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At Hearth and Home With the Adams Women, First Ladies of Grit and Grace


At the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Mass., you can visit a pair of houses where two presidents were born: John Adams, who led the country from 1797 to 1801, and his son, John Quincy Adams, who served as chief of state from 1825 to 1829. Nearby, there's another venerable home to tour, known as the Old House, where both presidents lived.

But there were distinguished Adams women as well--among them Abigail, John Adams' wife, whose letters testify to her charm and strength of character; and Louisa Catherine, who married John Quincy Adams and was so well loved that both houses of Congress adjourned for a day upon her death.

It's easy to get to know them at the Adams National Historical Park, a 30-minute drive south of Boston. The park, given to the U.S. government in 1946 by Adams heirs, has 78,000 family-related artifacts and includes three Adams homes and the United First Parish Church and cemetery, where many family members were buried.

As "The Adams Women," by Paul C. Nagel (Oxford University Press, 1987), makes clear, Abigail and Louisa Catherine Adams (and their mothers, daughters, sisters, cousins and nieces) faced many of the same challenges and heartbreaks as women today, which makes a visit to their national historical park both comforting and inspiring.

Public service kept many Adams men separated from their wives for years at a time, leaving the women home to look after family enterprises and raise the children. Abigail's daughter, Abigail Adams Smith (known as Nabby), married badly. Her dashing husband, William Stephens Smith, was a ne'er-do-well who often disappeared, leaving Nabby with a brood of little ones to care for. She developed breast cancer in 1811, had a mastectomy and died two years later at the age of 48. Adams women lost loved ones to other diseases too, such as alcoholism (thought to have caused the deaths of two of John and Abigail Adams' sons) and tuberculosis (which killed Abigail's beloved sister Mary).

Meanwhile, the smart, spirited Adams women often had to fight to be considered their husbands' spiritual and intellectual partners instead of merely their cooks and laundresses.

Karen Yourell, a ranger at the Adams National Historical Park, plays Abigail at school programs and special events. She says she feels the presence of our second first lady most strongly in the New England saltbox on Franklin Street in Quincy where Abigail's first son, John Quincy, was born.

Much of the furniture at the John Quincy Adams birthplace, where Abigail spent the first two decades of her married life, is reproduction (though some original items from here are displayed in the Old House on Adams Street). You can see the yawning fireplace where she cooked. At the time, the primary cause of mortality in women was childbirth, followed by death at the hearth, where women's skirts easily caught fire.

Ranger Yourell says she can imagine Abigail writing loving, informational and instructive letters late at night to her husband, who was stationed first in Philadelphia and later, as a diplomat, in France, Holland and England. Despite the separations, John and Abigail were well matched, it seemed. But on many occasions when she needed support, Abigail turned to her sisters: Mary, who lived nearby, and Elizabeth, the wife of a New Hampshire clergyman, who lived about 50 miles away.

Their letters suggest that they were like sisters today, full of advice for one another on subjects as intimate as pregnancy and menopause. They occasionally were argumentative, but they were always clear about the pecking order, with Abigail (the middle sister but, as a president's wife, the most respected) always in charge. As first lady she amassed a collection of lovely gowns (one of which is sometimes on display at the Old House), which she passed on to her less-well-off sisters.

The gracious, garden-framed Old House on Adams Street, purchased by John and Abigail in 1787, has a grandfather clock that was a wedding present from her father-in-law and a mahogany drop-leaf table at which she held lively dinner parties.

Louisa Catherine, her daughter-in-law, was also an accomplished entertainer. In 1824 she held a ball in Washington, D.C., with more than a thousand guests, to celebrate the ninth anniversary of Andrew Jackson's victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans.

By then Abigail, who was at first leery of the indulged young woman whom her son married in 1797, had come to love Louisa Catherine. Though the two women came from different backgrounds (Abigail was a New England Puritan, while Louisa Catherine had been raised in Europe), they were alike in matters of taste, as evidenced by their similar china, on display in a hallway of the Old House near the kitchen. Abigail chose the Blue Willow pattern, imported from China, and Louisa Catherine the Blue Onion pattern from Germany.

The walls of the refined Long Room in the Old House, where guests were received, bear portraits of many Adams women, including one of Abigail as first lady, painted around 1800 by Gilbert Stuart. There are also portraits of Louisa Catherine and her sister, Nancy, painted by John Savage in 1792, and a handsome likeness of Abigail Brown Brooks, Louisa Catherine's daughter-in-law.

The courage and intelligence of the Adams women shines through in these portraits. Seeking them out in Quincy inspires women today to live as wisely and well.

Tickets (which include a shuttle between the sites) are available at the Adams National Historical Park Visitor Center on Hancock Street in downtown Quincy.

For information, contact the Adams National Historical Park, 135 Adams St., Quincy, MA 02169; telephone (617) 770-1175, fax (617) 472-7562, Internet

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