Abigail Adams, Smallpox, and the Declaration of Independence

Abigail Adams

In 1776, while John’s away, Abigail troops to Boston with kids and cow; undergoes variolation; mourns mare; longs for tea; tends delirious six-year-old.

Students of American history can guess where John Adams was in July 1776. He was in Philadelphia, of course, working with Thomas Jefferson and others at the Second Continental Congress, pushing for independence for the thirteen American colonies from Great Britain.

But what about John’s wife, Abigail? Independence was just one of many things on her mind that month. Her main concern was smallpox. She wanted to undergo variolation, a risky procedure of that time, to give her immunity from the deadly disease. She also wanted to see to it that her four children—ages 11, 9, 6 and 4—received the treatment, which involved making an incision and placing on the wound scabs from someone who had the disease. Occasionally the person undergoing such treatment would get a full-blown case of the disease and die. But usually, the person suffered a weakened form of the disease and survived, emerging with a lifetime immunity.

Variolation Experience of John Adams, Journey from Braintree to Boston

Twelve years before, John had traveled from Braintree to Boston—about 12 miles—for variolation following a smallpox epidemic. At the time and for years later Abigail’s mother, terrified of the risky treatment, would not allow her to get the treatment. By 1776, however, Abigail’s mother was dead, another epidemic had swept through Boston, and Abigail was determined to take advantage of it.

So on July 12, she and her four children were part of a party that traveled up to Boston from Braintree. In a letter to John, Abigail explained that she brought with them a cow, some hay, and wood, as well. Abigail, her sisters, and their broods were among 17 people, including two maids and a black man, who crowded into a Boston house for the treatment. Abigail noted that the town was crowded with people from the countryside undergoing the same treatment.

Sick Children, Harsh Medicines, Declaration Approved by Continental Congress in Philadelphia

The physician overseeing the treatment for Abigail and her children did not subscribe to the practices of earlier physicians, who demanded that patients endure ten days of self-induced vomiting and other torments as preparation. Still he did prescribe some unpleasant medicines. It was not easy for the children: “We have enough upon our hands in the morning,” Abigail wrote. “The Little folks are very sick then and puke every morning but after that are very comfortable.”

By the time she wrote this letter, Abigail was familiar with the text of the declaration approved by Congress on July 4. John had kept her well informed. Abigail was disappointed that Congress had watered down the original version: “I cannot but feel sorry that some of the most Manly Sentiments in the Declaration are Expunged from the printed coppy.”

Accident Involving Gray Horse Owned by John Adams, Speech from State House Balcony

In the same letter, Abigail also informed John about a “Misfortune in the family” when she was in Braintree. That was the loss of John’s gray mare. Abigail explained that the horse stepped on a stone and became lame: “every thing was done for her by Baths, ointments, polticing, Bleeding &c. that could be done.” Nothing helped. “You can hardly tell, not even by your own feelings how much I lament her.”

In Abigail’s next letter to John, on July 21, she told him how she joined a large crowd on King Street (now State Street) to hear the Declaration of Independence read from the balcony of the State House: “great attention was given to every word.” After dinner, the king’s arms were taken off the State House and burned on King Street: “Thus ends royall Authority in this State, and all the people shall say Amen.”

Meanwhile, the smallpox treatment was not going as well as hoped. Abigail was still waiting to come down with the mild sickness and only one of the four children had certain signs of infection. But she noted to John that she was starting to feel miserable, hoping that was an indication: “A most Excruciating pain in my head and every Limb and joint I hope portends a speedy Eruption . . .”

Getting Smallpox the Natural Way, Illness of Charles Adams, Tea with Wife of Sam Adams

Eventually one of the children had to be inoculated three times before it took. Out of frustration, she fed one son a little wine hoping that would somehow stimulate inoculation. When six-year-old Charles finally got the disease, it was not through inoculation, but the “natural” way, which meant it could be especially bad, even deadly. The boy was delirious for two days.

Terrified for Charles, Abigail was also annoyed at John. She had asked him to send her tea from Philadelphia. It particularly bothered her after a visit to Elizabeth Adams, wife of Samuel Adams, John’s cousin, who was also in Philadelphia. Elizabeth served Abigail “a very fine Dish” of tea.

Elbridge Gerry Delivered Tea to Wrong Mrs. Adams in Boston

As it turned out, the tea Abigail and Elizabeth were enjoying was actually meant for Abigail. John, not Sam, Adams had bought the tea. The woman John ordered it from gave it to Elbridge Gerry, another Massachusetts man in Philadelphia, to deliver to Abigail. Somehow, Gerry delivered it to the wrong Mrs. Adams.

Little Charles recovered and was able to leave Boston with Abigail on September 2.


  1. Holton, Woody. Abigail Adams. New York, Free Press, 2009.