Andrea Seehusen

History 359


Document Based Question


According to the excerpt from Benjamin Wadsworth’s The Well-Ordered Family, what are some of the duties of husbands and wives? In what ways, based on the letters provided, did John and Abigail Adams abide by these guidelines? In what ways did they cross them? What is the nature of the ways in which they did not follow the guidelines?





Excerpt from The Well-Ordered Family, by Benjamin Wadsworth


Wadsworth, Benjamin. The Well-Ordered Family. Boston, 1712. Women’s Voices, Women’s Lives. Ed. Carol Berkin and Leslie Horowitz. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998.


In The Well-Ordered Family, Wadsworth describes, in sermon-like style, the ways in which many interpersonal relationship should be carried out. He describes not only the duties of husbands and wives but also the duties of children to their parents and servants to their masters. The book is filled with references to Christianity, and how God commands or wishes humans to relate to one another. It was written well before the Revolutionary era (in 1712), but it greatly helps one to understand the generally accepted roles of men and women prior to the Revolutionary War.



            Tis their duty to cohabit or dwell together with one another….If one house can’t hold them, surely they’re not affected to each other as they should be. Indeed men’s necessary Occasions often call them abroad….But they should not separate nor live apart, out of disgust, dislike, or out of choice….

            They should have a very great and tender love and affection to one another. This is plainly commanded by God….If therefore the Husband is bitter against his Wife, beating or striking of her (as some vile wretches do) or in any unkind carriage, ill language, hard words, morose, peevish, surly behavior…he breaks the Divine Law….The same is true of the Wife too. If she strikes her Husband (as some shameless, impudent wretches will)…she dishonours and provokes the glorious God….

They should be chaste, and faithful to one another….They must have nothing to do with any but their own…As for Christians, their Bodies as well as Souls belong to Christ and that by special dedication. Tis therefore a most vile aggravated wickedness in those that call themselves Christians (tis bad in any, but worse in them) to commit fornication or adultery….

The Husband and Wife should be helpful to each other. The Lord said, it is not good that man should be alone, I will make an help meet for him. The Wife should be a meet help to her Husband; he also should do what he can, to help forward her good and comfort.

As to Outward Things. If the one is sick, pained, troubled, distressed; the other should manifest care, tenderness, pity, compassion, & afford all possible relief and succour….Husband & Wife should bear one anothers burthens, sympathize with each other in trouble; affording to each other all the endeavours, comfortably to maintain themselves, and the Family under their joint care….The Husband should indeavour, that his Wife may have Food and Raiment suitable for her….The Wife also in her place should do what she can, that they may have a comfortable support. The Apostle requires that wives be faithful in all things, keepers of the home, and that they guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully: he condemns those that are Idle, wandring from house to house, and not idle only, but tattlers also, and busie boides, speaking things which they ought not….

Husband and Wife should be patient one towards another….You therefore that are Husbands & Wives, dont aggravate each others faults; dont aggravate every error or mistake, every wrong or hasty word, every wry step, as though it were a wilful designed intollerable crime….

Wives are part of the House and Family, and ought to be under the Husband’s Government: they should Obey their own Husbands. Though the Husband is to rule his Family and his Wife yet his Government of his Wife should not be with rigour, haughtiness, harshness, severity; but with the greatest love, gentleness, kindness, tenderness that may be. Though he governs her, he must not treat her as a Servant, but as his own flesh: he must love her as himself. He should make his government of her, as easie and gentle as possible; and strive more to be lov’d that fear’d; though neither is to be excluded. On the other hand, Wives ought readily and chearfully to obey their Husbands. Wives submit your selves to your own Husbands, be in subjection to them





Letter from John Adams to Abigail Smith, 30 September 1764


Letter from John Adams to Abigail Smith, 30 September 1764 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. 30th. 1764

The first couple of pages of the letter, which have been cut, tell of John’s search for a housekeeper. Following what I have is a post script that includes nothing of particular interest to anyone other than Abigail Adams.

My dear Diana ….

…So much for Maids -- now for the Man. I shall leave orders for Brackett, to go to Town, Wednesday or Thursday with an Horse Cart. You will get ready by that Time and ship aboard, as many Things as you think proper.

It happens very unfortunately that my Business calls me away at this Juncture for two Weeks together, so that I can take no Care at all about Help or Furniture or any Thing else. But Necessity has no Law.

Tomorrow Morning I embark for Plymouth -- with a (fowl) disordered stomach, a pale Face, an Aching Head and an Anxious Heart. And What Company shall I find there? Why a Number of bauling Lawyers, drunken Squires, and impertinent and stingy Clients. If you realize this, my Dear, since you have agreed to run fortunes with me, you will submit with less Reluctance to any little Disappointments and Anxieties you may meet in the Conduct of your own Affairs.

I have a great Mind to keep a Register of all the stories, Squibbs, Gibes, and, Compliments, I shall hear thro the whole Week. If I should I could entertain you with as much Wit, Humour, smut, Filth, Delicacy, Modesty and Decency, tho not with so exact Mimickry, as a certain Gentleman did the other Evening. Do you wonder, my Dear, why that Gentleman does not succeed in Business, when his whole study and Attention has so manifestly been engaged in the nobler Arts of smutt, Double Ententre, and Mimickry of Dutchmen and Negroes? I have heard that Imitators, tho they imitate well, Master Pieces in elegant and valuable Arts, are a servile Cattle. And that Mimicks are the lowest Species of Imitators, and I should think that Mimicks of Dutchmen and Negroes were the most sordid of Mimicks. If so, to what a Depth of the Profound have we plunged that Gentlemans Character. Pardon me, my dear, you know that Candour is my Characteristick-as it is undoubtedly of all the Ladies who are entertained with that Gents Conversation.

Oh my dear Girl, I thank Heaven that another Fortnight will restore you to me -- after so long a separation. My soul and Body have both been thrown into Disorder, by your Absence, and a Month of two more would make me the most insufferable Cynick, in the World. I see nothing but Faults, Follies, Frailties and Defects in any Body, lately. People have lost all their good Properties or I my justice, or Discernment.

But you who have always softened and warmed my Heart, shall restore my Benevolence as well as my Health and Tranquility of mind. You shall polish and refine my sentiments of Life and Manners, banish all the unsocial and ill natured Particles in my Composition, and form me to that happy Temper, that can reconcile a quick Discernment with a perfect Candour.

Believe me, now & ever yr. faithful

Lysander [John]





Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, Braintree 31 March, 1776.


Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March - 5 April 1776 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.


The first few pages of the letter, which have been cut, ask about and give details pertaining to the war.

Tho we felicitate ourselves, we sympathize with those who are trembling least the Lot of Boston should be theirs. But they cannot be in similar circumstances unless pusilanimity and cowardise should take possession of them. They have time and warning given them to see the Evil and shun it. -- I long to hear that you have declared an independency -- and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend. Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the
Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in immitation of the Supreem Being make use of that power only for our happiness.



Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 14 April 1776

Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 14 April 1776 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.

In his first few pages, which have been cut, John replies to Abigail’s questions and statements concerning the war. He then replies to her requests.

Ap. 14, 1776

As to Declarations of Independency, be patient. Read our Privateering Laws, and our Commercial Laws. What signifies a Word.

As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient -- that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent -- that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters.
But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented. -- This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I wont blot it out.

Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems. Altho they are in full Force, you know they are little more than Theory. We dare not exert our Power in its full Latitude. We are obliged to go fair, and softly, and in Practice you know We are the subjects. We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would compleatly subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat, I hope General Washington, and all our brave Heroes would fight. I am sure every good Politician would plot, as long as he would against Despotism, Empire, Monarchy, Aristocracy, Oligarchy, or Ochlocracy. -- A fine Story indeed. I begin to think the Ministry as deep as they are wicked. After stirring up Tories, Landjobbers, Trimmers, Bigots, Canadians, Indians, Negroes, Hanoverians, Hessians, Russians, Irish Roman Catholicks, Scotch Renegadoes, at last they have stimulated the to demand new Priviledges and threaten to rebell.



Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 7 - 9 May 1776


Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 7 - 9 May 1776 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.

[Braintree] May 7, 1776

How many are the solitary hours I spend, ruminating upon the past, and anticipating the future, whilst you overwhelmd with the cares of State, have but few moments you can devote to any individual. All domestick pleasures and injoyments are absorbed in the great and important duty you owe your Country "for our Country is as it were a secondary God, and the First and greatest parent. It is to be preferred to Parents, Wives, Children, Friends and all things the Gods only excepted. For if our Country perishes it is as imposible to save an Individual, as to preserve one of the fingers of a Mortified Hand." Thus do I supress every wish, and silence every Murmer, acquiesceing in a painfull Seperation from the companion of my youth, and the Friend of my Heart.

I believe tis near ten days since I wrote you a line. I have not felt in a humour to entertain you. If I had taken up my pen perhaps some unbecomeing invective might have fallen from it; the Eyes of our Rulers have been closed and a Lethargy has seazd almost every Member. I fear a fatal Security has taken possession of them.  [illegible Whilst the Building is on flame they tremble at the expence of water to quench it, in short two months has elapsed since the evacuation of Boston, and very little has been done in that time to secure it, or the Harbour from future invasion till the people are all in a flame; and no one among us that I have heard of even mentions expence, they think universally that there has been an amaizing neglect some where. Many have turnd out as volunteers to work upon Nodles Island, and many more would go upon Nantaskit if it was once set on foot. "Tis a Maxim of state That power and Liberty are like Heat and moisture; where they are well mixt every thing prospers, where they are single, they are destructive."

A Goverment of more Stability is much wanted in this colony, and they are ready to receive them it from the Hands of the Congress, and since I have begun with Maxims of State I will add an other viz. that a people may let a king fall, yet still remain a people, but if a king let his people slip from him, he is no longer a king. And as this is most certainly our case, why not proclaim to the World in decisive terms your own importance?

Shall we not be dispiced by foreign powers for hesitateing so long at a word?

I can not say that I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives. But you must remember that Arbitary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken -- and notwithstanding all your wise Laws and Maxims we have it in our power not only to free ourselves but to subdue our Masters, and without voilence throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet

"Charm by accepting, by submitting sway

Yet have our Humour most when we obey."

I thank you for several Letters which I have received since I wrote Last. They alleviate a tedious absence, and I long earnestly for a Saturday Evening, and experience a similar pleasure to that which I used to experience find in the return of my Friend upon that day after a weeks absence. The Idea of a year dissolves all my Phylosophy.

Our Little ones whom you so often recommend to my care and instruction shall not be deficient in virtue or probity if the precepts of a Mother have their desired Effect, but they would be doubly inforced could they be indulged with the example of a Father constantly before them; I often point them to their Sire

"engaged in a corrupted State

Wrestling with vice and faction."



Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 10 - 11 July 1777


Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 10 - 11 July 1777 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.


I have cut out a few pages in the middle which gave local news that is of no importance to us.


July 10 [1777] 9 o clock Evening

About an Hour ago I received a Letter from my Friend dated June 21: begining in this manner "my dearest Friend." It gave me a most agreable Sensation, it was a cordial to my Heart. That one single expression dwelt upon my mind and playd about my Heart, and was more valuable to me than any part of the Letter, except the close of it. Whether It was because my Heart was softned and my mind enervated by my sufferings, and I wanted the personal and tender soothings of my dearest Friend, that [renderd] it so valuable to me at this time. I have [no] doubt of the tenderest affection or sincerest regard of my absent Friend, yet an expression of that kind will sooth my Heart to rest amidst a thousand anxietyes….

…How do you do? Are you glad you are out of the way of sour faces. I could look pleasent upon you in the midst of sufferings -- allmighty God carry me safely through them. There I would hope I have a Friend ever nigh and ready to assist me, unto whom I commit myself.

This is Thursday Evening. It cannot go till monday, and then I hope will be accompanied with more agreable inteligance.

Most sincerely Yours.





Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 10 July 1777


Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 10 July 1777 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.


Philadelphia July 10, 1777.

Thursday My Mind is again Anxious, and my Heart in Pain for my dearest Friend . . . .

Three Times have I felt the most distressing Sympathy with my Partner, without being able to afford her any Kind of Solace, or Assistance.

When the Family was sick of the Dissentery, and so many of our Friends died of it. When you all had the small Pox.

And now I think I feel as anxious as ever. -- Oh that I could be near, to say a few kind Words, or shew a few Kind Looks, or do a few kind Actions. Oh that I could take from my dearest, a share of her Distress, or relieve her of the whole.

Before this shall reach you I hope you will be happy in the Embraces of a Daughter, as fair, and good, and wise, and virtuous as the Mother, and  [illegible or if it is a son I hope it will still resemble the Mother in  [illegible Person, Mind and Heart.





Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 16 July 1777


Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 16 July 1777 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.


July 16 1777.

Join with me my dearest Friend in Gratitude to Heaven, that a life I know you value, has been spaired and carried thro Distress and danger altho the dear Infant is numberd with its ancestors.

My apprehensions with regard to it were well founded. Tho my Friends would have fain perswaded me that the Spleen [or] the Vapours had taken hold of me I was as perfectly sensible of its discease as I ever before was of its existance. I was also aware of the danger which awaited me; and which tho my sufferings were great thanks be to Heaven I have been supported through, and would silently submit to its dispensations in the loss of a sweet daughter; it appeard to be a very fine Babe, and as it never opened its Eyes in this world it lookd as tho they were only closed for sleep. The circumstance which put an end to its existance, were was evident upon its birth, but at this distance and in a Letter which may possibly fall into the Hands of some unfealing Ruffian I must omit particuliars. Suffice it to say that it was not oweing to any injury which I had sustaind, nor could any care of mine have prevented it.

My Heart was much set upon a Daughter. I had had a strong perswasion that my desire would be granted me. It was -- but to shew me the uncertanty of all sublinary enjoyments cut of e'er I could call it mine.

No one was so much affected with the loss of it as its Sister who mournd in tears for Hours. I have so much cause for thankfullness amidst my sorrow, that I would not entertain a repineing thought. So short sighted and so little a way can we look into futurity that we ought patiently to submit to the dispensation of Heaven.

I am so comfortable that I am amaizd at myself, after what I have sufferd I did not expect to rise from my Bed for many days. This is but the 5th day and I have set up some Hours.

I However feel myself weakend by this exertion, yet I could not refrain [from] the temptation of writing with my own Hand to you.

Adieu dearest of Friends adieu -- Yours most affectionately.




Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams , 28 July 1777


Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams , 28 July 1777 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.


Philadelphia July 28, 1777

My dearest Friend

Never in my whole Life, was my Heart affected with such Emotions and Sensations, as were this Day occasioned by your Letters of the 9. 10. 11. and 16 of July. Devoutly do I return Thanks to God, whose kind Providence has preserved to me a Life that is dearer to me than all other Blessings in this World. Most fervently do I pray, for a Continuance of his Goodness in the compleat Restoration of my best Friend to perfect Health.

Is it not unaccountable, that one should feel so strong an Affection for an Infant, that one has never seen, nor shall see? Yet I must confess to you, the Loss of this sweet little Girl, has most tenderly and sensibly affected me. I feel a Grief and Mortification, that is heightened the it is not wholly occasioned, by my Sympathy with the Mother. My dear little Nabbys Tears are sweetly becoming her generous Tenderness and sensibility of Nature. They are Arguments too of her good sense and Discretion.



Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 12 November 1778, draft

Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 12 November 1778, draft [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.

[Draftcopy. Original has not been found, and was not acknowledged by JA. ]


The last few pages have not been included because they speak merely of impertinent war news.


[Braintree, 12-23 November 1778]

I have taken up my pen again to relieve the anxiety of a Heart too susceptable for its own repose, nor can I help complaining to my Dearest Friend that his painfull absence is not as formerly alleiviated by the tender tokens of his Friendship, 3 very short Letters only have reachd my Hands during 9 months absence.

I cannot be so unjust to his affection as to suppose he has not wrote much oftener and more perticularly, but must sit down to the Score of misfortune that so few have reachd me.

I cannot charge myself with any deficiency in this perticular sense as I have never let an opportunity slip without writing to you since we parted, tho you make no mention of having received a line from me; if they are become of so little importance as not to be worth noticeing yourself with your own Hand, be so kind as to direct your Secretary

I will not finish the sentance, my Heart denies the justice of the acqusation, nor does it believe your affection in the least diminished by distance or absence, but my Soul is wounded at a Seperation from you, and my fortitude all dissolved in frailty and weakness. When I cast my Eye thoughts across the Atlantick and view the distance, the dangers and Hazards which you have already passd through, and to which you must probably be again exposed, e'er we shall meet again, the Time of your absence unlimitted, all all conspire to cast a Gloom over my solitary hours, and bereave me of all domestick felicity. In vain do I strive to through of [throw off] in the company of my Friends some of the anxiety of my Heart, it increases in proportion to my endeavours to conceal it; the only alleiviation I know of would be a frequent intercourse by Letters unrestrained by the apprehension of their becomeing food for our Enemies. The affection I feel for my Friend is of the tenderest kind, matured by years, sanctified by choise and approved by Heaven. Angles can witness to its purity, what care I then for the Ridicule of Britains should this testimony of it fall into their Hands, nor can I endure that so much caution and circumspection on your part should deprive me of the only consolation consolor of your absence -- a consolation that our Enemies enjoy in a much higher degree than I do, Many of them having received 3 or 4 Letters from their Friends in England to one that I have received from France.

Thus far I wrote more than ten days ago, my mind as you will easily see far from tranquil, and my Heart so wounded by the Idea of inattention that the very Name of my Dearest Friend would draw tears from me. Forgive me for harbouring an Idea so unjust, to your affection. Were you not dearer to me than all this universe contains beside, I could not have sufferd as I have done, But your Letters of April 12, of June and June 16 calmd my Soul to peace. I cannot discribe the Effect they had upon me, cheerfullness and tranquility took place of greif and anxiety. I placed them Next my Heart and  [illegible soothed myself to rest with the tender assurences of a Heart all my own.

I was not a little mortified to find that the few Lines wrote by way of Holland were the only ones you had received from me, when I had wrote many sheets of paper long before that time and sent by so many different hands that I thought you must have heard often from me, and led me to suppose that many of your Letters to me must have shared the same fate.