On Nov. 1, 1818, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, 51, was dreading news about his mother, Abigail Adams, even as he was hard at work in Washington, D.C. He hadn’t seen his mother since he visited her at home in the summer, but he knew she suffered from typhoid fever.
During her last years Abigail Adams felt keenly the loss of her daughter Nabby to breast cancer in 1814. Abigail had suffered from headaches, rheumatism, chronic bronchial congestion and now typhoid. After a brief struggle Abigail Adams died at home in Quincy, Mass., on Oct. 28, 1818. Her family surrounded her as she uttered her last words. Speaking to her husband, she said,
Do not grieve, my friend, my dearest friend. I am ready to go. And John, it will not be long.
But John Quincy Adams didn’t find that out for several days.
My mother was an angel upon earth. She was a minister of blessing to all human beings within her sphere of action. Her heart was the abode of heavenly purity. She had no feelings but of kindness and beneficence; yet her mind was as firm as her temper was mild and gentle. She had known sorrow, but her sorrow was silent.
He called her the personification of female virtue, of piety, of charity, of “ever active and never intermitting benevolence.” And he lamented that he spent so much of his life away from her.
Cast at a Distance
John Quincy Adams spent much of his boyhood and his early career abroad. He lamented his separation from his mother.
“Oh God! could she have been spared yet a little longer! My lot in life has been almost always cast at a distance from her. I have enjoyed but for short seasons, and at long, distant intervals, the happiness of her society,” he wrote.
“She has been a spirit from above watching over me for good, and contributing by my mere consciousness of her existence to the comfort of my life,” he wrote. “That consciousness is gone, and without her the world feels to me like a solitude.”
The next day, a Monday, John Quincy Adams received the dreaded letter:
The mail had brought me too fatal a confirmation of my apprehensions in a letter from my son John, dated at Boston last Wednesday, the 28th of october, informing me that between eleven and one o’clock of that day my mother, beloved and lamented more than language can express, yielded up her pure and gentle spirit to its Creator.
On receiving the deeply distressing news, John Quincy Adams immediately let his office and went home. Then he “indulged the weakness of nature” — presumably, he had a good cry.
Adams wrote in his diary a personal obituary. Born on Nov. 11, 1744, she lived a month short of 75. She was the daughter of William Smith, minister at Weymouth, and of Elizabeth Quincy, his wife.
Had she lived to the age of the Patriarchs, every day of her life would have been filled with clouds of goodness and of love. There is not a virtue that can abide in the female heart but it was the ornament of hers…
Oh, God! may I die the death of the righteous, and may my last end by like hers!
John Quincy Adams took the next day off from work, hoping for more letters from Quincy that never came. He then finished writing his recollections of Abigail Adams:
If there is existence and retribution beyond the grave, my mother is happy. But if virtue alone is happiness below, never was existence upon earth more blessed than hers. She was married on the 25th of October, 1764, at the age of twenty, and had five children — three sons and two daughters. Two only of the sons have survived her. Never have I known another human being the perpetual object of whose life was so unremittingly to do good
It was a necessity of her nature. Yet so unostentatious, so unconscious even, of her own excellence, that even the objects of her kindness often knew not whence it came. She had seen the world — its glories, without being dazzled; its vices and follies, without being infected by them. She had suffered often and severely from fits of long and painful sickness, always with calmness and resignation.
He remembered her as always cheerful, but never frivolous. “She had neither gall nor guile,” he wrote.
Her attention to the domestic economy of her family was unrivalled–rising with the dawn, and superintending the household concerns with indefatigable and all-foreseeing care. She had a warm and lively relish for literature, for social conversation, for whatever was interesting in the occurrences of the time, and even in political affairs.
Abigail Adams, Ardent Patriot
During the revolutionary war she was an ardent patriot, wrote her son. Her children learned their earliest lesson of “unbounded devotion to the cause of their country.”
She had the most delicate sense of propriety of conduct, but nothing uncharitable, nothing bitter. Her price was indeed above rubies.
John Quincy Adams worried how his father would cope. John Adams would live another five-and-a-half years after his beloved wife died.
“Oh! what must it be to my father, and how will he support life without her who has been, to him its charm?” wrote Adams.
She had been fifty-four years the delight of my father’s heart, the sweetener of all his toils, the comforter of all his sorrows, the sharer and heightener of all his joys. It was but the last time when I saw my father that he told me, with . . . gratitude to the Giver of every good and every perfect gift, that in all the vicissitudes of his fortunes, through all the good report and evil report of the world, in all his struggles and in all his sorrows, the affectionate participation and cheering encouragement of his wife had been his never-failing support, without which he was sure he should never have lived through them.
“It is for him, and to hear from him, that my anxiety now bears upon my mind,” he wrote.
This story was updated in 2021.