She was born in Weymouth,
Mass., in 1744 to a minister father and a housewife mother. As was
common during that era, young Abigail did not receive a formal
education. She was relatively well-educated, though, as she spent
many hours in her father's library reading the Bible, history and
philosophy books, essays and poetry, as well as Shakespeare's work.
Smith was her maiden name, but it is her married name by which
you know her. When Abigail was 20, she married a Harvard graduate
who went on to become a lawyer. The couple first lived on her
husband's farm in Braintree, then in the town that became Quincy,
Mass., and later in Boston. They had three sons and two daughters.
Abigail's husband often traveled out of town on business, so the
two of them would keep in touch by writing letters to each other.
Lots and lots of letters. Abigail enjoyed writing letters so much
that she even wrote to the future president of the United States.
Nothing all that unusual about that, really, as thousands of people
write to the president each year. What seems unusual, though, was
that this future president would often write back to her.
In one of her letters during the late 1700s, she wrote, "Do
not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.
Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could."
Abigail Smith might have sounded like a feminist, but she was
more of an activist than a feminist. While she never received a
formal education, she pushed hard to ensure that girls had the same
opportunities in school that boys had. The future president that I
mentioned sought out Abigail's advice on many topics; you see, she
had a major influence on not one but, count 'em, two United States
Abigail was a cousin of John Hancock's wife, on her mother's
side. I won't go into that whole "third cousin, once removed" thing
because nobody seems to understand how that works anyway. I always
thought that being "once removed" referred to the divorced in-law
who is no longer part of the family -- until I heard the term "twice
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Abigail once wrote, "If perticuliar care and attention is not
paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will
not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or
Some of the material that she wrote would later show up in the
Broadway musical "1776," which won a Tony Award and was based on the
events leading to the writing and signing of the Declaration of
Independence. Her family was also the subject of a 1976 PBS
Speaking of the Declaration of Independence, in an odd
coincidence, her husband died on the same day Thomas Jefferson died
-- July 4, 1826 -- which was exactly 50 years after the Declaration
of Independence was adopted.
People say that everything is relative, and the reason Abigail
Smith received letters from a future president was because of her
relations. She married one president and raised another: John Adams,
our nation's second president, was her husband, and John Quincy
Adams, our nation's sixth president, was her son.
Earlier I mentioned that Abigail and her husband lived in Quincy,
Mass. (which served as your first clue), and since I am from Quincy,
Ill., I wondered where the name of Quincy came from. It turns out
that Abigail's mother's maiden name was Quincy. There are at least
11 other towns with the same name in the United States.
Paul Niemann's column is syndicated
to more than 70 newspapers, and he is the author of the "Invention
Mysteries" series of books. He can be reached at
Copyright Paul Niemann 2009