The Other Mrs. Adams

By NYPL Staff
March 27, 2017
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

Samuel Adams is remembered as a fiery revolutionary and staunch patriot while his second cousin John is remembered as a sophisticated political operator. Likewise, at the dawn of the American Revolution, while John’s wife Abigail debated the finer points of political philosophy and chided her husband to “remember the ladies,” Samuel’s wife Elizabeth roughly fashioned a feather pen with scissors in order to relay her plans to escape British forces in Boston. John and Abigail may be the exemplary couple of the American Revolution, but the correspondence between Samuel and Elizabeth reveals that this other Mr. and Mrs. Adams matched John and Abigail in their devotion both to each other and also to the patriotic cause.  

Sam Adams to Elizabeth Adams,  May 7, 1775, Samuel Adams Papers, NYPL

Samuel devoted the sixty years between his graduation from Harvard in 1743 and his death in 1803 single-mindedly to politics and government, often to the exclusion of financial and material concerns. There is no doubt that money was often tight for Samuel and Elizabeth. Especially during the 1760s and 1770s when Samuel spearheaded colonial rebellion against British policies such as the Stamp Act, Townshend Act, and the Intolerable Acts, Elizabeth ensured their family’s financial security. Only her careful scrimping and saving kept the family afloat while Samuel pursued political goals.

Sam Adams to Elizabeth Adams, June 10, 1775, Samuel Adams Papers, NYPL

In a series of letters from May and June 1775, less than a month after Paul Revere’s midnight ride, Samuel wrote to his “dearest Betsy” expressing his trust in his wife’s financial good sense and his deep affection for her. Fully depending on her financial “prudence,” he pressed Elizabeth to “Make use of the Money in your hands for your Comfort.” In his following letter, Samuel requested that she write to him more regularly regardless of their financial situation. Worried that she thought “too much of the Expence of Postage,” he reassured her that he would “with the utmost Chearfulness pay for as many Letters” as she would write to him. These letters suggest how carefully Elizabeth stretched the family’s limited funds in order to make ends meet.  

Elizabeth Adams to Sam Adams, February 12, 1776, Samuel Adams Papers, NYPL

More than just a conscientious bookkeeper, Elizabeth remained calm and collected and resolutely dedicated to the revolutionary cause even in the most stressful of times. In February 1776 with British forces circling around her home in Boston and her husband far away in Philadelphia as a delegate to the Continental Congress, Elizabeth made detailed contingency plans to take her family to safety and ensured that the family’s possessions were protected. Writing with her makeshift pen, Elizabeth explained to Samuel that “if the Regulars should Even take Prospect Hill (which god forbid),” she would take a “back road which leads to the Most Retired part of Newtown.” If the British siege of Boston intensified further, she intended to send all of their belongings to the countryside, minus “a bed and a few Nesesarys,” and “be in Readiness to Move at an Minutes Warning.” Elizabeth’s strength and resourcefulness in midst of British occupation and financially difficult circumstances is remarkable.  

Sam Adams to Elizabeth Adams, November 14, 1776, Samuel Adams Papers, NYPL

Samuel’s letters, full of political gossip and wartime news, address Elizabeth as a revolutionary co-conspirator and political confidant. In November 1776, Samuel shared with Elizabeth fresh military intelligence the Continental Congress had received because, he explained, “I know how deeply you have always interrested yourself in the Welfare of our Country.” The following year, having filled another letter to Elizabeth with news of the British army and the New England militia groups, Samuel apologized for having written to “a female upon the Subject of War.” Samuel justified his decision by noting that her “whole soul” was “engagd in the great Cause.  

Sam Adams to Elizabeth Adams, May 8, 1777, Samuel Adams Papers, NYPL

Elizabeth’s contributions to both the Revolution and his own political career profoundly transformed Samuel’s understanding of marriage and the proper role of women. On the occasion of his beloved daughter Hannah’s wedding, Samuel wrote his new son-in-law a letter of advice about married life encapsulating his views on the institution of marriage. Drawing on his own experiences, Samuel explained, “The Marriage State was designd to complete the Sum of human Happiness in this Life.” Perhaps the most interesting segment of the letter is Samuel’s description of the appropriate roles of husbands and wives:

Though it is acknowledgd that the Superiority is + ought to be in the Man, yet as the Management of a Family in many Instances necessarily devolves on the Woman, it is difficult always to determine the Line between the Authority of the one + Subordination of the other.

Samuel advised his new son-in-law that the best decision was “not to govern too much” and concluded that the key to marital happiness was restraint. Even though he was descended from strict Puritans who believed in strict gender roles and considered the husband to be the supreme authority of his household, Samuel’s own life experiences with Elizabeth had made him question these traditional views.  

Samuel Adams letter, Novemeber 22, 1780, Samuel Adams Papers, NYPL

That same year, in a letter to Elizabeth, Samuel expressed his deep pride in his unblemished virtue throughout his political career, saying, “You are witness that I have not raisd a Fortune in the service of my Country.” He stated, “I glory in being what the world calls a poor Man.” While Samuel might have gloried in his virtuous poverty, it was Elizabeth who bore the brunt of the sacrifices and succeeded in keeping her family warm and fed under such straitened circumstances. Indeed, Samuel’s public achievements were made possible by Elizabeth’s material and emotional support.

About the Early American Manuscripts Project

With support from the The Polonsky Foundation, The New York Public Library is currently digitizing upwards of 50,000 pages of historic early American manuscript material. The Early American Manuscripts Project will allow students, researchers, and the general public to revisit major political events of the era from new perspectives and to explore currents of everyday social, cultural, and economic life in the colonial, revolutionary, and early national periods. The project will present on-line for the first time high quality facsimiles of key documents from America’s Founding, including the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Drawing on the full breadth of the Library’s manuscript collections, it will also make widely available less well-known manuscript sources, including business papers of Atlantic merchants, diaries of people ranging from elite New York women to Christian Indian preachers, and organizational records of voluntary associations and philanthropic organizations. Over the next two years, this trove of manuscript sources, previously available only at the Library, will be made freely available through nypl.org.