The Quest to Succeed as a Republican Mother: Abigail Adams’s Message to Her Son
The idea that “all men are created equal” is a philosophy that drove American revolutionaries during the late 18th century and though women were specifically left out, those who championed the doctrine believed that women in their lackluster intelligence and strength possessed a sense of morality that surpassed that of any man. As a result it fell upon the women to raise proper citizens for the new nation in what became known the principle of Republican Motherhood. In a letter to her son, John Quincy Adams, Mrs. Adams exerts her power as a mother by strategically arranging an ethos-based argument intertwined with allusion and optimistic diction to leave her son with little room for rebuttal.
Mrs. Adams sets the stage for the rest of her letter in the first paragraph by noting the context of the letter and reaffirming the decision that allowed the situation to become a reality. Though she began with warm wishes for his safety, she quickly shifted her tactics and in a condescending yet matronly tone she acknowledged her son’s “reluctance” to accompany his father on a trip to France but pointed out that he is not “capable of judging” what’s the proper thing to do. This immediately conveyed the message that it is to be accepted that she knows what’s best and this in essence stripped John Quincy Adams of his sense of decision-making abilities which something Mrs. Adams does repeatedly throughout the letter and likely in person as well. In a society where women have so little, Mrs. Adams seems determined to hold on tight to the reins of her power as she drives her son to follow in his father’s diplomatic footsteps.
Once established within the letter, the power hierarchy allowed Mrs. Adams to set strict expectations which she can confidently assume will be met by John Quincy Adams. Her demands varied from him making proper use of his language skills to achieving a level of success worthy of the advantages provided to him to being an “eyewitness” of the revolution to honor not only her and John Adams but also the country. Though contrasting in nature, all of these if met serve Abigail’s goal of setting him on the path to become the political leader she raised him to be.
The use of ethos played an important role in allowing Mrs. Adams to maintain her superior position which she supported with allusions and optimistic diction. Midway through the letter she threw out powerful names such as Cicero, Verres, and Mark Anthony. Unlike most families at the time, the Adams’ made sure that their children were properly educated thus those were all names that were not only recognizable to John Quincy Adams but likely quite influential as well. In other words, they were individuals whom people aspire to be like and they lived in times somewhat similar to the American Revolution. Mrs. Adams used this fact to argue that “these are times in which a genius would wish to live.” It’s quite probable that her son bore negative feelings toward the revolution. After all, it resulted in his father working and traveling constantly, him being forced to travel as well, and having to grow up suffering from the violence and punishing laws imposed by the British. In this section of the letter, she is combating the negativity by associating legendary leaders with the struggles and through the words “genius” and “wish” which both have connotations that evoke ideas that something, in this case the revolutionary era, creates opportunity and ought to be appreciated.
Cumulatively, the strategies employed by Mrs. Adams in her letter serve to strengthen the preexisting feeling of compulsory gratitude in her son, not just to her specifically but also toward the environment in which he is being raised in. She tells him to “owe your existence” to his budding nation and that his accomplishments should “bear some proportion to [his] advantages.” This combined with the inciting incident of this letter which was her convincing him to visit France with his father despite his aversion, serve to make the point that his opinion and desires are to be suppressed for the greater good. John Quincy Adams was born in an inspiring time, given plentiful opportunities and a father who has been “honored” and “has taken so large and active a share” in working toward the success of the revolution. They’re at the brink of establishing the world’s first true democracy and in light of that, Mrs. Adams wants her son to flourish in the opportunities created by that fact and not allow youthful idleness to prevent him from reaching his full potential.
History proves that Mrs. Adams succeeded in her role as a republican mother. Thanks much in part to Mrs. Adams advice and John Adams example, John Quincy Adams went on to become one of America’s most accomplished Secretary of States and president of the country thus exceeding Mrs. Adams hopes for his future.
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