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Historian, professor Holton lectures on Abigail Adams

Published: October 6, 2010, 11:05 pm ET
Collegian Staff

Abigail Adams was not just a First Lady, but was also an early feminist, learned audience members at Woody Holton’s lecture on Sunday afternoon.

The lecture, which took place in the Brown-Alley room, was sponsored by the Friends of Boatwright Memorial Library in honor of “Abigail Adams,” the new book by the historian and associate professor of history and American studies.

Holton told the audience of about 50 people that he had a very canned lecture prepared, which he had already given about 60 times, and so was going to speak about something different, which was Abigail’s relationship with the other women in her life.

The audience heard how Abigail did not always have a good relationship with her mother, although she did with her two “surrogate mothers,” her grandmother and Phoebe, a slave of Abigail’s father. Holton talked about disagreements Abigail had with Mary, the older of her two sisters. Abigail’s daughter, also named Abby, was talked about because of Abigail’s disappointment of Abby’s lack of sensibility, which she thought an important trait.

The book, which was released in November 2009, won a Bancroft Prize, which Holton described as a “holy grail for historians.”

“That was a shocking phone call to receive,” Holton said, “because I really had fun with this book, and to be honest, I wrote it for fun … I wasn’t thinking about winning prizes when I wrote it.”

His interest in the second First Lady began about five years ago when researching his previous book, “Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution,” Holton said. He discovered that Abigail had been one of the bond speculators who soldiers sold their bonds to after the Revolutionary War, and that she had made enormous profits in doing so, which “didn’t fit our picture of her as loyally more cheering on her husband,” he said.

Holton said he was interested in Abigail’s role’s as a feminist. Biographers already knew her feminist viewpoints, he said, because of various statements she had written, but they did not know that Abigail had put her thoughts into action.

One of these actions, which Holton ended his lecture with, was her will, which distributed $100,000 worth of property among her granddaughters, nieces, daughters-in-law and female servants, and neglected her poor male relatives. Holton said in his lecture that this was significant because as a married woman in that time, she was not supposed to write a will.

She couldn’t change the law,” Holton said, “so she defied the law.”

Another reason Holton said that “Abigail Adams” took a shorter amount of time to write was that Abigail “is just so quotable.” He said that his book ended up containing more quotes than his actual writing at times.

“The historian Joe Ellis once said that she was incapable of writing a boring letter and that’s really true, so I just let her do the talking a lot of the time,” Holton said.

“Abigail Adams” took Holton the shortest amount of time to write, he said, and the only one that he wrote completely in his ten years at the University of Richmond. One reason he said he thought this was because he had students help him with the book. He said that Andy Newcomb, the dean of Arts and Sciences, had encouraged faculty to get students involved with research, but Holton said that was difficult to do in the humanities.

“But, I found with this topic I really could get students’ help,” Holton said. “So for instance, I taught a History 100 class about Abigail, and would ask the students questions, and just in the course of leading discussions, I really got a lot of great insights from students.”

Bridget Westhoven is one of these students. As a graduate student in a senior seminar he had taught, she received credit in a footnote of the book for one of her ideas, she said. He had told the class upfront, Westhoven said, that if he found any ideas in their papers that he liked, he might use it in the book.

Westhoven, who graduated in 2009, said that the next semester, she did an independent study with Holton, because she had enjoyed learning about Abigail Adams. She later helped him in the editing process of his book, she said.

Holton said that another reason he thought “Abigail Adams” was successful was his uncertainty on his feelings toward his subject, unlike his previous books, in which he knew where he stood right away.

“I’m still ambivalent about her,” he said. “One day I love her, and hate would be too strong, but there’s a lot of things about her I don’t like.”

Contact staff writer Elizabeth Hyman at elizabeth.hyman@richmond.edu

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