How First Lady Abigail Adams Integrated a School in Massachusetts

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Abigail Adams

On the farm in Quincy, the wife of the second president oversaw farmhands, scheduled plowing, managed manuring, and helped a black boy get an education.

During part of the four-year term of President John Adams, his wife Abigail did not live with the president, but stayed behind in Massachusetts to manage the family’s home, farm, and properties. They sent letters back forth from Quincy, Massachusetts, where the family home was, to Philadelphia, which was the United States capital at the time.

In one letter, Abigail explained to John an episode involving a black boy who worked for her. A neighbor asked Abigail to keep the boy out of the school. We only know Abigail’s version of the conversation. But according to that version, the First Lady politely tore into the poor man leaving no doubt that she was prepared to fight to keep the boy in the school.

First Lady’s Expertise in Plowing, Building, and Manuring

In that letter, dated February 13, 1797, Abigail touches on many subjects, demonstrating her wide-ranging responsibilities in managing workers, handling debts, supervising repairs and improvements, and watching expenses at the Adams farm. This letter touched on, for example, the weather (there has been a thaw and she expects an early spring); progress on the work in building a wall (Billings has been at work on it, she says); the hired help (one man will be leaving so another will have to be hired); plowing (“The Hill,” she says, should be plowed in a week to ten days unless the weather changes); manuring (she is advised that manure will be required in a certain piece of land, making the corn less profitable); a debt (she asks John to make arrangements to pay “Haydens Note”); and rising prices (“I know of no one article of living which does not exceed in price this year the last. . .”).

She then tells John about “a little occurance” to “shew how little founded in nature the so much boasted principle of Liberty and equality is.”

Black Boy Wanted To Go To Apprentice School

The incident had to to with James Prince, a free black boy the Adamses had hired in Philadelphia and who now worked for the family in Quincy. Abigail had taught the boy to read and write, and the boy had asked to go to an apprentice school that had recently opened nearby. Abigail gave her blessing. Abigail soon received a visit from a neighbor named Faxon. The neighbor asked Abigail to keep the boy out of the school because, Faxon said, if the boy continued to go, the other boys would quit and the school would have to close.

Abigail, plainly put off, peppered the man with questions.

Had the boy misbehaved? “O no, there was no complaint of that kind, but they did not chuse to go to School with a Black Boy.”

Did anyone object to the boy “going to meeting”—to religious services—”because he does Mr. Faxon?” Abigail mentions no response.

Is there room for the boy at the school? “Yes.”

Playing Music at a Dance

Apparently James was something of a musician because she also asks: “Did these Lads ever object to James playing for them when at a dance? How can they bear to have a Black in the Room with them there?”

Faxon protests: “O it is not I that object, or my Boys. It is some others.”

Abigail responds: “Pray who are they? Why did not they come themselves.” Then she dices up the neighbor: “This Mr. Faxon is attacking the principle of Liberty and equality upon the only Ground upon which it ought to be supported, an equality of Rights. The Boy is a Freeman as much as any of the young Men, and merely because his Face is Black, is he to be denied instruction? How is he to be qualified to procure a livelihood? Is this the Christian principle of doing to others, as we would have others do to us?”

Poor Faxon retreats: ” O Mam, you are quite right. I hope you wont take any offence.”

Abigail on the Attack

Abigail responds courteously, but continues the attack: “None at all Mr. Faxon, only be so good as to send the young men to me. I think I can convince them that they are wrong. I have not thought it any disgrace to my self to take him [Prince] into my parlour and teach him both to read and write. Tell them Mr. Faxon that I hope we shall all go to Heaven together.”

Faxon, Abigail said, then laughed and the conversation ended. We can imagine Faxon, hat in hand, red-faced, slinking out the door. She concludes her tale: “I have not heard any more upon the subject. I have sent Prince constantly to the Town School for some time, and have heard no objection.”