital Edition. Massachusetts Historical Society. 

Abigail Adams to John Adams, 23 December 1782. Adams Papers, Digital Edition. Massachusetts Historical Society. 

Abigail Adams to Mary Smith Cranch, 15 August 1785. Adams Papers, Digital Edition. Massachusetts Historical Society. 

Abigail Adams to Elizabeth Shaw, 4 March 1786. Adams Papers, Digital Edition. Massachusetts Historical Society. 

Abigail Adams to John Adams, 23 May 1794. Adams Papers, Digital Edition. Massachusetts Historical Society. 



Your Most Obedient & Humble Servant
Episode 46: “The Ambassadress is Nothing But Blunt”
Published on December 19, 2023

Note: The quoted letters referenced in this episode are available as follows:

Abigail Adams to John Quincy Adams, 16 February 1786. Adams Papers, Digital Edition. Massachusetts Historical Society. 

Abigail Adams to John Adams, 22 September 1774. Adams Papers, Digital Edition. Massachusetts Historical Society. 

Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March - 5 April 1776. Adams Papers, Digital Edition. Massachusetts Historical Society. 

Abigail Adams to John Adams, 23 December 1782. Adams Papers, Digital Edition. Massachusetts Historical Society. 

Abigail Adams to Mary Smith Cranch, 15 August 1785. Adams Papers, Digital Edition. Massachusetts Historical Society. 

Abigail Adams to Elizabeth Shaw, 4 March 1786. Adams Papers, Digital Edition. Massachusetts Historical Society. 

Abigail Adams to John Adams, 23 May 1794. Adams Papers, Digital Edition. Massachusetts Historical Society. 

Kathryn Gehred  00:05

Hello, and welcome to your most obedient and humble servant. This is Women's History podcast where we feature 18th and early 19th century women's letters that don't get as much attention as we think they should. I'm your host, Kathryn Gehred. This episode is part of our season on wit. And today I am delighted to welcome Dr. Miriam Liebman and assistant editor with the Adams papers at Massachusetts Historical Society. Welcome to the podcast. Miriam, I'm so happy to have you.

Miriam Liebman  00:34

Thank you so much for having me. It's so exciting to be here. It's exciting to finally meet up.

Kathryn Gehred  00:41

Yes, I'm very happy to have someone from the Adams papers. Our last Abigail Adams letter I spoke about with a good friend of mine, but who is not an expert on Adamses and we missed some very important points. So, I'm very happy to have you on here as someone who is very familiar with these people, and all of these large cast of characters that we can really dig into this one. So, tell me a little bit about your work with Adams papers. What exactly do you do? What volumes have you worked on?

Miriam Liebman  01:08

I have been with the Adams Papers for a year and a half now. And I am the Assistant Editor primarily for Adams Family Correspondence, our series on the private papers of the family. And it is the series that really focuses and shines and looks at the writings of the Adams women. Abigail, Nabby, Louisa Catherine, and it's one of the three series that we publish. We publish diaries, we have the public facing papers of the papers of John Adams. And then we have the family correspondence. I have now worked on several volumes in right just a short period of time. When I started, I worked on annotation for Adams Family Correspondence Volume 16. Annotation is right, like those amazing footnotes at the bottom of the page. And it tells you who's who and what legislation they're talking about, and what was that treaty? And who was that visitor? And what was that random newspaper article they were referring to, really what got me through writing my dissertation. And it was such a cool experience to be on the other side writing those and like finding those pieces out and building out that world.

Kathryn Gehred  02:21

I found when I first started working on annotation for the first time that I had been like, kind of spoiled as a historian that the editors of the papers had already done a lot of that work for me when I was using published volumes. And then it's like, oh, no, oh, no. She just said like Miss Smith. And there's like 6 million Miss Smith. How can I find which one's the right one? Did you find it helpful in your, your work?

Miriam Liebman  02:43

Learning how to annotate a letter is a, it's an art form and a skill. In many ways, like writing an 18th century letter, you learn how to be a concise writer, you learn how to choose your words so carefully, you also learn how to evaluate different sources too. As I like have said, it's my favorite things about being a historian is like very much in like the world of the Adamses. I get to be with primary sources, I get to read their letters, you get to build out the world that they lived in.

Kathryn Gehred  03:14

But that's one of the coolest things to me is that sometimes you're looking at secondary sources, and there's the big history beats, but you're looking at a letter that happened at a certain time. And what was important to them at that certain time might have been forgotten, like immediately afterwards. And you've really got to dig into those primary sources to be like, what's this actresses name and things like that?

Miriam Liebman  03:32

Oh, absolutely. One of my favorite things is to be like let's look at a map of wherever they are. See the paths that they would take to really get on the ground.

Kathryn Gehred  03:43

See, if you're writing about Thomas Jefferson, though, he just wrote all that stuff down because he was insane. I do want to ask you so you've been working with the family papers? Have you worked much with Abigail Adams handwriting because I remember and I wish I could find it. But I remember reading a footnote like forever ago that said that she had very difficult handwriting it was one of those kind of like fun snarky footnotes. Is that true? Or was that just like somebody writing a footnote in the 1940s and being mean, because it was a woman writer.

Miriam Liebman  04:08

She actually does have notoriously difficult handwriting. We have guides to be like this is the three versions of her “R” or three versions of her “M”. One of my favorite things that have been discovered over the years of reading Abigail's letters to get at least three different versions of spelling asparagus.

Kathryn Gehred  04:29

I like that it comes up that often.

Miriam Liebman  04:31

Well, they were growing things. They are very much involved in gardening and spending time in nature is very important to them.

Kathryn Gehred  04:41

And the asparagus is a hard word. I'll give her that one. So let's get into this letter. It's kind of a long letter. I want to make sure we have the context set up. So who wrote this letter? Who is it to and what is going on in their lives at the time this letter was written

Miriam Liebman  04:58

This letter, Abigail Adams Adams wrote to her son, John Quincy Adams, on February 16, 1786. Abigail is in London, living in Grosvenor Square. She is there because her husband John is serving as the First Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James. And this is a big deal, because this is the first time the United States is sending a minister to the former mother country, and are saying we're equal to you treat us that way.

Kathryn Gehred 05:35

And England said no.

Miriam Liebman  05:36

Yes, pretty much. We will take quite a few decades to work that out. So Abigail had been abroad since the spring, early summer 1784, when she finally decides that she's going to go to Europe, meet John Adams and John Quincy, in Europe, they had been there during the war. And then John Adams was assigned to negotiate the definitive Treaty of Paris right, ending the war with Britain. And so they're first in Paris. And then in the early summer of 1785, they go to London because he is commissioned with this new position by the United States government. At this time, though, John Quincy Adams was back in the United States, he was in Cambridge to attend Harvard. He had spent quite a few years abroad separated from his mother, right with his father, sometimes separate from his father. It's the winter and she is providing a very long update on what is happening because letters took a long time to travel. And so these letters, especially when there's an ocean, between members of the family are very long. Therefore this letter is going to have a wide variety of topics within it. Not always connected, some more frivolous than others. But maybe the main big family thing that's happening in this letter is Nabby, Adams, John and Abigail's daughter, John Quincy sister, is having some romantic issues. I guess that's the way to put it. But there's so much more in the letter ranging from politics, to gossip, to some great one lines. So I think the main context is just to know where the family is at and that this is a mother writing to her son, and that there is an ocean between them.

Kathryn Gehred  07:29

I did have one more question. How old is Abigail Adams and how old is John Quincy Adams at the time of this letter? Do you know?

Miriam Liebman  07:34

He's 19. He'll be 20 in July. Abigail Adams was born in 1744.

Kathryn Gehred  07:42

She's 42. And now for the letter.

“Abigail Adams to John Quincy Adams, London Febry 16 1786

My Dear Son

Captain Lyde is arrived to our no small joy and brought us a charming parcel of Letters, amongst which I found one from each of my Dear Sons. You know how happy a circumstance of this kind always makes me. Two days before we had heard of his arrival in the River, and waited every hour with impatience for the Letters, for those by Young have not yet come to hand, he is still at Plimouth repairing his Ship.

Yesterday we went to dine with a mr and mrs Blake, who came formerly from Carolina, but who have many years been setled in this Country. Mr Blake is said to be the richest citizen belonging to the Southern State of carolina. I am loth to mention that he owns 15 hundred Negroes upon one plantation; as I cannot avoid considering it disgracefull to Humanity. His anual income is said to amount to 15 hundred sterling, which is very handsome for any Country. He lives in a stile of great elegance…..It is not the fashion in this Country to dine large parties, few rooms are calculated for it. There were no Ladies present except myself, your sister, mrs Blake, and daughter mr Bridgen whom you know; two young Carolinians, who have lately arrived and dinned with us some time before; your Pappa and col. Smith made the company. We past our time very agreably but still the Letters kept running in my Head. About nine oclock we returnd home, and John Brisler who you know is never so happy as when he has any good News for me, opend the Carriage Door with a smiling countanance, and an 'O Mam'! There are a thousand Letters come. This quickned my pace you may be sure. Well says your Pappa as he was getting out, now I shall see your Eyes Glisten, nobody ever enjoy'd a Letter more than you. During this discourse Miss was fled, and had mounted the stairs before I could get into the House, nor could the col. keep pace with the nimble footed Daphne. From that moment untill half past twelve we were all employd in reading our Letters. Even the Watchmans Cry, of “half past ten oclock” which upon other nights puts your pappa in motion for bed, past unheeded by.”

I love how she kind of sets the stage she sets the scene of where she is. Can you tell me a little bit about Abigail Adams and her views on slavery because the phrase I cannot avoid considering it disgraceful to humanity sort of jumped out at me is refreshingly blunt.

Miriam Liebman  10:27

Abigail is nothing but blunt. It's this paragraph that is one of the reasons that I chose this letter. And yes, Abigail Adams is often remembered for her opposition to slavery. However, while she was anti-slavery, she was not anti-racist. And that is something to remember and to keep in mind. I have a bunch of really interesting quotes to talk about this because it is so important. Right? Something to remember is Abigail Adams, her father in his will emancipated Phoebe, their enslaved woman. So Abigail Adams grew up around slavery, right in a household that enslaved people. And if you don't mind, I actually just use a couple of quotes because I think they're really helpful. In September of 1774, she writes to John Adams, quote “I wish most sincerely there was not a Slave in the province. It allways appeard a most iniquitious Scheme to me—fight ourselfs for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.” End quote. And then Abigail Adams to John Adams on 31 March 1776, which I think a lot of us know because it's also “Remember the Ladies.” But she also wrote, quote, “I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs.” End quote. In 1794, two decades later, or decade after this letter we're talking today, Abigail writes to John Adams on the 23rd of May 1794, Quote, “…yet having had a full view of Southern politicks and Southern Elections, I begin to think we are much the greatest part of the union, Much as [they] hold Britain in disdain and abuse her constitution, they have adopted the most pernicious part in the most corrupted Stage.” So she talks about this throughout her life and slavery was abolished in Massachusetts in 1783. So, right about three years before this letter we're talking about today. And then in 1788, Massachusetts, declares the slave trade illegal. This is the decade that Massachusetts has abolished slavery, that Abigail Wright is writing this letter. When she was abroad in London, she goes to see a performance of Othello, and so she's writing to her sister in this letter, Elizabeth, Miss Shaw, um, for March 1786. Quote, “Perhaps it may be early prejudice; but I could not separate the African color from the man, nor prevent that disgust and horror which filled my mind every time I saw him touch the gentle Desdemona,” end quote. So we have to look at her anti-slavery lines and discussion and thoughtfulness and also not ignore the racism.

Kathryn Gehred  13:32

Absolutely, because she also has some interesting quotes about Sally Hemings when Sally Hemings arrives in Paris. So it's interesting that her politics on it, we're good. “We've got to end slavery very soon.” But her personal feelings, I would say are racist. But when you read a lot of letters in this time, that seems it's more common than you would expect. It's ubiquitous and a lot of white people's writings.

Miriam Liebman  13:53

And I should say, these quotes come from letters and write the letter we're talking about today are all available online for free on the Adams Papers, digital edition, on the Massachusetts Historical Society website. And it is an amazing resource. It's fabulous.

Kathryn Gehred  14:10

I go there all the time. The other thing that stuck out to me from this paragraph, this opening paragraph is that she actually like quotes what people say, like, oh, ma'am, there are 1000 letters come and then she actually quotes John Adams. And she says, Oh, now I shall see your eyes glisten. Nobody ever enjoyed a letter more than you. How cute is that?

Miriam Liebman  14:30

She does love letters, but letters were huge, right? They're your source of gossip. They're your source of information. That's not from the newspaper. They're, they're gonna fill you in on tons of information. Because if we're just seeing this letter of what she's writing to her son, imagine what she's receiving. And Abigail was a master letter writer. She chose every word very carefully. We have drafts of their letters in the collections for exam We'll note right differences in our notation between the draft and then what's in the recipients copy. And she also knew who she was writing to. So she would often play with who she was writing with. Maybe lead on some information that she has doesn't have. She's the letter writer influencer before Instagram.

Kathryn Gehred  15:18

And hey, on topic for wit of like, she's not just writing a stream of consciousness here like she is planning and she is writing these letters. Yeah.

Miriam Liebman  15:26

And I think that is so underrated.

Kathryn Gehred  15:29

She's describing the party. She's like, here are the people there. He's very rich. All of this. And all she's thinking about is where are those letters? Because she knows that the ship is there that she should be getting them soon. I like that. She said the same. They're sitting there. They're all reading letters. They're excited. So the next paragraph, let's go.

“Mr S. amused himself, or tried too, with reading the News papers, yet I saw he watchd my countanance at every Letter. A little before 12 the servant informed him that his carriage was at the Door, he rose and comeing to me placed himself in a pensive attitude, then askd me if I would write by a vessel going this week to Newyork? I replied yes I will to my son. Will you said he, with an expression which I easily read from his Heart, will you remember me . . . to him—I promised him I would. Know then my dear Son that this Gentleman is like to become your Brother. I dare say you frequently heard honorable mention of him whilst you was in Newyork. His Character is not only fair and unblemishd, but in high reputation wherever he is known….Delicacy of sentiment and honour are the striking traits of his Character. Perhaps col Humphries might be a little poetic, when speaking of him, he said “it would take more proofs and arguments to convince him that col S. could be guilty of a dishonorable action, than any other Man he ever knew in his Life.” What a contrast some will say? but comparisons are odious—let the memory of former attachments, since the recollection of them can only be attended with pain, sleep in oblivion. As they proved not to be founded upon a durable superstructure, they have properly vanishd like the baseless fabrick of a vision, nor do I think even a wreck is left behind—you will say, is not this Sudden?

Rouchfoucault says, and shakspear makes the same observation that a Heart agitated with the remains of a former passion is most susceptable of a new one. But sitting this aside, you know the pensive sedateness which had long hung upon the brow of your Sister. This was not mitigated amidst all the hurry and bustle of the scenes which surrounded us when we first came to this Country. Loth very 64loth was she to believe and still more so to confess it, but at last fully convincd from the neglect with which she was treated, (and the account of some Friend I know not whom) of the unsteadiness and dissipation of a certain Gentleman, that he was unworthy her regard. She wrote him a letter very soon after we arrived here, expressive of her mind, tho she did not at that time make it known to her Friends. But she afterward produced a copy of the Letter as a full proof that her conduct was the result of proper conviction and mature deliberation. The final dismission and the last Letter she ever wrote him was in concequence of my expressing a doubt of his strickt honour. It was then as I think I before related to you, that she disclosed her mind fully upon the subject, and askt advise of your pappa, upon which he told her if she had sufficient reason to doubt both his honour and veracity, he had rather follow her to the Grave than see her united with him.

I will not disguise to you that we had not been long removed to this House, before I saw that the Gentleman who made a part of the family was happier in sitting down and reading to the Ladies, in walking riding or attending us to the Theaters, than of any other company or amusement….Thus we went on for several weeks at a perfect distance….Perhaps it was assureances similar to those made to me, which might draw from her an explanation. This is a matter that I shall not 65be very likely to learn, but I perceived all at once upon a Day, a Dejection dispell'd, a Brightness of countanance, and a lightness of Heart and in the Evening the Gentleman ask'd permission to attend us to the Theatre where we were going with col Humphries; when we returned it was late, and Pappa was gone to bed: as the Gentleman was going: he ask'd a moments audience of me' upon which he put into my Hand with much emotion a Bundle of papers and a letter, which he requested me to read, and communicate to your Pappa; the Papers were votes of congress and commissions, with the amplest testimonies from the Generals under whom he had served of his Brave and good conduct. The letter informd me, “that as the connection which appear'd an insurmountable obstacle to the accomplishment of the wishes nearest his Heart, existed no longer—and from the opinion he had of the Lady, he was persuaded that nothing dishonourable on her part could have occasiond its dissolution. He hoped that Mrs Adams would not be surprised at his early anxiety to gain the confidence of her Daughter, and to lay a proper foundation for a future Connection, provided it should meet with the approbation of her Parents and Friends.” There were many other matters in the Letter which were: mention of his family situation &c. I according to request communicated to your Pappa the Papers and Letters. As it appeard to him that this Gentleman possesst all those qualifications necessary to make a faithfull and agreeable companion, he left it wholy to your Sister to determine for herself. I begd her to satisfy herself that She had no prepossession left in her mind and Heart, and she assured me She never could be more determind. I think she must feel a calmness and serenity in her present connextion; which she never before experienced. I am sure it has releived my mind from a Weight which has hung heavy upon it, for more than two years; I rejoice that her conduct meets the approbation of her Friends. I doubt not but her present choise will do so equally. I think she will herself communicate the matter to you.”

Kathryn Gehred 

Okay. So here we have in great detail, the description I like how it just starts where she's like, by the way Colonel Smith is really great. Also, he's going to marry your sister. Who was Nabby engaged to that Abigail is throwing so much shade in this series of paragraphs,

Miriam Liebman  21:16

Royall Tyler.

Kathryn Gehred  21:18

Royall Tyler. He showed up in the Mary Cranch episode that we did.

Miriam Liebman  21:22

Well he lived, he boarded by the Cranches. And that's how he met Nabby. The ironic part about the amount of shade that she is throwing is that she loved him. When he first started courting Nabby, this is from 23rd December 1782. She wrote to John Adams, that Royall Tyler had been, quote, “rather negligent in persueing his buisness in the way of his profession; and dissipated two or 3 years of his Life and too much of his fortune for to reflect upon with pleasure.” But then, right, she goes on to be like, Oh, he's changed his ways. And, quote, “he cannot fail making a distinguished figure in his profession if he steadily persues it.” That was like 1782 I said, so it's gonna change pretty quickly. nappies letters on this appear to be lost, there's not much in a letter that's been dated 11 August 1785, Nabi request from Royall Tyler, the return of the miniature of her that he has, what happens is, they're technically engaged. And Abigail thinks the distance is good, right? Like the whole ocean. And there were rumors about Tyler that he had an illegitimate child and he got into trouble.

Kathryn Gehred  22:49

The Mary Smith Cranch letter that we have is the illegitimate child one. And I was like, This is so great. This is such a hilarious description of this random guy. And I didn't know he had been engaged to Nabby a very pivotal point in his letter. She made a good escape there. And also I love that she's like, I would like my miniature.

Miriam Liebman  23:10

So Abigail is like so concerned about reputation here. So right so William Stephens Smith was was John Adams, a secretary in London. And she's like, Oh, you're interested. You need to go away for a little bit. So he goes to Prussia. And she's like, okay, Nabby, what's going on here? In that summer of 1785, writing to Mary Smith Cranch, Abigail relays a conversation she had with Nabby, and it goes, quote, “A few days since, something arose which led her in conversation to ask me, if I did not think a Gentleman of her acquaintance a Man of Honour? I replied yes a Man of strict honour, and I wisht I could say that of all her acquaintance. As she could not mistake my meaning, instead of being affected as I apprehended she said, a breach of honour in one party would not justify a want of it in the other. I thought this the very time to speak. I said if she was conscious of any want of honour on the part of the Gentleman, I and every Friend she had in the world, would rejoice if she could liberate herself.” And she right she does, right. And then William Stephens Smith comes back at the end of 1785, because Abigail didn't want it to look like she started courting with with one person while she's still engaged to the other. Right. She needed she needed like that alibi timeline, right.

Kathryn Gehred  24:34

Abigail is like pulling the strings here. She's like, Oh, this could look bad that she was engaged and then she abandoned him for this other guy who's clearly better. Abigail obviously is very into him. She's She likes she's writing wonderful things about William Stephen Smith. He's like, a man of honor. She's quoting poems. She's quoting Colonel Humphrey. So I imagined wrote one of the letters this this gave her What is your opinion on William Stephens Smith.

Miriam Liebman  24:58

He does not live up To this honor, in the current volume of Adams family correspondence, Volume 16 that we're working on, William Stephens Smith helps fund the Miranda expedition to Venezuela.

Kathryn Gehred  25:11

Yeah, don't know what that is.

Miriam Liebman  25:14

Basically, he tries to like incite insurrection in another country to overthrow that country's government. So he gets federally indicted and loses his job as the surveyor of the Port of New York. His son goes their eldest son, William students that goes on this expedition. And like they don't know for a couple of months if he's alive.

Kathryn Gehred  25:32

What strikes me a little bit about Abigail Adams is that she nailed picking her husband for herself. It's like one of my favorite relationships. And then it seems like she just keeps giving Nabby bad advice. She liked Royall Tyler at first. I might be reading too much into this. But when she was talking about how she spent two years worrying about this, like she'd spent two years agonizing over it, I think she's like, Oh, I feel guilty that I push this Royall Tyler guy, I've got to fix the situation. And then she may be rushed a little bit too much into the William Stephens Smith one.

Miriam Liebman  26:03

I think this is where we see Abigail's motherhood protection coming out where she's worried about her daughter.

Kathryn Gehred  26:09

One of my favorite quotes from John Adams about the whole Royall Tyler situation is he writes to him, and he says, because he's getting the impression that Royall Tyler is kind of charming, Abigail, he wrote this is too serious a subject to equivocate about, I don't like this method of courting mothers. And then William Stephens Smith seems to be slightly courting the mom a little bit too. That's again, very alien to modern romantic sensibilities would be to show up to your partner's mom's house and give her a stack of letters from your previous bosses. What an interesting little moment. All right. Last little bit.

Kathryn Gehred  26:55

"I do not know how to consent that you should give up your diary, it is the kind of Letters which I love best of any. Your sister has been very closely writing ever since she received your Letters. I am rejoiced to find that you are no ways dissapointed in the reception I promisd you from your Friends. Your sister Eliza as you justly term her is very dear to me, as you well know, and that my own children only, are dearer to me than those of my sisters. Never was there a stronger affection than that which binds in a threefold cord your Mamma and her dear sisters. Heaven preserve us to each other for many Years to come.

Your Pappa has a vast deal of writing to do, and he sometimes groans and says but little comes of it. Yet do I know much essential service results from it, and much more might, were our Country wise as they ought to be.

I presume it will not be long before I hear from you at Cambridge. Watch over your Brother, gain his confidence be his Friend as well as Brother. Reverence yourself, and you will not go asstray. Your Friends give me most flattering accounts of you and I give a ready credit to their word, may your honour your integrity and virtue always prove your safe gaurd.

I fear mr King will think I intrude upon him by requesting him to frank this bulky Letter. By captain Lyde I shall write to all my Friends. Let your Aunt know I have received her kind Letters….

Remember me to all my Haverhill Friends and cross the River present my congratulations. Love to my Thommy and be assured you are all equally dear to your ever affectionate Mother

A A”

Kathryn Gehred  28:28

There it is!

Miriam Liebman  28:29

A very long letter.

Kathryn Gehred  28:31

It is a long letter. There's a lot in it. But oh, that is so sweet that she texted that never was there a stronger affection than that which binds your mom and her sisters.

Miriam Liebman  28:41

As someone who has a lot of sisters, I just I love that.

Kathryn Gehred  28:46

I know that you write your dissertation and your background work is about American women acting in diplomatic positions overseas. So how would you describe Abigail as a diplomat's wife.

Miriam Liebman  28:57

I give her the title of “ambassadress” because even though she doesn't have the title officially, she's doing it. She is managing a household. She is going to court. She is hosting dinners. She is paying visits, she is receiving visits. She is in the room where treaties are happening. At times, she's going to be the person who is transcribing a letter or endorsing a letter. She's definitely reading her husband's letters. So she has all of the intelligence and knowledge and intrigue. And John seeks her advice. So often the question becomes Okay, so like, was she good at it? Did you succeed? That's like a very old school diplomatic way of thinking about it. I'm actually less interested in like whether she was successful or not than the fact that she was a diplomat abroad on behalf of a very new country. She went into this completely like not knowing what she was going to get. And like, goes with it.

Kathryn Gehred  30:05

It sounds like she's doing great. She's sort of understanding what's happening.

Miriam Liebman  30:09

And fascinatingly, she's not afraid to say what she has to say. And she's also aware of what she can and cannot say. And that's part of that drafting of letters. And she's aware that there are sensors also, she's aware that her letters might be open. She has all of the skills of the diplomat, whether or not a treaty comes out of it, I think is the less interesting part. And more about what are the skills she's using? Who is she talking to? What does she complement the American government for? What does she dragged the American government for? Who is she friends with in London and Paris? Who are the people that she gravitates towards? And then how does she like take those skills? And like Teach them to her kids?

Kathryn Gehred  30:52

Yeah, her little advice to JQ a that is also very motherly, where she's just like, everyone says, you're great. Of course, I believe it. Your honor, integrity, virtue, always prove your safeguard. She's setting him up to be a big deal. He's going to Harvard and she's telling him all of this political news, even if she hates talking about politics, and

Miriam Liebman  31:10

I don't know if she hates it.

Kathryn Gehred  31:12

She has to say she hates it.

Miriam Liebman  31:13

That's part of it. When she has a line like begone politics, she's doing a writing technique, playing with her reader, she's playing with a potential sensor. She's playing with a potential unanticipated reader, where she's saying like, no, like, I'm not interested. But here's like some really good stuff. Okay, by and this is actually something that a lot of 18th century women who serve as these unofficial different lenses like this is what they do. They play with their reader, they play with their letter, they juxtapose fashion and politics and family as a way of covering what they're doing.

Kathryn Gehred  31:50

That's fascinating. So to just sort of sum up, what do you think is the most significant thing about this letter? What do you want our listeners to sort of take away from this letter?

Miriam Liebman  32:01

The first is that the Adams Papers has something for everybody. In this letter, you have gossip, you have a future Netflix show, you have real intrigue, you have family politics, you have literature right there Shakespeare, there's lots of quotes, you have fashion, you have ideas of masculinity, femininity, you have sibling relationships, you have parent child relationships. And I think you can be interested in a wider range of topics. And you will find something in the honest papers for you. The second is, Abigail Adams had a ton going on, like her world was big. And not just John Adams, his wife, she's not just the mom to John Quincy and Abby and Charles Thomas. She has a wide array of interests. She is incredibly articulate. And I think this is a letter that doesn't have maybe some of the big plotlines and storylines that we typically gravitate towards in the late 18th century. And the 1780s, which is like such a fascinating decade. And such a like important pivotal decade. And this like gives you a window into like what that was, as you say, at the opening to this podcast, it was like this is like to tell the stories that like don't always make the history books. I think there's a ton in this letter that doesn't make this true bucks. It's a lot of that is significant. It's a letter that we learned a ton from, about the family, about politics, about international affairs, about gender. And it doesn't have a lot of big names.

Kathryn Gehred  33:42

This is exactly how I feel about these letters. So I love having you on here. I love your passion for this. That is fabulous. Thank you so much for agreeing to be on the podcast. This was such a great conversation.

Miriam Liebman  33:52

Thank you so much for having me.

Kathryn Gehred  33:54

To my listeners, we've got a lot of quotes. I will do my best to try to put together places where you can find these quotes but they are all available online with the fabulous Adams Family papers and Adams Papers from the Massachusetts Historical Society website

Miriam Liebman  34:08

Yeah, the Adams Papers, Digital Edition

Kathryn Gehred  34:13

Adams Papers, Digital Edition. So we will link to that we will try to point you the places you need to go to read this letter. And I am as ever, your most obedient and humble servant. Your most obedient and humble servant is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig center for history and new media at George Mason University. I'm Kathryn Gehred, the creator and host of this podcast. Jeannette Patrick and Jim Ambuske are the executive producers. If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to listen to past episodes and check out more great podcasts from R2 Studios. We tell unexpected stories based on the latest research to connect listeners with the past. So head to R2 to start listening.

Dr. Miriam Liebman Profile Photo

Dr. Miriam Liebman

Assistant Editor at the Adams Family Papers | Massachusetts Historical Society

Miriam Liebman received her PH.D. in early American history from the Graduate Center, CUNY. Her dissertation, "'Thus Much for Politicks'; American Women, Diplomacy, and the Aftermath of the American Revolution," explores how elite American women acted in diplomatic capacities abroad in the Age of Revolutions. Her dissertation research received support from the Ph.D. Program in History at the Graduate Center, the Early Research Initiative in American Studies, the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, the National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of New York, the Colonial Dames of America, and the Massachusetts Historical Society. Dr. Liebman currently works as Assistant Editor at the Adams Family Papers.