John Adams to Abigail: “We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems.”

I heard this anecdote about Abigail Adams asking her husband John Adams, one of the most influential leaders of the American Revolution, to “Remember the Ladies” from beginning in grade school through college. It’s usually thrown into the lesson plan as a way to say “Oh yeah, and women were there too!” Conveniently, however, the classes were never shown the fascinating letters from which the quote originated.

The famous line “Remember the Ladies” comes from a series of letters regarding the rights of women written by Abigail to John Adams and also to the American revolutionary playwright and writer Mercy Otis Warren, colloquially known back then as “the conscience of the American revolution.”

The letters depict Abigail saying to John that if women’s rights are not established in the new republic that women would rebel.  In response John states that he “cannot but laugh” at the notion, and that Men wouldn’t “repeal” their own dominance.  Abigail then writes to Mercy Otis Warren and back to John, frustrated at his anxiety for women’s rights, and saying that women would not tolerate their oppression and reminds John that women are just as capable of overthrowing the tyranny of men as they are of overthrowing the tyranny of England.

It’s particularly appropriate to read this right now during such a heavy assault on women’s rights across the country by new Tea Party congresspeople and state governments.  It really illustrates how little conservative politics have evolved over the last 230+ years.

I’ve included the full letters below, along with some comments and interpretation.

Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31, 1776

I long to hear that you have declared an independancy [sic]-and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I would desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could. 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 Representation.

That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend. Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in immitation of the Supreem Being make use of that power only for our happiness.

Here Abigail is telling John pretty straightforward that women wouldn’t stand for oppression in a new republic.  She explains after that men shouldn’t have any legal authority that can be used against women and that women should be treated as equals in society.

John Adams to Abigail Adams, April 14, 1776

As to Declarations of Independency, be patient. Read our Privateering Laws, and our Commercial Laws. What signifies a Word.

As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient-that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent -that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented. This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I wont blot it out.

Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems. Altho they are in full Force, you know they are little more than Theory. We dare not exert our Power in its full Latitude. We are obliged to go fair, and softly, and in Practice you know We are the subjects. We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would compleatly subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat, I hope General Washington, and all our brave Heroes would fight.

My interpretation: “Ha! Boy, did we open a can of worms or what? We rebel against England, and all of the sudden everybody’s gettin’ all riled up. Kids are acting crazy, students are causing a ruckus, and you know, I even heard that the Indians and slaves are acting up! But this is the first I ever heard of women causing some trouble. Boy, you are just so saucy!

We can’t just give women equal rights!  Think about it, you’ll just turn around and use them against us. Besides, everybody knows that we’re not really the ones in charge. Women are the ones who really pull the strings.”

This has the sound of something that could’ve been written last week, or read by some reactionary bastard on talk radio.

Abigail Adams to Mercy Otis Warren, April 27, 1776

He is very saucy to me in return for a List of Female Grievances which I transmitted to him. I think I will get you to join me in a petition to Congress. I thought it was very probable our wise Statesmen would erect a New Government and form a new code of Laws. I ventured to speak a word on behalf of our Sex, who are rather hardly dealte with by the Laws of England which gives such unlimited power to the Husband to use his wife Ill.

I requested that our Legislators would consider our case and as all Men of Delicacy and Sentiment are adverse to Exercising the power they possess, yet as there is a natural propensity in Human Nature to domination, I thought the most generous plan was to put it out of the power of the Arbitrary and tyranick to injure us with impunity by Establishing some Laws in favour upon just and Liberal principals.

I believe I even threatened fomenting a Rebellion in case we were not considered and assured him we would not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we had neither a voice nor representation.

In return he tells me he cannot but Laugh at my extraordinary Code of Laws. That he had heard their Struggle had loosened the bands of Government, that children and apprentices were disobedient, that Schools and Colleges had grown turbulent, that Indians slighted their Guardians, and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But my Letter was the first intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerful than all the rest were grown discontented. This is rather too coarse a complement, he adds, but that I am so saucy he wont blot it out.

So I have helped the Sex abundantly, but I will tell him I have only been making trial of the Disinterestedness of his Virtue, and when weigh’d in the balance have found it wanting.

It would be bad policy to grant us greater power say they since under all the disadvantages we Labour we have the ascendency over their Hearts.

My interpretation again: “That fucker didn’t take me seriously for a second. And what about this ‘we’re really the ones in charge’ crap. Yeah right. I think we gotta step it up a bit and write a petition to Congress.”

Abigail Adams to John Adams, May 7, 1776

I can not say that I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives. But you must remember that Arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken and notwithstanding all your wise Laws and Maxims we have it in our power not only to free our selves but to subdue our Masters, and without violence throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet.

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5 Responses to John Adams to Abigail: “We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems.”

  1. Avis says:

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  2. I have also drawn attention to this important and historically trivialized exchange between Abigail and John Adams. In my comments (, I have focused on her words (“In your new code of laws…put it out of the power of the vicious and lawless to use us [women as a class] with cruelty and indignity with impunity” that amount to a clear demand for a constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the law for women and John’s equally clear refusal “Depend on it., we know better than to repeal.our Masculine Systems.” All of the rest of what she says merely shows that she knows how to talk to John, using the a tone of arch raillery appropriate to drawing room conversation. Despite that, her words above stung her lawyer husband to make his insulting but serious reply. Although her anger is clear in her letter to Mercy Otis Warren, she sadly closes with two lines that sound like a quote from Alexander Pope and are just as much a status quo-affirming falsehood as John’s “We are masters in name only.” She reminds Mercy that “We charm by accepting, by submitting sway, Yet have our humor most when we obey.” It’s worth noting, by the way, the letter that John wrote at the same time ((1776) to a Mr. Sullivan, explaining his view that only men with property should have the vote and warning of the dire consequences that would follow allowing men who hadn’t a farthing and others “whose interests are attached to those of another” e.g. boys and women to vote. It would destroy all ranks, he argues, “and reduce all to one common level.”
    Which is exactly what every school child is taught about the great American democracy in which all are ostensibly equal.

    In sum, I appreciate your attention to these important letters, and I agree with your analysis of them as far as you went but I must add that Abigail Adams’s dignity did not deserve your out-of-character use of the F word in summarizing the meaning of her remarkable statement.

  3. Pingback: What Would You Do? | Liars, Scolds, and Zealots

  4. Pingback: What Would You Do? | Dragon in the Desert

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