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PRIMARY DOCUMENTS  |  The White House as Home and Symbol to John and Abigail Adams: Letters from 1800
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Activity 1: Wish You Were Here

John Adams's first days in the White House were remarkable in their ordinariness. He conducted business as usual and met with well-wishers. By the end of the second day he wrote a letter to his wife. This short note to Abigail anticipated her arrival in Washington, but Adams spared many of the details of the condition of the house, knowing that she would form her own impressions.

»  Read the Text or the Original Handwritten Letter Page One & Page Two that John Adams wrote to Abigail Adams on November 2, 1800 and complete the following.

  1. Describe John Adams's mood when he wrote the letter and cite words or phrases that support your answer.
  2. Characterize the information John Adams gives in this letter to his wife. Why do you think he does not give more details about the condition of the house? In what way does he acknowledge the significance of his being the first occupant of the house? Cite the passage that demonstrates John Adams's view that the President's House is built for the ages. (This passage was so significant that President Franklin Roosevelt had it engraved on the fireplace mantel in the State Dining Room.)
  3. Describe your reaction to the letter as if you were Abigail Adams. Would you be looking forward to your trip or would you be hesitant? Write a letter in reply.

Activity 2: "A romantic but a wild wilderness at present"

Abigail Adams to her sister, Mrs. Mary Cranch, November 21, 1800 »  Read the Text and see a page of the Original Handwritten Letter

Abigail Adams to her daughter, Abigail Smith, November 21, 1800 »  Read the Text

Abigail Adams was a prolific letter writer. She wrote often to family members and friends, keeping them abreast of her experiences and passing along information she learned from others. A keen observer, her letters are candid and filled with political and social commentary, as well as personal advice. Shortly after arriving in Washington, Mrs. Adams wrote letters to her sister, Mary, and to her daughter, Abigail (nicknamed "Nabby"), chronicling the events leading up to her arrival at the President’s House and her early impressions of the home itself. Her unique perspective and observations provide insights into this critical historical period that might otherwise have gone unrecorded.

  1. Read both letters carefully. What is the purpose of each letter? Do you get the same impression of the capital city of Washington and the President's House from both letters?
  2. Make a list of the various ways she describes the city of Washington. What aspects does she single out? At one point in the letter to her daughter, Abigail Adams feels that she may have been too candid in her description of the President's House. Why would she be concerned about her negative observations? Note examples of how she changes her tone to reflect a more positive outlook.
  3. What is Abigail Adams's opinion of the President's House? How many rooms are available for the family to use? What are the functions of the various rooms in the house? Imagine the time of year and what is required to keep the rooms comfortable. According to Mrs. Adams, what amenities are lacking at the house? What are her biggest concerns about the house and its furnishings? What is needed most to complete the house?
  4. Imagine you are a "travel reporter" in 1800. After reading Mrs. Adams's description of the city, its current condition, as well as its future potential, write an article that promotes Washington as a city in which to visit or to live. Include information on "points of interest," such as the President's House.
  5. As the wife of a public figure, Abigail Adams often suppressed her own hopes and wishes in deference to a higher calling. In what ways does she acknowledge the role that the President's House plays in the future? Describe your reactions to the condition of the White House as Abigail Adams found it. Did she do the right thing by accepting the situation and making the best of it? Explain.
  6. Imagine you are either the daughter or sister of Mrs. Adams. Write a letter in response to the one she has written you. What words of comfort can you give her about the condition of the house and her role as the first lady?



Return to PRIMARY DOCUMENT LESSON: "Letters from 1800"

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