Category Archives: US History

The Dearest of Friends: John and Abigail Adams

OR, A Plethora of Love Letters

cropped-cropped-dewy-pink2In August 1774, a Massachusetts lawyer wrote to his wife of ten years, “I must intreat you, my dear Partner in the Joys and Sorrows, Prosperity and Adversity of my Life, to take a Part with me in the Struggle. I pray God for your Health – intreat you to rouse your whole Attention to the Family, the stock, the Farm, the Dairy. Let every Article of Expence which can possibly be spared be retrench’d.”

The lawyer was John Adams, newly-appointed representative to what is now known as the First Continental Congress. Attending this assembly risked his ability to support his family, not to mention his neck. He could have been tried for treason against the British crown, but he and his wife Abigail both agreed he should go.

(To their friend, Dr. Joseph Warren, he wrote, “I am at a loss, totally at a loss, what to do when we get there…” So much for images of a juggernaut of patriotic feeling.)

john-and-abigail-adamsMr. and Mrs. Adams had already forged their marriage into an equal partnership, surprising not only because of the era, but because of the nine year difference in their ages.

As a child, Abigail had not been permitted to attend school. Her mother feared too much learning would ruin her health and sully her mind. As an adult in 1774, she could not legally act in her own interest, for the law did not recognize her as a person separate from her husband. She had not permitted the repressive atmosphere of the era defeat her. Thanks to the books in her father’s and grandfather’s libraries, she was well read. When 14-year-old Abigail Smith first met 23-year-old John Adams, he described her to a friend as “quite lacking in tenderness”. Always forthright, teenage Abigail refused to curb her tongue for the benefit of a pudgy lawyer.

Within a couple of years, however, he was writing flirtatious letters to ‘Miss Adorable’ or ‘Diana’ and she replied in the same vein to her ‘Lysander’. (Presumably she referred to the Shakespearean lover.) After their marriage in 1766, their mutual salutation became ‘My Dearest Friend’, and deep-seated expressions of love replaced flirtation. As a lawyer, John had to ride a circuit of Massachusetts courts to make a living, which required him to leave Abigail and their growing family for days or weeks.

Letter and quillLetter-writing was the only way to communicate over long distances, and in the 18th century, people considered it an art. Abigail, conscious of her lack of formal education, often apologized for poor handwriting, spelling and punctuation, once going so far as to ask John to burn her correspondence. He wrote back “You bid me burn your letters. But I must forget you first.”

Over the decades of John’s public life, they would exchange over 1200 epistles, not counting those that didn’t make it through enemy lines during the Revolutionary War or otherwise go astray.

Their correspondence ranged from brief notes when government or diplomatic business took up most of John’s time, to long letters composed over several days. Both the Adams must have found writing therapeutic, for at different times, they referred to it as a way to soothe inner turmoil.

Separation meant their disagreements also had to travel back and forth between Braintree and Philadelphia and eventually, across the Atlantic. Many involved the education of their sons and surviving daughter. And when John made the mistake of writing to Abigail how much he admired the cultured ladies of the French court, she retorted with a sharp complaint about how American girls were routinely mocked when they showed off their educations.

In her jealousy, she might have forgotten her effusions on meeting George Washington in 1774. “You had prepared me to entertain a favorable opinion of him, but I thought the half was not told me. Dignity with ease and complacency, the gentleman and the soldier look agreeably blended in him. Modesty marks every line and feature of his face.” In the parlance of an 18th century New Englander, this was total fangirling. John couldn’t have enjoyed her description of the tall, charismatic, and charming General.

Even during disagreements, they were still ‘Dearest Friend’ to one another. In February of 1779, toward the end of his first diplomatic appointment to France, John lamented that he dared not write to her of political matters: “…I know you can keep a Secret as well as any Man whatever. But the World don’t know this. If…the letter should be caught, and hitched into a Newspaper, the World would say, I could not be trusted with a Secret.

She had been his sounding board for years at this point; he trusted her more than any other advisor. John returned home later that year, where he was named to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention in Cambridge, the body responsible for writing the state constitution. John wrote the first draft of the document, reading it to Abigail when he returned to Braintree at the end of each week. He also discussed the assembly’s debates with her, which gave her a grasp of issues of the day. His draft was accepted with minor changes, and is still in effect. It is the oldest state constitution in continual use.

In September of 1779, John was named minister plenipotentiary to France by Congress. The position gave him full power to negotiate a peace treaty Britain, along with fellow ministers Benjamin Franklin and John Jay. To Abigail, this meant another separation. John guessed the peace talks would take six months, and then he would come home to her. Instead, the couple would not set eyes on one another for five years.

After the War of Independence ended, Abigail could travel to Europe without fear of being captured or sunk by an enemy ship.  She met John in France in 1784. When Congress selected him as the first American ambassador to Great Britain in 1785, they moved to London. The following years brought John to two terms as vice president under George Washington, then to the Presidency. While Abigail did not always move to Philadelphia or New York with John, she was the first First Lady to live in the White House. Together or apart, he sought her opinion on policy, though at times her devotion blinded her, such as when she supported him on the Alien and Sedition Acts that contributed to his political downfall.

OldJohnandAbigailThe deaths of their daughter Nabby and their second son, Charles, marred their old age. John and Abigail took consolation in their grandchildren; Nabby and all three of their sons had married and started families. As a grandfather, John spoiled the youngsters with sugar plums while Abigail was the disciplinarian.

When she died in 1818, he was at her side. To their niece Lucy Cranch Greenleaf, John said, “I wish I could lay down beside her and die too.” He later eulogized his wife as “The dear Partner of my Life for fifty-four Years and for many Years more as a Lover.” Truly they deserve to be remembered not just on Presidents Day, but on Valentine’s Day as well.

John and Abigail Adams are fascinating both as a couple and as individuals. Do you have any favorite ‘Valentine couples?

 

Further reading:

John Adams, by David Mccullough

Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution by Natalie S. Bober

My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams, Margaret C. Hogan and C. James Taylor, editors

 

 

 

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Mom, Apple Pie & Birth Control

Old-Birth-Control-Devices-245x300This post first appeared on Authors by Moonlight on March 23, 2012. It has been slightly edited.

As a writer of historical romances, I guess you could say I have a professional interest in birth control methods of the past. Basically, humans have been trying to prevent pregnancy, with varying levels of success, ever since we figured out what causes it. People think of the Comstock Laws and don’t realize that contraception has been part of American life since the beginning.

Colonial women grasped the implications of controlling their reproduction early. Before obstetrical medicine developed, 1 out of 10 pregnancies ended with the mother’s death, according to centuries of parish records in both Europe and America. Add to this the number of deaths from complications, infections from dirty hands exploring the birth canal, and general lack of basic hygiene, and maternal mortality approaches 25 out of every 100.

One less mouth to feed meant more resources were available for a family‘s existing children, and eased the husband’s economic burden. Women could not compel their husbands to use abstinence (and probably didn’t like it much themselves) or withdrawal. Breast-feeding provided some protection, but lacked dependability. Vaginal sponges and condoms don‘t seem to have been common. That left plants in cottage gardens that could be used to induce abortions. There are North American plants with similar qualities, and I would be very surprised if Native American women did not know how to use those.

During the nineteenth century, Americans continued to search for ways to manage the size of their families:

1839: Charles Knowlton publishes the first pamphlet in America describing various methods of contraception, aimed at married couples. He advocated douching after sex as the best method. A hundred years before the FDA, no one realized that douching has a 90% fail rate and can lead to painful pelvic inflammations. The same year, Charles Goodyear invents vulcanized rubber, enabling the manufacture of rubber condoms in the 1840s. Compared to the porous condoms made of animal skin or intestines since the 16th century, the 50% fail rate of these ‘capotes’ and ‘cundrums’ is hailed as a miracle by married couples.

February 1840: Queen Victoria, a figure of fascination for many Americans, marries Prince Albert and discovers sex, which she privately describes to her doctor as “fun in bed”.

November 1840: Queen Victoria gives birth to her first child. She does NOT consider this fun and discusses birth control with her doctor. He suggests she and Albert use the rhythm method. At the time, doctors believed that a woman’s ‘safe’ days were midway through the woman’s menstrual cycle. You know, the days when she is actually most fertile. To her dismay, the Queen went on to have eight more children. She never lost her passion for Albert, although she shared a dread and loathing of pregnancy with women on both sides of the Atlantic.

1842: German physician W. P. J. Mensinga invents the diaphragm. Copies are soon available in the U.S.

1860s: Newspapers from New York to Charleston to Cleveland carry adds for ‘capotes’, douching syringes, penis caps, ‘wife protectors’ (rubber cervical caps or diaphragms), sponges and ‘female solutions’. Quality was dubious, making them undependable and in some cases dangerous. They become connected with the sex trade and promiscuity in the minds of many who might otherwise have taken advantage of them.

1873: The Comstock Laws, a series of anti-commerce laws are passed, which define contraception as ‘obscene’ for the first time. The U.S. becomes the only country in the Western world to criminalize family planning. Dr. Edward B. Foote advocates the benefits of ‘fertility limitation’ for married couples, citing improved health for mothers and infants as well as relief of the husband’s economic burden. (Sound familiar?) In spite of the Comstock Laws, he distributes birth control devices and information about them.

1876: Dr. Foote is tried for breaking the Comstock Laws and sentenced to a fine of $3,000, equivalent to $67,000 to $73,000 today. When he asks for help paying it, 300 people come forward to offer support.

1879: Connecticut passes the stiffest anti-contraceptive law in the country: Even married couples cannot legally obtain from a doctor birth control to protect the wife’s health. For both health and economic reasons, It is regularly flouted for nearly 100 years.

1888: Dr. W. R. D. Blackwood writes “Is it proper, is it human, is it desirable that the lot of a married female should be a continual round of impregnation, delivery and lactation?…I do not hesitate for an instant to say NO! And I look with more than suspicion on those who, assuming superior virtue, condemn any and all attempts to control conception.”

1892-1920: Gynecologist Clelia Mosher asks her married patients to fill out questionnaires on their sexual practices and beliefs. Only 45 did so over the years, but their comments are interesting. 41 of the women used birth control, including douches, condoms, and ‘womb veils’, all illegal. One woman used a rubber ring around the cervix, which was apparently painful, but not as bad an another child. Many of the 41 considered reproduction a secondary reason for martial sex.

1913: On October 16, Margaret Sanger and her sister Ethel Byrne, both nurses, open America’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. They see 488 women in the ten days before they are shut down. At their trial, the judge rejects the idea that “a woman has the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception.”

1920s: Spermicidal gels and suppositories (some foaming — how festive!) are sold over the counter as ‘feminine hygiene products’ to get around laws forbidding the sale and use of contraceptives. Adding spermicides reduced the failure rate of diaphragms to 20%, the most reliable birth control until the Pill. Although more effective, this method as it is messy and pretty much kills spontaneity.

1936: In the face of the Depression, 70% of Americans favor birth control in a national survey. An upswing in abortion as a method of birth control also occurs during the decade. One doctor in Chicago reported after his arrest that the majority of his patients were married women aborting third pregnancies or higher. He didn’t say whether they had tried contraceptive measures that failed.

1945: Alabama becomes the first state to establish a tax-supported family planning program. Several southern states follow suit. Poor families shrink and illegitimate births drop across the region.

1950: Katherine McCormick, one of the wealthiest widows in America, finances the research that would lead the first Pill.

1955: The Margulies spiral, the first American made IUD, is invented. Its long tail intrudes into the vagina, causing “pain and trauma” to partners. Unsurprisingly, it never catches on.

1960: Enovid, the first pill, goes on sale. It causes headaches and weight gain, but users flock to their doctors demanding prescriptions anyway. It becomes the best-selling drug in U.S. history to that time, thanks to its dependability and ease of use.

1965: The first American-made IUDs prove popular long-term permanent birth control solutions. The modern IUD was invented in Germany in 1920, but could not be legally imported.

1965: The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the 1879 Connecticut ban on all contraceptive use and confirms that a “right to marital privacy” exists in the spirit of the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments. In 1972, the Supreme Court extends the right to privacy in deciding to use contraceptives to unmarried people.

1971: The Dalkon Shield hits the market. Eventually two million women will use this IUD. Undisclosed problems include severe pain and a tendency to cause uterine infections. 18 known deaths are eventually associated with it, along with hysterectomies, infections, birth defects and miscarriages (not always a problem with other IUDs.)

1988: High dose pills are taken off the market.

2002: Contraceptive patches are introduced. Changed once a week, they have fewer side effects than pills, but are more expensive.

For more reading:
A History of the Wife, Marilyn Yalom

Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America, Andrea Tone

A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman

The Weaker Vessel, Antonia Fraser

The universal flouting of the Comstock Laws amazed and amused me! What do you think is the most surprising thing about the history of birth control in the U.S.?

Also, here is a fun slideshow on WebMD on some of the things people have used in the past to prevent pregancy. Think fish bladder condoms and crocodile poop.

Philadelphia Memories

Yesterday, America celebrated the 235th anniversary of our formal declaration of independent status from Great Britain. Independence Day is one of my favorite holidays. Usually we spend it with family and friends, enjoying favorite foods and lighting off fireworks. In between the burgers, Chinese coleslaw, watermelon and fireworks, though, I try to take a moment and remember the reason for the day.

Despite the imperfections of the U.S. government, the members of the Continental Congress risked disgrace, imprisonment, financial ruin and a traitor’s death as soon as they signed the Declaration of Independence. The likelihood of defeating Great Britain, then the most powerful nation in Europe, seemed a distant dream. So did the hope of establishing a united government among 13 colonies who each guarded her privileges jealously against the others. (The U.S. Constitution came about after the Revolutionary War, by representatives empowered only to improve the Articles of Confederation.)

Despite the odds against them, the delegates took a breath and a leap of faith, and signed.

My family had a chance to visit Philadelphia a couple of years ago, and we took great pleasure in spending the day at Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell museum and historic center of the city. The exterior of Independence Hall and the room where the Continental Congresses met are familiar images, but our tour included the other rooms and floors as well.

Besides serving as a civic meeting place, the colonial public court met across from the Assembly Room. This picture shows part of the elevated bench where the justices sat, and the stand where witnesses were interviewed by counsel. The clerk sat at the small table to the right of the witness and immediately front of the judges so that he could hear and transcribe the proceedings.  Still, the high point for us was to see the room where founding principles of our country were debated and voted on.

On the next floor, the Long Gallery is set up for a banquet, with the tables set up along one side.  The rest of the floor would be cleared for mingling or possibly dancing to music provided by a harpsichord at one end. John Adams once confided to his beloved wife Abigail his hope that future generations would mark Independence Day with “pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.” I’d like to think that some of those celebrations were held at Independence Hall, the building where America was truly born.

By the People…Eventually

Tuesday night, I watched reports of record low voter turnout in numerous places during the U.S. midterm elections.  Despite its flaws — government is a human construct, after all, and therefore imperfect — a democratic political system offers its citizens the opportunity to take charge of their own governance.  It is also the responsibility of those citizens to go to the polls and use their best judgment to select representatives to serve in their local, state and national governments.

If the numbers are correct, a lot of Americans are not stepping up the plate.

This is ironic, considering how few of us would be permitted to vote if the constitution remained in its original state.  When it took effect in 1789, not even being white, male, and 21 automatically entitled a person the right to vote.  As the constitution was written and interpreted originally, only those adult white men owning a certain amount of property  were allowed to participate in elections.  The amount required in order to cast a ballot varied, though in some states the minimum was as high as 50 acres. Other states allowed income to replace part of the real estate requirements, but the guiding principle was to restrict the vote only to the wealthiest members of society. Depending on how local authorities interpreted the law, even non-citizens who met the property requirements might be allowed to vote while working Americans were denied a voice in their government.  And don’t forget the Americans who, being neither male nor white, had no legal standing as individuals, much less the power to decide how they should be governed.

Before the end of the eighteenth century, lawmakers recognized the injustice of reserving voting rights only for rich men.  Vermont, admitted to the Union in 1791, required only a minimum age, residence in a district and “quiet and peaceable behavior” for a man to vote.  Very likely surrounding states regarded Vermonters as the Far Left of that era, for no other state came close to such universal male suffrage. Property requirements did start to erode, although they were replaced by tax requirements.  This allowed far more Americans to vote than originally planned for by James Madison and the rest of the Constitutional Convention.  Fortunately, Madison and Co. also understood that they could not possibly fortell the future needs of their new country, and included a mechanism so that later generations of Americans could amend their governing document.

It took three amendments to the U.S. Constitution to extend the right to vote to all adult Americans, the most recent one enacted in 1964.  People died for the democratic principles set forth in the Fifteenth and Twenty-Fourth Amendments.  The Nineteenth Amendment took eighty years of steady agitation and painful defeats by our foremothers so that my daughters and I are able to participate in our own government.

One more amendment affecting suffrage in the U.S. was enacted in 1971, when the voting age was lowered to 18, in recognition of the sacrifices made by young Americans serving in our military.

So next time an election comes up in your area, remember that somebody, somewhere, had to fight so that you could fill out a ballot and participate in your own governance.  Learn about the issues you care about.  Then step up and vote!