Abigail Adams, a child of privilege, helped support Phoebe Abdee, her father’s former slave, after she was freed. Their relationship—disclosed through letters between Abigail and her relatives—was at once intimate and unequal.
For proof that Abigail Adams enjoyed economic opportunities that were denied to most of her female contemporaries, one need look no further than the woman she once described as “the only surviving Parent I have.” Phoebe Abdee was a slave who belonged to Abigail’s father, William Smith, a Puritan minister. In 1783 the highest court in Massachusetts freed the state’s slaves, a decision that Parson Smith confirmed in his will later that year. In June 1784, when Adams sailed to Europe to join her husband, John, who was serving as an American diplomat, she offered her home, rent-free, to Phoebe and her husband, William Abdee. Although the invitation was an obvious testament to Abigail’s faith in Phoebe’s ability to manage a household, during her four-year absence she solicited frequent reports from her uncle and two sisters on the couple she called her “sable Tennants.” Nearly all were positive. Shortly after arriving in France, Abigail asked her sister, Mary Cranch, to let Phoebe know that she appreciated her success at preserving order in the house—and “that I send my Love to her and Respects to her Husband.”
Abigail’s relatives back in Massachusetts did not always show Phoebe the same respect. “I have now and then a little Trouble to keep down the Spirit of the African and reduce it to a proper bearing,” her uncle, Cotton Tufts, wrote her in the spring of 1785. Two years later, Abigail’s younger sister, Elizabeth Shaw, described Phoebe as “oderiferous.”
What Parson Smith’s former slave felt about Abigail and her relatives is unknown, as none of her letters survive. The records of the Adams family show that Phoebe was literate but otherwise uneducated. She’d received a small inheritance from Smith, but it did not pay her expenses, and one of the few complaints Abigail received about the Abdees was that they were unable to afford sufficient firewood to keep the house warm and dry. Phoebe took in washing. In addition, the couple raised vegetables in the Adamses’ garden and “almost maintain[ed] themselves by selling the produce,” Mary Cranch informed her sister. Many of the Abdees’ clothes, including the calico gown that Phoebe wore to church, had been purchased second-hand.
Abigail Adams was not the wealthiest woman in Massachusetts, and Phoebe was not the poorest—as both well knew. Indeed, even as she accepted charity from Abigail, Phoebe extended it as well. An alarmed Mary Cranch reported that the former slave had opened the doors of the Adams cottage to successive waves of “Stragling Negros”—and later whites as well. No doubt she hoped these people would contribute to her household expenses, but Abigail’s relatives reported to her that most of them were a net drain on her meager resources. Still she continued to welcome them. They “have work’d upon her compassion sometimes,” Mary observed.
Abigail and her relatives in Massachusetts enjoined Phoebe to “bolt the door” against these homeless people, but over the years, she persisted in sheltering them. William Abdee died in 1798, and shortly thereafter Phoebe remarried. Her new husband joined the Adamses in trying to persuade her to stop sheltering people even more desperate than herself. He was “willing to work & do any thing for Pheby,” Mary Cranch reported to Abigail in 1800, “but not for such a vile crew.” For her part, “Pheby thinks he has no compassion.”
Phoebe died during the winter of 1812-13. During her slow decline, someone (presumably the Adamses or the town fathers) sent a servant to nurse her. But the young woman was often “neglectfull,” since she knew her patient was “too infirm to compel her.” Thus it was that Mary Cranch and Abigail Adams, the sisters whom Phoebe had cared for during her enslavement, stepped in to look after her during her final days. Phoebe demanded a say in the management of her care, eliciting from Abigail a comment that betrayed her own continuing racial prejudice but also the dignity of her father’s former slave. “The high affrican Blood runs in her veins,” Abigail told her sister, Elizabeth, in an unconscious echo of what her uncle Tufts had written about Phoebe nearly thirty years earlier, “and she has much of the sovereign yet.”
Woody Holton teaches history at the University of Richmond and is the author of Abigail Adams and Unruly Americans.