Henningsen: Abigail's Independence

Jun 29, 2015

In July 1776 Abigail Adams faced one of the most difficult challenges of her life. And, like many women at the time, she did it alone.

Colonial American women were dependent upon the men who controlled their property. But with husbands and fathers away at war, women were thrust into unfamiliar roles, like running farms and businesses. Such newfound independence was both exhilarating and scary, but nothing was more fraught than the truly life-or-death risks of inoculation against smallpox.

One of the great killers, smallpox was a major cause of the 90% decline in the Native American population during the fifty years after Columbus. It recurred regularly, killing and maiming hundreds of thousands more each time. Passed by human contact, it thrived in times of war, when the passage of armies and migration of refugees accelerated transmission. And, in 1776, an epidemic erupted in Boston.

Vaccination, which prevents the disease, wouldn’t be developed for another twenty years. In 1776 the only way to develop immunity to smallpox was to catch and survive it through inoculation, which required deliberate infection and surviving what everyone hoped would be a mild case. Too often, it wasn’t.

John Adams was inoculated young, but Abigail’s parents forbade their teenaged daughter from undergoing the treatment, an exercise of control she resented. Now determined to do it, she and her children joined thousands of people flooding Boston in search of the procedure. Inoculation was so dangerous that Massachusetts had banned it but, in contrast to today’s conflict over philosophical exemptions to state-mandated vaccination, thousands defied the law to get treatment, not avoid it.

Abigail handled it well, but three of her four children required multiple inoculations and the youngest almost died. “I have not got rid of any terrors of the small pox,” she wrote John, “[and] I should dread it more now than before I saw it.”

In September she proudly reported to the absent John that the family had “passed ‘thro one of the most terrible Diseases to which human nature is subject.”

During the ordeal, John had written her 33 anxious letters to her 16, yet still she lamented, “I should go home with a much lighter Heart if I had heard from you.”