The Wilson Quarterly

In 1783, as future president John Adams, in Paris, wrapped up the treaty ending the Revolutionary War, and his wife, Abigail, managed the family farm back in America, the couple had one of their rare quarrels. The subject was money. John wanted to buy neighboring farms in Massa­chu­setts; Abigail wanted to speculate in 18th-­century junk bonds and Vermont real ­estate.

The famously ­like-­minded pair held almost polar views on investment strategy. John thought that speculation diverted capital from productive uses and merely redistributed it from poor creditors to rich investors. Abigail wanted to make money. She considered the dour and righteous John’s paltry salary a poor reward for his years of public service, and thought nothing of buying bonds at fire-sale prices and investing in real estate using “straw men” in order to conceal her identity.

Moreover, she carved out £100 of the family’s available sterling and began playing the bond market on her own, even though, under Massachusetts law, everything belonged to John. Woody Holton, a historian at the University of Richmond, writes that Abigail is well known for denouncing laws that left all property “subject to the controul [sic] and disposal of our partners.” Less known is that her views were not utopian musings. She took family money “which I call mine,” she wrote, speculated (successfully) with it, and set up a fund she used for personal ­charity.

She was remarkably candid about why. “I derive a pleasure from the regret of others,” the poor and needy whom she would not be able to help further, she confessed before departing for ­Eur­ope.

Through forthright disagreement with her husband, occasional wheedling, and surreptitious in­struc­tions to managers, Abigail managed the family’s assets far more profitably than John ordered her to. When he dir­ected his wife in 1783 to sound out two neighbors about selling their farms, she wrote back that she had a better alternative: state bonds. Unpersuaded, John tried again a year later. By that time, Abigail had joined her husband in Europe and turned her family’s affairs over to her uncle, Cotton Tufts.

When John asked Tufts to buy the farm of William and Sarah Vesey, Abigail urged caution. “Between you and I, don’t be in a hurry about that. . . . Vesey’s place is poverty,” she wrote, “and I think we have enough of that already.”

Speculation in securities was hugely controversial at the time. During the war, some ­currency-­strapped colonies paid soldiers, farmers, and traders in paper certificates. Desperate for gold and silver, the holders resold the paper to speculators at a fraction of its face value. Abigail bought a £100 certificate for about £25. In four years, she collected £27 in interest. In another venture, she bought 1,650 acres of disputed former Indian land in Vermont, using four straw men to secure parcels for each of her four children. Despite her protestations that she had set her heart on the investment, John responded flatly, “don’t meddle any more with Vermont.” John’s investment strategy could be summed up in a single word: farmland.

Writing from Paris, John found it easy to “wax eloquent about land’s ennobling qualities,” Hol­ton writes. Abigail had to find sober tenants, handle their grievances, help them sell their crops, and collect rent. On a rhetorical level, she shared John’s repugnance toward speculation, and she was careful not to let news of her dealings become public. But for all John’s denunciation of speculators, he allowed Abigail to make him one. In a sense, Holton says, she dragged him into the modern ­era.

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The Source: “Abigail Adams, Bond Speculator” by Woody Holton, in William and Mary Quarterly, Oct. ­2007.

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