Culture

Why Abigail Adams Should Be on the Next $10 Bill

The feds may not know it yet, but the U.S. Treasury is looking for Abigail Adams.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced Wednesday that in honor of the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, the next $10 bill (currently featuring Alexander Hamilton, whose replacement The Federalist ambivalently mourns in this pair of articles) will feature a woman whose image captures the theme of democracy.

To date, only four women’s faces have adorned U.S. currency: Martha Washington, Pocahontas, Susan B. Anthony, and Sacagawea. Other candidates previously floated and currently in the running are Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Friedan, and Margaret Sanger.

But when it comes to representing American democracy on 1.9 billion paper bills, whose image can top Portia’s? (That, in case you missed it, is how Abigail signed many of her letters to John: as the patient wife of the statesman Brutus, whom Shakespeare called the “noblest Roman of them all.”)

It is widely known, although not widely enough, that Abigail was John’s most trusted policy advisor throughout his career. More significantly, Adams’s fellow statesmen knew it, too. Jefferson, for instance, sought her counsel by post and in person.

Abigail lamented with irritation that women were cut out of politics and governing.

She believed blacks equal to whites and was troubled that Jefferson could so eloquently and correctly hold forth on man’s equality while owning slaves.

She grounded her husband, who tended toward philosophical flourishes when pith was needed.

She critiqued much of his writing in draft form, and backed and guided him politically as early as …

  • his defense of the British soldiers accused following the Boston Massacre of 1770;

  • his vital participation in the Continental Congress (for until he persuaded them, the other delegates were reticent to engage while Massachusetts was absorbing most of the Crown’s rage through the Coercive Acts, including a blockade of Boston Harbor);

  • his thankless diplomacy in Holland, France, and England;

  • his authorship of the Massachusetts Constitution (a close model for the U.S.’s);

  • the nation’s first vice presidency (as Abigail insisted that anything less would be beneath him, just as he was preparing to retire from public service); and

  • the nation’s second presidency (which, also thanklessly, saved America from certain destruction from both Britain and Napoleonic France).

Abigail Adams was fiercely independently minded, at times sharply disagreeing with her husband, but usually agreeing with him—largely because it was him who was agreeing with her. She raised five children, weathered tragedy, and earned triumph.

Portia may very well be the first authentically American heroine. Surely that is worth at least a 10-spot.