As I researched ABIGAIL ADAMS my most startling discovery was that the subject of my biography was not only a First Lady and proto feminist but a junk bond dealer. She bought up Revolutionary War bonds (many of which had been inveigled from the veterans of Saratoga and Valley Forge at a fraction of their face value) as low as 25 cents on the dollar. And she made a killing.
Even as John Adams denounced securities speculators and even used anti-Semitic language against them (they were “Jews and Judaizing Christians,” he said), he allowed his wife to turn him into one. In the end Abigail’s investment in distressed government assets (and her other financial ventures, which were also high risk and high yield) allowed the second president to die wealthy and debt free—a sharp contrast to his two successors, the Virginians Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who died so deep in debt that their mansions (most notably Jefferson’s Monticello) had to be sold to satisfy their creditors.
Meanwhile Abigail’s success as a bond speculator emboldened her to assert unprecedented control over her household and her family’s finances. She even defied hundreds of years of statutes and judicial precedents by leaving a will, which married women were not actually allowed to do since they were not supposed to own property.
Abigail made token bequests to her two surviving sons, but the rest of her estate (worth about $100,000 in modern currency) went to women, several of whom were themselves married and thus not permitted to own property. Having spent the previous thirty years asserting ownership of a portion of her family’s fortune in defiance of the law, Abigail wanted to make it possible for these other women to make the same claim.
Woody Holton is an associate professor at the University of Richmond. A former finalist for the National Book Award, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship for Abigail Adams, which is just out from Free Press.
IMAGE: a Tufts Trustee receipt for Abigail Adams bonds dated August 21, 1792