Remembering the lady, Abigail Adams, at the Morristown library


By Robyn Quinn

The third time was the charm for Kim Hanley and her first-person interpretation of Great Women in History.

Kim originally was scheduled to present An Evening with Abigail Adams in June 2010, but an explosion in May closed the Morristown & Township Library for eight months.

The event was rescheduled for November 2012. But before Abigail, a.k.a. Kim, could arrive, Morristown was visited by another force of nature, Hurricane Sandy.

Not to be deterred, Kim finally delivered her one-woman show last Friday.

Kim spent a dozen years preparing for the role, as a member of the American Historical Theatre in Philadelphia. She specializes in portraying women who have been so vital to our nation’s history: Betsy Ross, Annie Oakley, Molly Pitcher, Lucretia Mott, Grace Coolidge, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, and Abigail Adams. Pitching their stories from their own perspectives, Kim never goes out of character.  She even makes her own costumes.

Kim Hanley as Abigail Adams, at the Morristown & Township Library. Photo by Willie Quinn
Kim Hanley as Abigail Adams, at the Morristown & Township Library. Photo by Willie Quinn

Long before Michelle Obama had her organic garden and beehives,  Abigail Adams was using the East Room of the White House as her laundry room. The gentlemen who designed the presidential mansion did not find it necessary to get input from a woman.

So, when the First Lady arrived, she discovered there was no area inside or out for laundry to be hung to dry–and back in 1797 it took two days for laundry to dry.

Being married to a politician, Abigail already had learned to handle the bumps that came along with her husband John’s career. Another challenge that they faced was 13 fireplaces that needed to be kept going to heat the huge house. This expense came out of the president’s salary, and it was up to Abigail to work these and many other issues.

Abigail’s father was the Rev. William Smith. The minister and his wife were determined to prepare their three daughters to become good wives and mothers, but they had their doubts. “We spoke our minds, despite our parents’ efforts to keep us timid. We were too witty, worldly and unmanageable to make a good marriage,” Abigail said.

When Abigail met John Adams they didn’t hit it off at first. As Abigail tells it, “We did not care for each other at first. He was a very vain lawyer.” John Adams’ view of the “Smith girls” was that they were handsome enough, but too saucy. In the end, John and Abigail did fall in love.

“He was not the grand one riding in on a horse to save the damsel. But I was no damsel to be saved,” Abigail says. “We were steel and magnet, drawn to each other.”

Abigail was well aware that the single most important decision that a woman of her time could make was selecting the right husband. Once a woman was married, her entire fortune became her husband’s property. She could lose everything she had if she selected the wrong man.

“Upon saying ‘I do,’ I lost all ownership of any property. My furniture, the pearls around my neck, was now the property of John Adams,” Abigail said.

Women had no say, yet Abigail found a way to become a strong influence on John.

Being Mrs. John Adams was never an easy role. After practicing as a lawyer, John began his career in politics. He traveled most of the early years of their marriage, so Abigail had to become resourceful.

John first took office in 1771 as a member of the Massachusetts Colonial Legislature. He was away for long periods of time while holding his various government offices. However, their home still had to be maintained, the farm had to keep going, children had to be raised and bills had to be collected for his law office.

All this fell upon Abigail, always an independent, inventive woman. John Adams learned to rely on his wife’s good judgment and common sense. They kept in touch through letters. John would write to Abigail and ask her to “assist me with counsel.”

Photos by Willie Quinn.

During Friday’s presentation, Abigail painted a picture of how our early government was formed. She was very honest about her opinion of some of our founding fathers.

George Washington obtained the most votes, so he became the first president. John Adam, finishing second, became vice-president. After his second term, Washington was not eager for a third. So John Adams became the second president. At his inauguration, John wore only a plain gray suit. Washington sat in the front row, looking very content to hand over the reins to someone else.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had forged a friendship while both were traveling in Europe. When they ran for the presidency, their friendship faded due to political differences.

Years later, they would renew their friendship through correspondence, but Abigail would not forgive Thomas for supporting the press that slandered her husband during the presidential race–or for his role in preventing her son, John Quincy Adams, from obtaining a judgeship.

Abigail remembered how the Sons of Liberty turned the Boston Harbor into a tea kettle, and how John defended John Hancock when he was tried as a smuggler for bringing his own tea into the harbors. “No child had broken from its parent’s grasp,” as Abigail told it, but that is what England thought we were doing.

Abigail Adams was a pioneer for equal rights. When Abigail and John married, her father offered to give them Phoebe, a slave who had been in her family for years. John and Abigail did not believe in slavery, so they took her as a servant and paid her.

John Adams also believed that the government should pay for children’s education. Abigail felt that if government paid for education it should be available for all children, black and white, boys and girls. So she sent a young black boy who worked for her to a “night school” that was available for children who worked during the day.

There was some upheaval when a black boy attended school alongside the white boys. Once Mrs. Adams pointed out their un-Christian behavior, the young man was allowed to attend. If the politicians had listened to Abigail, the American Civil War might have been avoided.

A few months before the Declaration of Independence, Abigail made a special request of her husband:

“And by the way,” she wrote to John Adams, “in the code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies…”

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Copyright 2012