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  • The Court of Abigail Adams
  • David S. Shields and Fredrika J. Teute

Abigail Adams, John Adams, Martha Washington, Levees, George Washington, Public opinion

Bluestocking—middle-aged Protestant townswoman prone to organizing benevolent networks, promoting education, and monitoring the improvement of manners. Known for a taste in reading, she cultivates sense rather than scandal in conversation, has the mastery of at least one polite art (singing, playing an instrument, drawing, amateur theatricals, dancing, or recitation), and dresses stylishly, but not extravagantly. She is the capable mistress of her townhouse, a complaísant hostess in her drawing room, and a sociable companion in public. Whiggish in politics, she belongs to the town gentry, but manifests a concern for women of all ranks and conditions.

On May 6, 1796, Abigail Adams arrived in Philadelphia to assume the duties of first lady. John Adams had been president since March 4 and had taken up residence in the house vacated by the Washingtons, a place in disarray, furnished with remnant and broken chairs, devoid of dishes, and too dirty to welcome visitors. Expert at household management, having years of experience during her husband’s long overseas absences, Abigail took two days to put the place in order, then began the inaugural levées signaling her assumption of the role as hostess of the Republican Court. Since the social season had passed, she did not have to hold until autumn the traditional weekly Friday drawing room that Martha Washington had established in 1788. Instead, she held company dinners and visitations, capped with a July 4 general fête for the entire governing class—a costly entertainment begun by President Washington and a source of anxiety to Abigail. It was an event on too public a scale, too bibulous (two quarter casks of wine and spirits drained), too ravenous (200 pounds of cake gobbled), and too loud. The sociable intimacy, the mannerliness, and the domesticity of the drawing room were lacking. [End Page 227]

Republican Court—the focus of society for the new American governing class. Inaugurated by Martha Washington in New York in 1788, it operated as a private “drawing room” held on Friday evenings at the president’s house. Superintended by women, it promoted conversation among the various actors in public life, provided a place of reception for diplomats and visitors, promoted a style of manners that demonstrated in the eyes of the world a standard of civility, yet avoided the ostentatious display of aristocratic and beau monde fashion typical of the European royal courts.

When Abigail Adams assumed control of the Republican Court, her experiences and aims differed from those of her predecessor. Martha Washington had never experienced first-hand the royal courts. Abigail had experienced court life in London and Paris. As the consort to the ambassador of the United States, Abigail had attended a levée with George III, Queen Charlotte, and the princesses, and had endured the long wait for the royal progress down the receiving line. The formality of the reception and the chilly behavior of the female royals inspired a deep personal distaste for the ceremoniousness and hauteur of the levée. The ostentation of court dress, particularly for women, in both London and Paris irritated that New England republican part of her that cherished simplicity. Yet fashion appealed to her acute aesthetic sense and made her realize that there had to be glamour in civil life. She became an importer of fashionable clothing and material to New England before she became a first lady. As the hostess of the Republican Court she, much more than Martha, was concerned with fashion as an expression of both the sumptuary adequacy of the United States and a register of a kind of modest elegance suited to republican gentility. Finally, Abigail had a substantially broader understanding of the sorts of activities women could undertake in conjunction with public affairs. She became a broker of patronage, and conduit of information to newspapers, a counselor to the president, and a figure whose known influence on the president caused her to be the target of petition and persuasion. These overtures most frequently took place in the Court.1 [End Page 228]



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