Abigail Adams's Secret Business Ventures: Echoes

The Founding Fathers lorded it over the Founding Mothers in a million ways, but none annoyed Abigail Adams more than the legal degradation that 18th-century women faced the moment they got married.

A spinster or widow had essentially the same property rights as a man. But once women married, their property was "subject to the controul and disposal of our partners, to whom the Laws have given a soverign Authority," as Adams complained to her husband John in a June 1782 letter.

But Abigail didn't simply complain about the government's denial of married women's property rights. She also defied it. Around the time of the Battle of Yorktown, in 1781, she started setting aside a portion of her husband's property and declaring it her own.

"This money which I call mine," as Adams called it, came from some surprising sources.

During the American Revolutionary War, Abigail had persuaded her husband, who was serving as an American diplomat in Paris, to send her textiles and other merchandise to sell. On several occasions, John got cold feet, and with good reason. The British navy ruled the waves, and King George III was bent on choking off trade between his French and American enemies. Abigail conceded that some of the packages that John sent her would be captured, but she emphasized that "If one in 3 arrives I should be a gainer." High risks meant high rewards.

Abigail took great pains to keep her second major enterprise secret, and it is easy to see why.

To an even greater extent than later conflicts, the War for Independence had to be fought on credit. Overborrowing led to runaway inflation that explained why the paper dollars that George Washington distributed to his soldiers on payday were "not worth a Continental." So Congress paid the soldiers again at the end of the war -- but not with real money. Instead they got "final settlement certificates," which were government securities that weren't too different from modern savings bonds. Congress promised the soldiers that some day their certificates could be exchanged for real money.

The soldiers' problem was that they couldn't wait to eat or clothe their families "some day." They needed real money right away. Many had to sell their bonds to speculators at a fraction of their face value. One veteran, Joseph Plumb Martin, had served in the Continental Army throughout the war. But he received only enough money for his final settlement certificates to finance a new suit of clothes and his trip home to Connecticut. His experience wasn't unusual. It was a terrible betrayal of the men whose sacrifices had set the country free.

For Abigail Adams, it was also an opportunity. During the deep recession that followed the war, few Americans had what Abigail's import business had given her: "Cash to spare." She bought bonds yielding 6 percent interest for as little as one-fourth of their face value, which meant her annual rate of return was 24 percent. Eventually she was able to redeem them at 90 percent of their face value.

Adams steadily increased the size of her "pocket money," as she sometimes called her private stash, and by Nov. 11, 1815, when she turned 71, it had grown to more than $5,000 -- about $100,000 in modern currency.

On the morning of Jan.18, 1816, having contracted a severe illness, Abigail became convinced that she was dying and sat down to write her will. Today that would be considered the responsible thing to do. But during the founding era -- and right up until the middle of the 19th century -- married women like Adams weren't allowed to make wills.

Adams wrote one anyway. All but two of her children had died by this time, but four had lived long enough to have children of their own. None of Abigail's children had married money, and by 1816 her grandsons were mostly poor. Most of her nephews had likewise fallen on hard times.

She gave these impoverished nephews and grandsons . . . nothing. She bequeathed all of her property to her granddaughters, her nieces, her daughters-in-law and her female servants.

Adams never said why she had decided to give all of her money to women. But here's one clue: Many of her heirs were, like her, married. Under the legal proscriptions placed on married women, they were no more entitled to receive this money than she was to give it.

Perhaps that was just her point. Having spent the previous 30 years asserting ownership of property in defiance of the law, she now wanted to give these other women the opportunity to make the same bold claim.

Adams began her will by affirming that she was distributing this property "by and with the consent" of her husband. Actually, though, John Adams's signature doesn't appear anywhere on the document. Abigail died on Oct. 28, 1818. When John found "Abigail Adams's Distribution of Her Property" (as she called it) among his deceased wife's papers, he would have been well within his rights in simply casting it into the fire.

Instead, Adams complied with his wife's will to the letter. In doing so, he turned a worthless sheet of paper into a legally binding document. Married women were allowed to give, receive, buy and sell property with their husbands' consent. By complying with Abigail's property distribution, John made it, in the eyes of the law, his own.

During their 50-year marriage, the Adamses had worked together on a variety of important projects. But this collaboration -- in which the wife, not the husband, took the leading role -- may have been the most extraordinary one of all.

(Woody Holton is a professor at the University of Richmond and the author of "Abigail Adams," a 2010 winner of the Bancroft Prize. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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