Weymouth’s Own: Abigail Adams and Her "Dearest Friend"

By Dorothy Malcolm

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Article first appeared in “The Boston-South Summertime Guide—2003,”
CNC/Herald Media Publisher, Boston

No other president’s wife, with the possible exception of Eleanor Roosevelt and a handful of others, can match the patriotism, self-sacrifice and fundamental nerve it takes to be a memorable First Lady—and it’s doubtful many can touch the likes of Abigail Smith Adams.

Wife of our second president and mother of our sixth, she managed to hold a husband, a son, a family, indeed a nation together during the worst and best of times. Our second First Lady of the Land was the first to inhabit the White House and the first to actually guide and participate in the first nationwide celebration we call the Fourth of July. But Abigail is probably best remembered, in the collective minds of mainstream America as a prolific writer of letters on romantic love and matters of great importance to her: politics, family, education and everyday life in the early days of our country.

Most South Shore residents are no strangers to Abigail Smith’s birthplace in Weymouth, at the junction of Norton and North Streets. It is the actual house in which she was born, raised, educated and married to John Adams in. She was the daughter of an intellectual country vicar and an affable mother, the Rev. William and Elizabeth (nee Quincy) Smith. Abigail’s extraordinary life started similar to other girls of the 18th century. Born in 1744, she and her family busied themselves in the tasks and routines of life in a busy parsonage. The Smith daughters craved intellectual companionship and their parents were enlightened enough to encourage the education of their daughters, not exactly a priority for young New England girls of the time. In fact, the Smith children had easy access to their father’s and grandparent’s libraries, which they consumed repeatedly.

The Smith Parsonage, the little gray house with red trim that stands today was built in 1685. It was known originally as the Torrey Mansion—considered a mansion then, despite its humble appearance today. Clues to the manorial distinction are the 10-foot high ceilings that accommodate the tall windows; in colonial times, glass was heavily taxed and a house with plenty of windows was a symbol of status. Add to that the prestige of 18th-century clergy, and Abigail’s father a Harvard graduate.

To observe the house today, architecturally, it’s a simple, two-story Gambrel, a cottage more than a mansion. Yet the house was larger when Abigail lived there. An ell had been built onto the original structure and there was a productive farm so food and victuals were most likely abundant for entertaining the Parson’s endless guests, parishioners, students and political activists. The Smith children enjoyed a bustling, intellectually thriving household. Despite her parents’ broadminded respect for female learning, for the rest of her life Abigail was painfully aware of the deficiency in her formal education because of the era she had been born into. She was a voracious reader and probably picked the brains of every scholar who came across her Weymouth threshold. One of those intellectuals would become her husband, John Adams of Braintree. She wrote:

"My Dearest Friend,
You need not be told how much female education is neglected, nor how fashionable it has been to ridicule Female learning…I most sincerely wish that some more liberal plan might be laid and executed for the Benefit of the rising Generation, and that our new constitution may be distinguished for Learning and Virtue. If we mean to have Heroes, Statesmen, and philosophers, we should have learned women."
Abigail to John, circa 1777

However, when John Adams first met Abigail Smith, she wasn’t yet the shrewd, enlightened and substantial person she was to become. He referred to her and her sisters as “wits,” sure enough, but found them much too aloof and detached. Two years later, they met again and John was captivated by the curious intellectual and political animal Abigail had become. In softening the bookish side of her character, he also found her “Prudent, modest, delicate, soft, sensible, obliging, active,” and referred to her as his “Adorable.” Likewise, she saluted him with, “My dearest friend.” It was a match, romantics and scholars believe, made in heaven. They were soulmates with an almost reverential symbiosis that has rivaled the best of romantic unions throughout history. Few can touch them.

John always credited his wife with wisdom and devotion regarding his judgment and stamina to sustain himself and stay-the-course while molding the 13 colonies into a new nation—and she clearly adored him for that. He called her his “fellow labourer” when they weathered repeated and desperately-long separations, and she adored him for that accolade. He once wrote to her: "I never wanted your Advice and assistance more in my life." Abigail never failed him:

“My Dearest Friend,
By yesterday’s post I received two letters dated 3 and 4 of July [1776]…was greatly heightened by the prospect of the future happiness and glory of our Country; nor am I a little Gratified when I reflect that a person so nearly connected with me has had the Honour of being a principal actor, in laying a foundation for its future Greatness…Difficult as the Day is, cruel as this War has been, separated as I am on account of it from the dearest connextion in my life, I would not exchange my country for the Wealth of the Indies, or be any other than an American."
Abigail to John, 1776

Abigail and John’s marriage produced five children, four of whom survived to adulthood. While she oversaw events on the farm in Braintree, John stayed on in Philadelphia and later in Washington. During these separations, she and her sisters often visited their parents at the Smith Parsonage and no doubt, a young John Quincy Adams was no stranger to his grandparents’ Weymouth home.

Rev. Smith’s house stayed in the family until the first half of the 1800s but eventually it fell into disrepair. In 1853, the house was unearthed and physically transported to the town’s Bicknell Square area on Bridge Street (Route 3A) to a location that was used, for many years to house migrant farm workers. It eventually fell into further disrepair and by the end of World War II, government housing was built there to accommodate returning veterans from the war. The derelict Smith house had to go, along with all the other neglected period homes in the area.

Local crusaders to the rescue

In 1947, at the same time the homes around Bicknell Square were to be razed, a handful of local citizens formed an association to save Abigail’s birthplace. The group, spearheaded by Weymouth resident Amy Hill Duncan succeeded against difficult odds, especially financial. Completely volunteer-based, this stoic and single-minded group of local patriot-historians formed the Abigail Adams Historical Society (AAHS) and virtually stormed the gates of town hall to keep the bulldozers from razing Abigail’s house. They perceived it as not merely an historical birthplace—but as a birthright to the nation, to posterity, indeed to Weymouth. This band of crusaders convinced the town that the house needed to be saved and the town sold them a triangular parcel of land at the corner of Norton and North Streets—for $1.

During the years the birthplace had been uprooted and languished in Bicknell Square, the original site of the parsonage had another house built on the ancestral plot of land. By 1947, this house too, was a vintage piece of property and razing it in order to “reset” the Smith house in its exact, nascent spot would have been imprudent. That house still stands—as does Abigail’s—but just a stone’s throw from its original spot.

Weymouth’s resolute revivalists, those founders of AAHS managed to get a construction crew to, literally cut the birthplace house in half, right down the middle, hoist it onto the back of a flatbed truck and haul each half of the house the mile or so from Route 3A to the corner triangle of Norton and North. Not only was it a feat of engineering, but a spectacle worthy of a parade float gingerly winding its snail’s pace through back streets from Bicknell Square. Once the two halves were there, the worker-volunteers essentially “sewed” the halves together. Even today, the seam is virtually imperceptible.

Stepping inside the parsonage is the parlor where guests were received and where Rev. Smith officiated at the marriage of his daughter Abigail to John Adams. Abigail’s bedroom, when standing directly in front of the house, is upstairs on the left side, and is open to visitors. The Susannah Tufts Chapter of the DAR graciously has furnished Abigail’s bedroom.

Included among the treasures of the house is the cradle Abigail used to rock her babies to sleep (by way of the Adams birthplace in Quincy—via the Pratt family of Weymouth who donated it to AAHS). There’s a lace hanky belonging to John Quincy’s wife, Louisa Catherine Adams as well as a small piece of brown silk from one of Abigail’s gowns and a swatch of crimson fabric from a cape John Adams wore. The furnishings are all original to the period with exceptional pieces of antique furniture and works of decorative art.

According to Ginny Karlis, president of the Abigail Adams Historical Society, “It took 11 years to raise $50,000 and as many years of sweat equity by volunteers to finish the restoration of the house when it opened to the public in 1958. And yes, the house was originally gray with crimson-like trim when Abigail lived there. There is currently a large fund raiser going on now to replace the roof and hoping it will go on this spring before summer begins and the tourists come to visit,” said Karlis.

Karlis also paid homage to David McCullough and his bestselling book, “John Adams,” who graciously spoke to the AAHS.

“David McCollough’s presentation was instrumental in raising additional funds to keep the house going. We were very fortunate to have him and he showed a real interest, concern and sensitivity toward Abigail’s homestead,” she added.

The Abigail Adams Historical Society is maintained, protected, and tours conducted by a handful of resourceful volunteers who are steeped in the history and love story of Abigail Smith Adams and her statesman husband, our second president.

“The society always welcomes new members, interested volunteers and donations as we are in no way connected to any federal, state, park service or civic agency for assistance. We’re on our own,” Karlis said.

Indeed they do stand alone, and yet they soldier-on; in this inflated day and age, it is no mean task. Each year the AAHS organizes a Spring Plant and White Elephant Sale to help defray the costs of running an historical site. This year, the sale will be held Saturday, May 17 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the grounds of the birthplace at Norton and North Streets, Weymouth.

Remembering the ladies…the First Ladies

One of the most significantly-historic features of the house is Abigail’s hearth. Upon rebuilding the fireplace in her bedroom during the 11-year restoration, the society sent letters to the still-living First Ladies and asked each of them to donate a brick from their own houses to help rebuild Abigail’s hearth. Grace Coolidge, Edith Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt and Bess Truman each donated a brick from their own homes or birthplaces to help restore Abigail’s hearth—not a bad way to remember the ladies, albeit First Ladies.

“My Dearest Friend,
In the new Code of Laws…I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors…If particular care and attention is not paid to the Laidies, we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or Representation.”
Abigail to John, 1776

Along with the former First Ladies’ bricks in Abigail’s bedroom, there’s something for everyone to enjoy at the Abigail Adams birthplace. There’s a “Colonial Life” program each spring for school children. For restoration and construction buffs, there’s the hole in the wall of Rev. Smith’s library where the house’s “bones” are revealed with its original timber and horsehair insulation exposed. Families doing the “colonial tour” of the South Shore come to visit as well as people who simply hold fast to the principles of historic preservation. Most visitors, however, are the romantics at heart and visit because of the love affair between two extraordinary people, the development of a mutual esteem and desire for each other that lasted 54 years — a factor in our nation’s heritage that all began in Abigail’s parlor.

The Abigail Smith Adams Birthplace is open for public tours by well-versed volunteers, Tuesday through Sunday, July 1 to Labor Day, from 1—4 p.m.; admission is $2. The house is located by traveling on the seacoast road, Route 3A/Bridge Street in North Weymouth, taking a right or left (whether coming from north or south) at the lights by Kelly’s Landing Restaurant (Evans Street) and following that for one mile to Norton and North Streets. For additional information or membership, please call 781-335-4205; and visit them online at www.abigailadams.org.

All material produced and maintained by Dorothy Malcolm dba Verbatim-Ink.   Not to be reproduced without permission.