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December 13, 2009

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Remarkable lady with 'moxie'

BEST known for reminding her husband, John, and his fellow revolutionaries in 1776 to "remember the ladies," Abigail Adams made a far more rebellious statement 40 years later. At age 71, she wrote her will, ignoring the fact that the document had no legal standing whatsoever. Since husbands at that time controlled family property, she technically had nothing to bequeath.

That Adams went ahead anyway testified to both her feistiness and her faith in John, whom she trusted to carry out her wishes. If this famous partnership could never quite be a union of equals given women's subordinate legal status, it came as close as any of its time. Indeed, the woman featured in Woody Holton's lively biography, "Abigail Adams," often emerges as the dominant partner, just as confident in her own good judgment as John Adams notoriously was in his.

Born in 1744 into a parson's family, Abigail Smith early on displayed the "giddy" personality that first repelled but eventually captivated her future husband. With their marriage in 1764, the new Mrs Adams should dutifully have submitted to the authority of her spouse. But these were no ordinary times. The same revolution that soon absorbed John Adams's considerable energies simultaneously liberated Abigail Adams' powerful desire for self-assertion.

The war with Britain, by taking John far from home for years at a time on political and diplomatic missions, made all the difference. His absence may not have made Abigail's heart grow fonder - they were already immensely fond of each other - but it clearly allowed her will to grow stronger.

Left behind to manage the family's finances, she arguably did a better job than John would have. Sometimes ignoring his advice to invest in land, she purchased public securities and sold imported goods that John shipped from Europe. Though her uncle usually acted as her trustee in these transactions, there was no doubt who was in charge or that Abigail viewed at least some of the proceeds as her own money.

Habits of mind and action honed during the Revolution proved remarkably durable. As this book makes abundantly clear, the wife of America's first ambassador to Britain and second president rarely hesitated to express her views.

That 1816 will, composed two years before her death, was one more thrust in Abigail Adams' lifelong duel with the gender conventions of her time. Virtually all her personal bequests went to female relatives.

The invigorating impact of the Revolution on Adams' personality and actions is unmistakable. Holton, a professor of history at the University of Richmond, provides a fresh perspective that invites readers to do more than just remember this remarkable lady.

They will admire her moxie and wish that the young Republic could have harnessed the talents and energies of women like her right from the start.


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