For a variety of reasons, countless women throughout history have had to face raising children alone. Whatever the reason—from death, divorce, separation, or deployment—it is never easy. Abigail Adams, the wife of the second president of the United States and the mother of the sixth, had perhaps the most unique reason of all: the birth of a nation.
For the better part of a decade, Abigail’s husband John was hundreds, and sometimes even thousands, of miles from his family while he played a major role in the American Revolution. Being married to a Founding Father probably often felt like more of a burden than anything else. However, Abigail was known to quote, “Affliction is a good man’s shining time,” a favorite line from an English poet. Those words proved prophetic in her life. Her afflictions provided the refinement that ultimately molded her into a great leader.
The life of a Puritan woman during the 18th century was downright grueling. During that time, Abigail was required to take care of and educate her children, cook meals and clean the home, sew and mend clothing, and even do some of the hard labor required to run the farm and take care of the livestock and crops. She also managed the family’s finances and was in charge of purchasing supplies for the home and farm.
So when Abigail found out John would be away from their home outside Boston for not just days at a time, but often months (and later, even years), her reaction was what any other woman’s would be—a “flood of tears.” She knew what his absences would mean for her. Nevertheless, she agreed to it, because the future of her country was every bit as important to her as it was to John.
During John’s service in the first Continental Congress, the American Revolution was breaking out right in the Adamses’ own backyard. With John away in Philadelphia, it was an especially frightening time to be a single mother.
Then, on June 17, 1775, the British seized Abigail’s beloved city of Boston and burned down Charlestown at the Battle of Bunker Hill. John had warned them that they must “fly to the woods” in the face of such danger, but they didn’t listen. Instead, just a few miles away, Abigail and eight-year-old John Quincy watched from nearby Penn Hill. True to her nature, Abigail had to witness the event herself. It was a sight neither ever forgot. Several close friends were killed in the battle, and their losses weighed heavily on Abigail. It was her faith, however, that gave her strength.
Among the 1,000+ letters that were exchanged between John and Abigail during their lengthy separations are many remarkable examples of Abigail’s faith, courage, and reliance on God’s word. She wrote John during the early days of the war that, though they lived in continual fear, she put her faith in God:
“Unto Him who mounts the whirlwind and directs the storm, I will cheerfully leave the ordering of my lot and whether adverse or prosperous days should be my future portion, I will trust in His right hand to lead me safely through…”
Tragedy struck again just a few weeks after the Battle of Bunker Hill. As a dysentery epidemic swept through their town, Abigail’s house was hit hard. Her mother, Elizabeth Quincy, eventually fell victim to the ugly disease. Abigail had often relied on her mother for emotional support during John’s absences, and this loss was almost more than she could bear. Of her heartache, she wrote, “In six weeks I count five of my near connections laid in the grave. . . . But the heavy stroke which most of all disturbs me is my dear mother.” She went on to say that she hoped God would forgive her for being so sorrowful when she knew that he has wisdom in all things, and quoted Job 13:15, “Yea, though He slay me, I will trust in Him.”
Abigail exercised faith in God and looked for the silver lining whenever possible, as evidenced when she ended one letter to John with, “He who gave them has surely a right to limit their duration, and He has continued them to me longer than much I deserve. I might have been stripped of my children, as many others have been. I might—oh, forbid it Heaven—I might have been left a solitary widow!”
Undoubtedly, one of the hardest trials of her separation from John came the following year during the particularly bitter winter of 1776. John had just left for another session of Congress when Abigail found out she was pregnant. Sadly, several years earlier, she and John had suffered the loss of a nearly two-year-old daughter. Her death affected John so profoundly that he rarely spoke of her again in his lifetime. Because of the loss, both John and Abigail longed for another daughter. Even though Abigail was excited about the new baby, she was also left to endure the difficulties and uncertainties of the pregnancy alone.
Abigail spent weeks cooped up inside with her children, longing to hear word from John. Along with the harsh winter, shortages of food and other supplies made life even harder. Even John wrote her, “What will become of you, I know not. How you will be able to live is past my comprehension.” Remarkably, Abigail lived as frugally as she could, prayed they would make it through, and even found ways to earn extra money.
Throughout all this, even though she knew it was improbable, she hoped and prayed that John would make it home by July to be there for the birth of their child. Unfortunately, in early July, after a strenuous labor that lasted for days, she delivered a stillborn baby, a girl. This, too, Abigail faced alone. On July 16, 1777, just days after giving birth, she wrote to John:
“Join with me my dearest Friend in Gratitude to Heaven, that a life I know you value, has been spared and carried through distress and danger although the dear Infant is numbered with its ancestors. . . . and which though my sufferings were great, thanks be to Heaven I have been supported through, and would silently submit to its dispensations in the loss of a sweet daughter; it appeared to be a very fine Babe, and as it never opened its eyes in this world it looked as though they were only closed for sleep.”
Despite her anguish, Abigail clung to her faith and found ways to be grateful. This remarkable persistence allowed her to eventually write to John, “I have so much cause for thankfulness amidst my sorrow, that I would not entertain a repining thought. …So short sighted and so little a way can we look into futurity that we ought patiently to submit to the dispensation of Heaven.”
A year later, John was asked to live in Paris as an ambassador to help garner French support for the revolution. This time, Abigail went years without seeing him. Though she wanted to go with him, the risk of being captured by the British was too great. They continued their ever-faithful correspondence, but often their letters were lost at sea or took months to arrive. In fact, she did not even receive confirmation of her husband’s safe arrival in France until months after he got there.
Despite her anxiety over their longest separation yet, Abigail continued to hold strong and have faith even when she admitted that “this is a painful situation and my patience is nearly exhausted.”
John, knowing all his wife had sacrificed for him and for the good of the country, wrote Abigail of her amazing example of faith and courage:
“It gives me more pleasure than I can express to learn that you sustain with so much fortitude, the shocks and terrors of the time. You are really brave, my dear, you are a heroine. And you have reason to be. For the worst that can happen, can do you no harm.”
Abigail endured this last separation from John until the end of the war, five years later. She then made the long trek across the Atlantic to France and began a new chapter in her life—one with her husband by her side.
Abigail never stopped doing her part to further causes she believed in, even fighting for women’s rights and speaking out against the evils of slavery. She and John became the first occupants of what is now known as the White House, where she continued her role of advisor to her husband as the second First Lady in America’s history.
Throughout her life, Abigail showed time and time again that some causes are worth the greatest of sacrifices, and that going forward in faith is the only way to truly live. Her life is proof that not only will God strengthen us through our afflictions, but that great challenges mold great leaders.
Small Seed Copy Editor: Megan Grant
John Adams by David McCullough
Brittany candrian richman
Brittany served in the speechwriting office of President George W. Bush at the White House. She was also a Congressional staffer for former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. She and her twin sister started The American Moms, a blog devoted to passing civics and civility onto the next generation. Richman is also passionate about history—our own and our nation’s. She and her husband currently reside in Rapid City, South Dakota with their three children. You can read more about her blog and connect with her at www.theAmericanMoms.com or on Instagram @TheAmericanMoms.