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yeaAndy Boyd 12-2-13 Mead HL 90 Remember The Ladies: Abigail Adams, Domestic Labor, and HBOs John Adams

Throughout the episode of HBOs 2008 John Adams mini-series called simply Independence, the audience is constantly ferried between Johns well-documented push for independence from Britain and Abigail Adams own struggles back in Braintree. We see Abigail, played by the inimitable Laura Linney, scrub floors to prevent the spread of disease, nurse her sick children, and load her musket at the sound of distant gunfire.1 One might reasonably wonder, watching the episode, to which Adams the title refers. Is it political independence, or domestic independence, the ability of America to thrive without Britain or the ability of Abigail to thrive without John, to which the filmmakers seek to draw our attention? This question implies a dichotomy that has fallen into increasing disuse in recent decades, as the neat distinctions between private and public, domestic and political, seem to blur. If indeed the personal is political, than distinguishing between Abigails domestic labor and her political significance makes little sense. The politicization of the personal in feminist scholarship has allowed us to reconsider the role of Abigail Adams within the revolution, and with her the role of women as a whole. How to do this remains an open question. For one school of thought, Abigails domestic work was indirectly political in that it allowed Abigail to influence Johns politics and allowed John to pursue

"Independence." John Adams. Film. Directed by Tom Hooper. New York, N.Y.: HBO Video, 2008.

his political career safe in the knowledge that Abigail could take care of the household at Braintree. Another school, which has developed in the past decade and which is best exemplified by Woody Holtons Bancroft prize-winning Abigail Adams: A Life, argues that her domestic work directly influenced her political views and actions. The film ultimately sides with the latter, more recent trend in historiography by depicting Abigails political opinions and her domestic work as intimately linked to one another. Feminist Intervention in Abigail Adams Scholarship In histories predating the turn towards validating the political import of Abigails domestic work, Abigail is either marginalized or treated as exceptional due to her political interests. Despite drawing heavily on the Adams letters as source material, John T. Morse, Jr. cites only four events from Abigails life in his 1889 John Adams biography. His brief description of their marriage calls it a singularly happy union, but attributes no political significance to Abigails influence over her husband.2 Another historian of the same time emphasizes the profound partnership of the two, writing, there was no one who witnessed his studies with greater interest, or who sympathized with him in the conclusions to which his mind was forcing him, more deeply, than Mrs. Adams.3 This historian also applauded Abigails ability to manage the Adams household during Johns long periods of absence. In some ways it was only natural that he should have such a high opinion of the late first lady. Charles Francis Adams was her grandson. And yet perhaps because of the mystic chords of memory linking Charles to his grandmother, he depicted her sacrifices and accomplishments as

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Morse, John Torrey. John Adams,. [Standard library ed. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1889. 20. Adams, John, Abigail Adams, and Charles Francis Adams. Familiar letters of John Adams and his wife Abigail Adams, during the Revolution: with a memoir of Mrs. Adams. New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1876. xvi.

exceptional. He writes that Abigail is a farmer cultivating the landa merchant reporting prices-currenta politician speculating upon the probabilities of war; and a mother writing the most exalted sentiments of her son, activities which would have been intolerable to most women.4 Charles Adams comes close to recognizing the full significance of his grandmothers activities during the war, but in drawing a contrast between her accomplishments and the timidity of most women, he fell short of fully appreciating the important links between domestic work and political independence. This failure to consider the political significance of Abigails domestic work continued well into the twentieth century. In 1947, Janet Whitney wrote that Abigail was leading two lives by directing house and farm while being preoccupied with pressing questions of independence.5 In 1960, Page Smith allowed himself considerable imaginative license in writing of the Adamses that the early months of marriage are dominated by a feeling of playing house, while admitting that What Abigail felt, the author, being a man, is less confident to say.6 Borrowing emotions from his own twentieth century marriage in order to explain Abigails significance to John apparently seemed to Smith an acceptable imaginative leap; he dedicated his biography to my wife through whom I know what Abigail meant to John. In any event, Smith felt little need to examine the political implications of Abigail Adams in her own time, preferring instead to see her as a foil to John. Starting with the advent of second-wave feminism, scholars began to examine the political significance of Abigail Adams specifically as a woman and a domestic laborer, at first by emphasizing the ways her domestic labor indirectly supported Johns own
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Adams, Charles Francis, Familiar letters of John Adams and his wife Abigail Adams. xix, xxiii. Whitney, Janet. Abigail Adams. [1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1947. 132. 6 Smith, Page. John Adams. [1st ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962.

career. Charles Akers in 1980 bemoaned the fact that the great voices of the European Enlightenmenthad almost never challenged the traditional assumption that women stood outside the political process, but nonetheless emphasized that John considered her an intellectual equal and that Abigail, though denied a public voice, still helped shape the political views of her husband and sons.7 The next year, Lynne Withey wrote that, every step taken (By Abigail and others like her) to reduce dependence on foreign imports was hailed as a contribution to American success in the war.8 In these accounts, Abigails domestic work becomes politicized indirectly in how it supports Johns work and the larger revolutionary cause. Abigail and women more generally become vital support staff to the men on the forefront of political and military struggles. They stop short, however, from depicting this domestic work as itself an inspiration to political thought and action independent of the actions of men. This way of viewing Abigail Adams remains common to this day, though it is a view not without its detractors. More recently, scholars have shown how Abigail Adams domestic work influenced her politics, arguing for a more direct link between the public and private spheres. Scholars like Edith Gelles have argued that Abigails daily sensations included fear, fatigue, and grief particular to her perspective on the war.9 Because she was closer to the siege of Boston than John, Gelles argues, she more immediately felt the need for Congress to support the militias efforts. Gelles argues that Abigails experience dealing with food shortages inspired her view that a barter system of exchange would be advantageous during wartime, that her childhood experience being cared for by a nurse who was a slave ignited her lifelong antislavery stance, and that her knowledge of the
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Akers, Charles W.. Abigail Adams, an American woman. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980. 32-33. Withey, Lynne. Dearest friend: a life of Abigail Adams. New York: Free Press , 1981. 89. 9 Gelles, Edith Belle. Abigail & John: portrait of a marriage. New York: William Morrow, 2009. 71-79.

weighty intellectual and physical requirements of domesticity pushed her to advocate greater equality of the sexes. Woody Holton points to Abigails household management as an important space in which to live out her political convictions, writing, she turned her own household into a laboratory where she imagined what the emancipation of women might look like.10 Both emphasize the important linkages between the domestic and the political. Some scholars, like Rosemarie Zagarri, have extended this logic to revolutionaryera women in general, allowing Abigail to act as spokesperson for the legion of women in similar situations who lacked Abigails gift for the written word (and whose words have been less lovingly preserved by subsequent generations). Zagarri writes that Abigail knew that women understood the principles of the American Revolution and could apply them to their own situation.11 Seen in this light, women like Abigail contributed to the revolution by extending its logic to their own situations, even in ways that would have offended their male counterparts. These scholars are part of a growing movement that seeks to explicitly link Adams outspoken political commitments with her unique perspective as a female domestic laborer, and to politicize this labor not by showing how it supported male efforts to win independence, but by showing how it contributed to the political consciousness of Abigail Adams. HBOs John Adams and the Rift in Adams Scholarship In choosing which events from the lives of John and Abigail Adams to depict in their episode on Independence, the creators of John Adams (principally screenwriter Kirk Ellis and director Tom Hooper), implicitly made arguments about the relative
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Holton, Woody. Abigail Adams: a life. New York: Free Press, 2009. xii. Zagarri, Rosemarie. Revolutionary backlash: women and politics in the early American Republic . Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. 30.

importance of different aspects of their lives. While a historical monograph could provide extensive detail on each development of this crucial period of their lives, the episode was constrained by pressures of narrative and time to be more selective. Furthermore, the filmmakers departed from the historical record in several ways that reveal their concerted effort to portray Adams in a particular way. In crafting their narrative, Hooper and Ellis argue that Abigails domestic work and her political opinions are intimately linked, placing their analysis closer to the emerging group of historians like Holton, Gelles, and Zagarri than to the older portrayal of Abigail as indirectly supporting independence through supporting her husbands work. The episode depicts Abigail influencing the political struggles around independence by acting as an intellectual companion to her husband. After the battles of Lexington and Concord, John describes in vivid detail the sight of poor country boys fighting the British, Abigail suggests that he say that to the Congress and move them through sentiment rather than through rigid argumentation, which later in the episode is exactly what he does in his final speech before the vote on independence.12 This is a deliberate choice the filmmakers make to show the influence Abigail had on Adams. In reality, his speech lasted more than two hours and reiterated the entire history of British abuses of Americans.13 It was far from the pithy, sentimental speech the film depicts and that it depicts Abigail suggesting. In exaggerating Abigails influence on Johns actions, the film implicitly valorizes Abigails own political commitments and demonstrates a desire to portray her political influence as crucial to the struggle for independence.

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"Independence." John Adams. Film. Directed by Tom Hooper. New York, N.Y.: HBO Video, 2008. Gelles, Edith Belle. Abigail & John: portrait of a marriage. New York: William Morrow, 2009. 85.

However, the episode also shows Abigail developing a political standpoint that sometimes differs from her husband and that is deeply informed by her experience as a domestic laborer and a woman. In one scene roughly thirty minutes into the episode, Abigail scolds John for implying her actions are apolitical. When John tells her that independence is not a question of men and women but rather a question of politics, Abigail responds Politics! And do women not live politics, John Adams? When I go to the cupboard and I find no coffee, no sugar, no pins, no meat, am I not living politics? This war touches people that your congress treats with the same contempt that King George reserves for the people of Boston. I mean women, and slaves, for that matter. In this monologue, Abigail implies both that domestic labor is inherently political and that this perspective can lead to forms of political thought that are considerably more radical than those of the male revolutionaries. It implies that the suffering of women, rather than a noble sacrifice on behalf of men, is actually a symptom of mens hypocritical oppression of women. Instead of an indirect political contribution by women, scarcity becomes a spur towards political activism against patriarchal structures of authority. While this dialogue is of course invented, it does have precedence in the historical Abigails own writings, in which she described slavery as daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.14 The hypocrisy of maintaining slavery during a fight for independence appears to both the historical Abigail and the character in the episode as particularly hypocritical from her perspective as a

Holton, Woody. Abigail Adams: a life. New York: Free Press, 2009. 71.

woman. There is another historical parallel to this monologue in Abigails famous remember the ladies letter to John, in which she exhorts him to create laws that to no treat women only as the vassals of your Sex.15 Vassals was not quite slaves, but it was close enough to be provocative, close enough to turn the radically libertarian and egalitarian ideals of the revolutionary men against them. It was also this letter that included one of Abigails harshest barbs towards southern slave owners, questioning whether such hypocrites could be reliable allies in the fight for independence. This aspect of Abigail Adams, how her identity as a woman and specifically as someone engaged in what was considered the work of women affected her politics, had long been ignored or minimized by historical scholarship. In the Independence episode, as in more recent scholarly works, the intimate link between Abigail as domestic laborer and Abigail as political thinker come to the fore. The film also depicts Abigail directly lobbying George Washington on the issue of slavery, though in its zeal to show the independence of Abigails political mind it somewhat stretches historical fact. About an hour into the film, Abigail asks Washington if the sufferings of the Continental Army might be punishment for the sin of slavery, at which point the stoic Washington laughs and intones I cannot say before cutting short their conversation.16 This in fact was Abigails opinion, one expressed to John in a letter from October of 1775.17 It is however unlikely that she would have expressed such an opinion to a man like Washington. Meeting him earlier in the summer, Adams remarked
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Holton, Woody. Abigail Adams: a life. New York: Free Press, 2009. 101. "Independence." John Adams. Film. Directed by Tom Hooper. New York, N.Y.: HBO Video, 2008. 17 Adams, Abigail. "Adams Electronic Archive : Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams , 25 October 1775." Adams Electronic Archive : Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams , 25 October 1775. e=all&hi=on&mode=&query=befall%20a%20city%20and%20a%20people&queryid=&rec=1 &start=1&tag=text#firstmatch (accessed December 3, 2013).

that, the Gentleman and Soldier look agreably blended in him and described their visit as altogether pleasant.18 If she thought Washington hypocritical, which she likely did, she did not tell him so. The film thus makes Abigails opinion on slavery not a private sentiment but a public declaration, lobbied at the revolutions most powerful slave owner. It depicts Abigail, not entirely accurately, as someone whose domestic labor inspired her to voice her political opinions even when doing so would be socially uncomfortable. This union of domestic and political activity is neatly symbolized in the films final scene, in which Abigail reads the Declaration of Independence to her children. This scene shifts from public readings of the Declaration to her own private one, delivered to three children in her home. The scene is remarkable because we actually do know that Abigail attended one of these public readings without her children.19 If the filmmakers had depicted this historical event, the scene would have read as an interruption of the domestic into the public, political sphere. It would have suggested that women become political only through entering the world of men. As depicted in the film, the home itself becomes politicized. Through juxtaposing Abigails recitation of the Declaration with the public one, the film equates the two, implying that Abigails particular perspective is just as important as Johns more official one, but insisting also on their separation. The specific words Abigail recites are important as well: she picks up the recitation at In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms. In placing these words in Abigails voice, the film makes Abigail part of the we in question. Her petitions, principally her support of the rights of women and

Adams, Abigail. "Adams Electronic Archive : Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams , 16 July 1775." Adams Electronic Archive : Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams , 16 July 1775. (accessed December 3, 2013). 19 Holton, Woody. Abigail Adams: a life. New York: Free Press, 2009. 111.

slaves, become as central to the revolutionary project as the formal petitions to the king. The scene calls to mind Abigails earlier comparison of the oppression of women by men to the oppression of the states by Britain. In her recitation, the meaning of independence is hereby questioned, with the implication being that latent in the logic of revolution are the more radical claims of Abigail Adams. In this as in the other scenes, the filmmakers force us to imagine Abigail Adams as someone whose particular perspective as a woman and a domestic laborer profoundly affected her political views. This is not to say that the version of Abigail Adams that the HBO film portrays in entirely accurate. As we have seen, it takes significant departures from the historical record. However, these departures give the audience a picture of Abigail Adams as a person that is more in line with the most recent school of thought than with the older one. If the film is sometimes wrong, it is wrong for the right reasons. After all, much of what we know of Abigail comes from letters, which translate poorly to film. She becomes, partially by the pressures of the medium, more vocal, less epistolary, more public, less personal. In making these choices, the filmmakers created a character whose political commitments carry real weight. She is forceful and insistent, largely because her politics are deeply rooted in her own lived experience. This characterization rejects the earlier idea that Abigail is best remembered as Johns confidant and support, her political import always mediated by his decisions. It embraces the new way of seeing Abigail as someone with a distinctly female and domestic take on the revolution, someone whose politics were personal and whose personal concerns became political. The film, perhaps especially when it departs from the historical record, exemplifies an emerging view of Abigail Adams as someone in whom domesticity and political thought were inseparable.