Based largely on the book of the same name, the blog is a kind of trailer for it and the primary source material it contains. An invitation, you might say … to eavesdrop on the lives of women writing 250 years ago … to become acquainted with 144 little-known but amazingly articulate chroniclers … and to discover a valuable new perspective on the Revolutionary Era.

The women featured lived between 1765 and 1799. But once you attune your ears to their way of writing, their voices easily leapfrog across the centuries. Read just a few sentences and you’ll find yourself back in time, entering their concerns, sharing their feelings. And what they have to say is always fascinating, often eye-opening, sometimes heart-rending.

Please bookmark the blog and visit regularly to see which writers and issues are being featured. There are two new posts weekly: on Monday and Thursday. And do explore those related to the many topics listed on the right. In addition to posts based on the book, others introduce the writings of women who didn’t make it into the book or who turn up as a result of ongoing research. To subscribe via email, click here. Leave a comment. Email a question. And enjoy your visits.

“Upwards of a hundred Ladies . . . all in mourning”

George Washington died at Mount Vernon on December 14, 1799. John Adams was president and Abigail was first lady. Philadelphia was still the capital of the United States, with the city of Washington to have that honor in 1800. Abigail Adams wrote to her sister Mary Cranch on December 30 describing a gathering she had hosted the previous week.

Last frydays drawing Room was the most crowded of any I ever had. Upwards of a hundred Ladies, and near as many Gentlemen attended, all in mourning. The Ladies Grief did not deprive them of taste in
ornamenting their white dresses: 2 yds of Black mode in length, of the narrow kind pleated upon one shoulder, crossd the Back in the form of a Military sash tyed at the side, crosd the peticoat & hung to the bottom of it, were worn by many. Others wore black Epulets of Black silk trimd with fring[e] upon each shoulder, black Ribbon in points upon the Gown & coat some plain Ribbon, some black Snail*. Their caps were crape with black plumes or black flowers. Black Gloves & fans. The Gentlemen all in Black. The Ladies many of them wanted me to fix the time for wearing mourning, but I declined, and left them to Govern themselves by the periods prescribed by the Gentlemen. The assembly Room is burnt down, and they have not any place to display their gay attire but the drawing Room and private parties, and as they expect it will be the last winter they will have the opportunity, they intended shining.

* obsolete for chenille

Women in mourning at this time typically wore white.

The letter can be found in the New Letters of Abigail Adams 1788-1801, edited with an Introduction by Stewart Mitchell (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1947) on page 244. The online version is courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, copyright 1947. The illustration can be seen here.

posted October 23rd, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Abigail Adams, Clothes, Fashion, George Washington, Philadelphia

“Letters written in the domestic intercourse of families”

Breaking my own guidelines for this blog, which usually consists of the writings of women from the years 1765 to 1799, today’s post includes some lines written by John Quincy Adams after reading some of his sister Nabby’s correspondence in 1841. (She died in of breast cancer in 1813.) I do think he expresses well how family correspondence conveys the spirit of the writers and the times in which they lived.

Letters written in the domestic intercourse of families are necessarily much diversified as to the subjects upon which they are written, as to the circumstances to which they relate, to the incidents which they record, and to the state of mind, of health, and of temper with which they are composed. Strangers or even members of the family of the writer, who after a lapse of years, read several of them in immediate succession, can scarcely enter into the spirit with which they are animated, but by reading a few of them at once and by alternately laying by and taking [them] up again.

Paul C. Nagel The Adams Women: Abigail and Louisa Adams, Their Sisters and Daughters (Oxford University Press: New York, 1987), p 300. The engraving of John Quincy Adams is from the 1869 $500 series of U.S. currency.

posted October 20th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Abigail "Nabby" Adams Smith, Health, John Quincy Adams, Letter-writing

A “forlorn stranger”

In October of 1795 John Quincy Adams was called to London from the Hague, where he was the United States minister, to exchange ratifications of the Jay Treaty. Unbeknownst to him this had already been done before he arrived. In London, however, he met Louisa Catherine Johnson and became a frequent guest at the family home. In Record of a Life Louisa described their meeting and courtship. “Time flew on its lightest pinions and I looked not beyond the hour.—I rattled and laugh’d then heedless of harm and never dreamt of change—Matters went on thus for two or three months. . . . ” Finally, persuaded that he was wooing her, Louisa agreed to an engagement which was announced on February 12, 1796. Louisa goes on to describe an incident that revealed what an odd and difficult man John Quincy was and, indeed, remained throughout their marriage.

In the Spring we made a party to go to Ranelagh [a pleasure garden] and Mr. Adams was to accompany us.— I had jokingly told him that if he went with us he must dress himself handsomely and look as dashy as possible—not aware that on this subject he was very sore. . . . The night previous to the party he took leave very coldly and desired if we went we should call for him at the Adelphi [Hotel] on our way. . . . Accordingly we took him up . . . and I obser’d immediately that he was very handsomely dressed. . . . As I had dressed myself very becomingly . . . we drove off in high spirits. . . . On entering the Rotunda our party naturally separated and Mr A offered me his arm and while we were strolling round the room I complimented him upon his appearance at which he immediately took fire, and assured me that his wife must never take the liberty of interfering in those particulars, and assumed a tone so high and lofty and made so serious a grievance of the affair, that I felt offended and told him I resign’d all pretensions to his hand, and left him as free as air to choose a Lady who would be more discreet. I then drop’d his arm and join’d my mother with whom I staid the remainder of the evening—

On our way home apologies were made and accepted but if lovers quarrels are a renewal of love they also leave a sting behind which however apparently healed reopens on every trivial occasion; and the smart frequently felt inspires the mind with a secret and unknown dread of something hidden beneath the rosy wreath of love from which we would in vain turn our thoughts; but which like the faint sunbeams through a dense fog only produce a momentary gleam of light to make the darkness which surrounds us still more impenetrable.

For several months John Quincy refused to set a wedding date, claiming insufficient funds. He returned to Holland and recommended that during his absence Louisa should “attend to the improvement of my mind and laid down a course of study for me until we met, which might be in one year or in seven.” Eventually the two married in 1797 although John Quincy’s mother Abigail did not approve.

Upon finally meeting her husband’s family in 1801 in Quincy, Louisa described her reaction. “Had I step[p]ed into Noah’s Ark, I do not think I would have been more utterly astonished. . . . Do what I would there was a conviction on the part of the others that I could not suit.” She was made to feel “a maudlin, hysterical fine lady not fit to be John Quincy Adams’ wife.” Her mother-in-law, she felt, “was in every point of view a superior Woman . . . the equal of every occasion in life.” She “forms a most striking contrast to poor me.” This “forlorn stranger,” as Louisa described herself, eventually managed to earn the affection of her father-in-law John Adams and was a great comfort to him in his old age.

This source was consulted for biographical details and events in Louisa’s later life. Her own impressions are from A Traveled First Lady: Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams edited by Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), pages 23-28. Her portrait as First Lady is by Charles Bird King (between 1821 and 1825) and is in The Granger Collection.

posted October 16th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Abigail Adams, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Louisa Catherine Adams

“A small neat looking man”

In Record of a Life, Louisa Catherine Johnson, soon to be the wife of John Quincy Adams, describes a visit her father received in London in 1795 when he was the American consul.

It was about this time that a Gentleman called on my father a small neat looking man in a very handsome chariot with livery Servants &ce. He walked into the Office entered into conversation very agreeably and then presented some papers to my father which concerned some American business to be done before the Consul—My father returned the papers for signature and stood to see the name when to his utter surprize he discovered that it was the Traitor [Benedict] Arnold, and he deliberately took up the pen with the Tongs and put it into the fire—The gentleman sneaked off endeavouring not to notice the act—This trait will give you real insight into your Grandfathers character—He was a perfect Gentleman in his manners and universally respected—the American Sailors adored him and his house was their refuge on all occasions—Noble in his sentiments; noble in his Acts; he was ever ready to defend the unfortunate, and his temper was so open and confiding he soon became the victim of fraud and conspiracy.

Here Louisa is full of praise for her father whom she dearly loved; he was soon to lose his fortune and, incidentally, his ability to pay her promised dowry.

The passage is from A Traveled First Lady: Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams edited by Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), pages 22-23. The miniature of Benedict Arnold is by Du Simitiere, c. 1779.

posted October 13th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Benedict Arnold, Louisa Catherine Adams

“too good a joke to lose”

In 1794, President George Washington sent John Jay to England to negotiate a treaty dealing with issues that had arisen relating to the Peace Treaty of 1783. Concluded in November of 1794, the Jay Treaty, as it was called, did not resolve all of the problems in a satisfactory manner, but it prevented another war between Britain and the United States that had seemed imminent. John Jay, his nephew Peter Jay Munro, and his secretary John Trumbull remained in London until the spring of 1795.

About this time John Quincy Adams, with his brother Thomas Boylston, arrived in London en route to a diplomatic assignment in the Hague. The Adams brothers and the Jays met at the Johnsons several times. Louisa described details of a particular visit to her children in “Record of a Life”.

Mr. Jay . . . came to England and while he was there Mr. Adams [JQA] and his Brother Tom arrived in London on their way to Holland. . . . Mr. Jay and your father and Uncle were invited to dine with us . . . they were asked on account of the former acquaintance of the two families when your Grandfather [John Adams] was Minister in England—Your father was engaged; but your Uncle dined with us and so far were we from dreaming of a future connection in the family that from some strange fancy my Sister Nancy nick named your Uncle Abel and of course the brother whom we had never seen was called Cain. I mention this merely to show how little idea or desire there was in the family to plot or plan a marriage between the families—I also had a nick name in consequence of my habit of warning my Sisters if any thing was likely to go wrong; they called me Cassandra because they seldom listened to me until the mischief was done. . . .

Colonel John Trumbull visited the Johnsons frequently and his favorite among the sisters was Louisa. She remarked that “he said he wished he was a young man for then he should certainly pay his addresses to me; and this was the utmost that ever passed between us that could be tortured into love or what we fashionably term a belle Passion.” Louisa goes on to describe an amusing incident that took place at a friend’s house.

In consequence of our being at Mrs. Church’s the first Evening that Mr. Jay and his son [really Jay's nephew, Peter Jay Munro] and the Col was introduced he also bore another name among us Girls—The Servant a frenchman announcing them as Mr Pétéràjay and Col Terrible—you may suppose this was too good a joke to lose and it attached itself to them as long as they remained in England.

The information and quoted passages are from A Traveled First Lady: Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams edited by Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), pages 21-22. The portrait of John Jay is by an unknown artist after a painting by Gilbert Stuart, courtesy of the John Jay Homestead State Historic Site. Gilbert Stuart painted the portrait of John Trumbull in 1818. It is at the Yale University Art Gallery.

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