American Portraits

Remember the Ladies: Abigail Adams and Respect

In this lesson, students will learn about the life of Abigail Adams and how she fought for respect for the respect of women’s rights.

Founding Principles

Equality image


Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.


Abigail Adams had finally gotten her children to bed and was exhausted. Ever since her husband, John, had decided to serve at the Continental Congress, she had been alone and forced to run their home and farm as well as educate the children. It was overwhelming, but Abigail tried not to complain too often. She reveled in her quiet time of a still house and a cup of homespun tea. She would dip into the books in John’s extensive library and read by candlelight. She would also pen letters to John, American historian Mercy Otis Warren, and British historian Catherine Macaulay. Then, she would collapse in her empty bed and drift off to sleep before tackling another exhausting day the following morning….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How should the principle of respect impact the plans for a new form of government?

Virtue Defined

Respect is civility flowing from personal humility.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about the life of Abigail Adams and how she fought for respect for the respect of women’s rights.


  • Students will analyze Abigail Adams’s thoughts on the issue of women’s rights.
  • Students will examine Abigail Adams’s understanding of respect as a necessary virtue.
  • Students will understand why cultivating respect affects the future of the United States.
  • Students will demonstrate respect in their own lives to protect freedom.


In the spring of 1774, the British Parliament passed the Coercive Acts to punish Boston for the Tea Party. These acts closed the harbor to trade and granted royal authorities more power to govern Massachusetts. In order to coordinate a unified response to British tyranny in Boston, John Adams met with other delegates at the First Continental Congress in September and October of 1774. During the fateful spring of 1775, war erupted when the British and Americans fought at the Battles of Lexington and Concord. As Adams and other delegates to Congress assembled and created a Continental Army commanded by George Washington, the two armies engaged once again at the Battle of Bunker Hill in June. At this point, Adams was a fervent supporter of independence, but he knew it was best to wait until the people and members of Congress galvanized around the idea. In January 1776, the publication of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense rallied the people around independence. Adams would be instrumental in getting Congress to approve a resolution for states creating their own governments in May. Over the next two months, he served on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence and almost single-handedly influenced Congress to adopt the ringing statement of natural rights and self-government on July 4, 1776.

During this period, John Adams was one of the most diligent public servants in Congress, and he had to endure lengthy, painful separations from his wife, Abigail Adams, and their children. He longed for home but felt the pull of duty to the republic during the historical moment of separation from Great Britain. Meanwhile, Abigail and the children lived frightfully close to the war zone as the British occupied Boston. She had to take care of the home and farm in John’s absence and educate their children without his help. She suffered the privations of war and suffered from the various illnesses that swept through Boston, one of which claimed the life of her mother. John and Abigail Adams were devoted spouses and kept up a lengthy and historically important correspondence about domestic and public affairs. One of those letters raised an important issue about natural rights and equality for all people.


  • Coercive Acts
  • Tea Party
  • Battles of Lexington and Concord
  • Continental Army
  • Battle of Bunker Hill
  • Galvanized
  • Privations
  • Domestic
  • Reveled
  • Inhumane
  • Nib
  • Natural rights
  • Saucy
  • Emancipating
  • Arbitrary

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • hat fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • In what ways did John Adams and Abigail Adams demonstrate respect for others, seeking to enhance life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for themselves and others?
  • What was the identity of Abigail Adams during the Revolutionary War? To what extent do you see an emphasis on the virtue of respect in her words and actions?
  • As he participated in the Continental Congress, how did John Adams see his purpose? How did Abigail Adams see her purpose?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Bobb, David J. Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013.
  • Ellis, Joseph J. First Family: Abigail and John Adams. New York: Knopf, 2010.
  • Gelles, Edith B. Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage. New York: Harper Collins, 2009.
  • Holton, Woody. Abigail Adams. New York: Free Press, 2009.
  • Shuffelton, Frank, ed. The Letters of John and Abigail Adams. New York: Penguin, 2004.
  • Withey, Lynne. Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams. New York: Touchstone, 1981.

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