Martha Washington and Abigail Adams are two of the most well-known and admired women from the American Revolution. Yet these founding mothers made very different choices when the lure of liberty called their husbands to leadership positions. Motherhood and their distinctive seasons in life influenced the decisions they made.
By the time George Washington became commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1775, his wife Martha was an empty nester. Three of her four children had died. Jack, her last living son, was grown and married. Martha hoped George would return to Mount Vernon by the autumn of 1775. When the leaves fell from the trees and Washington was still not home, Martha made her choice.
She would join her husband in camp for winter, forcing her to endure a month in a carriage over risky rough roads from Virginia to Massachusetts. Traveling put her in greater jeopardy for catching small pox or being kidnapped by the British.
Martha faced her fears, admitting to a friend: “I confess I shudder every time I hear the sound of a gun.”
But she did it, year after year, dividing her time between Mount Vernon and being with her husband in camp. She agonized as she missed family celebrations, including the birth of her first granddaughter in August 1776. Yet she prioritized being with her husband, even when her sister and mother fell ill and could have used her help. Historians estimate that Martha spent 50 percent of the war with George in camp or close by.
Abigail faced a different scenario. Once again, her place in motherhood influenced her choice. Unlike Martha, Abigail’s children were young and dependent. In 1775 her oldest of four children was ten; her youngest, three.
When John Adams left Boston to join the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, he gave up his law practice, half of their income. Abigail rose to the occasion, offering to manage the other half—their farmland—in his absence. She became an income-earning mother, sacrificing companionship with her husband in Philadelphia to care for their children and land back home.
She stitched together solvency to keep them from the poorhouse. “I hope in time to have the reputation of being as good a farmeress as my partner has of being a good statesmen.”
He was, and she was, but it wasn’t easy. Abigail faced numerous hardships: labor shortages, tenants who abandoned their crops, counterfeit money schemes, and inflation, among others.
“Do not think me extravagant—I economize with the utmost frugality I am capable of, but our taxes are so high, and so numerous, that I know not which way to turn,” she fretted.
Abigail kept her ship from sinking. This mother was the glue that kept her family unit in tact among the chaos surrounding them.
Why did Martha and Abigail sacrifice so much? Love and patriotism.
Col. Edmund Pendleton, who accompanied George Washington as he left Mount Vernon to attend the Continental Congress in 1774, was among the first to witness Martha’s patriotic resoluteness.
“I was much pleased with Mrs. Washington and her spirit. She seemed ready to make any sacrifice and was cheerful though I knew she felt anxious. She talked like a Spartan mother to her son on going to battle. ‘I hope you will stand firm – I know George will,’ she said.”
“Mrs. Washington would remain loyal to the Revolution, but her devotion was to more than just an idea of what constituted a proper government. A large part of the faithfulness to ‘the cause,’ shown by her during the war, derived from the tremendous personal loyalty she felt toward her husband,” Mount Vernon historian Mary Thompson explained.
Abigail saw frugality and sacrifice as values worthy of a great nation. “I hope by degrees we shall be inured to hardships and become a virtuous valiant people…till we rival all other nations by our virtues.”
After reading Thomas Paine’s 1776 bestselling pamphlet, Common Sense, which boldly proclaimed that America should separate from England to become free and independent states, Abigail shared her commitment to the cause in a letter to her husband.
“I am charmed with the sentiments of ‘Common Sense,’ and wonder how an honest heart, one who wishes the welfare of his country and the happiness of posterity, can hesitate one moment at adopting them.”
Mother’s Day celebrates the love and sacrifices of mothers around the nation. Martha and Abigail were two mothers who sacrificed for their own families and for us today, the “unborn millions” to come as George Washington called us.
These women lived loudly for liberty and deserve their place as founding mothers of the United States of America. Author, presidential historian, TV analyst and mother,
Jane Hampton Cook lives in Vienna, Virginia. She is the author of six books, including: What Does the President Look Like?, Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War and The Faith of America’s First Ladies. She will be at the Center for a program in support of Discover the Real George Washington on Saturday, July 30th.