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Copyright National Humanities Center, In correspondence with her husband John as he and other leaders were framing a government for the United States, Abigail Adams — argued that the laws of the new nation should recognize women as something more than property and protect them from the arbitrary and unrestrained power men held over them. Find more correspondence at Founders Online from the National Archives. For more information on text complexity see these resources from achievethecore. In the Text Analysis section, Tier 2 vocabulary words are defined in pop-ups, and Tier 3 words are explained in brackets.
for standards and skills for this lesson.
In this lesson students will investigate concerns about the dangers of unrestrained power during the revolutionary period through four letters, written in andby Abigail Adams to her husband John and her close friend Mercy Otis Warren. This lesson looks at the revolutionary period as a time of questions and uncertainties for women as well as men.
The second correspondent in this lesson, Mercy Otis Warren —was a close friend of Adams, who, like her, was unusually well educated for a woman of the time. Warren — a poet, writer and propagandist for the Patriot cause — was the first woman to write a history of the Revolution. This lesson is divided into two parts, both accessible below. This lesson features two interactive exercises: the first is deed to build vocabulary; the second reviews the main points Adams makes in her letters.
Please note to your students that the letters retain their original spelling. Adams wrote from Braintree, Massachusetts, where she was raising her four young children and managing the family farm. Although her days were busy with the duties of a single parent living both in a war zone — the British Army was only about twelve miles away in Boston — and in an area ravaged by a smallpox epidemic, she still contemplated the political changes taking place, and those changes are reflected in her appeal to her husband.
Today that appeal may seem little more than a bit of advice — sassy, flirtatious, but ultimately trivial — offered by a spirited wife to her powerful husband. Indeed, John Adams —who became the second president of the United States —dismissed it with patronizing humor. Yet as the letters offered in this lesson show, Abigail was quite serious when she made her request and for good reason.
In the s the lives of colonial married women were governed by the legal doctrine of femme covert or coverture. Under this doctrine a husband and wife were considered one person, and that person was the husband.
Since only property owners could vote, coverture effectively denied women that right. Moreover, dependent persons were considered undesirable as voters because they would be under the influence of the person on whom they depended: it would be equal to giving that person two votes.
It is not surprising, therefore, that in the letters excerpted here Abigail Adams focuses on the character of men and on the need for laws to protect women. As we see, she is not at all sure that men are sufficiently virtuous to wield the power they possess; put another way, she is certain that some men are not.
In the s those terms did not mean what they mean today. At that time this ability to feel for another person was considered a source of virtue. Something stronger is going to be needed. In the paragraph prior to this one Abigail Adams describes a dinner with Benjamin Franklin, a man she highly respects. Summarize the relationship that Abigail believes exists. Abigail believes that someone who is not guided by the moral precepts of religion will not honestly fulfill his duty to the public.
Even if his pubic life appears honorable, his private immorality will show through and corrupt public morality. It suggests that she sees such power as threatening and irrational, like that of an animal, and ultimately uncontrollable. With what does Adams contrast the weak restraint of a cobweb? She acknowledges that those particular moral restraints would be ineffective when a less-than-virtuous person encounters temptation.
In this excerpt, Abigail looks at the relationship between private morals and public duty as well as the possible effects of unrestrained power. Even suppose Him to possess a large share of what is called honour and publick Spirit yet do not these Men by their bad Example, by a loose immoral conduct corrupt the Minds of youth, and vitiate the Morrals of the age, and thus injure the publick more than they can compensate by intrepidityGenerosity and Honour?
Let revenge or ambition, pride, lust or profit tempt these Men to a base and vile action, you may as well hope to bind up a hungry tiger with a cobweb as to hold such debauched patriots in the visionary chains of Decency or to charm them with the intellectual Beauty of Truth and reason…. Abigail Adams begins this excerpt with a series of rhetorical questions.
What is her main concern in the first paragraph? She is questioning her husband as to what new form of government will be established. She is curious as to the nature of this new government, and she is concerned that the delegates might not be able to come to consensus as to the form of the government. In paragraph 2, how does Abigail characterize power? How does the fish imagery illuminate her view of power? Like the tiger image in the first letter, it is drawn from the animal world and suggests that she thinks power is irrational.
Thus we can see why in the first letter, she offers reason as a potential restraint, even though a rather weak one. Her husband wrote to her in a letter that man can be capable of good. Does she agree? How do you know? She states that she does believe that humans can act virtuously but that it happens very rarely. She takes a rather dark view of it. In paragraph 3, why does Abigail believe that citizens might not accept a new government?
In paragraph 3 Abigail follows up with another series of rhetorical questions. Her concern has now shifted from whether a government will be established, as in paragraph 1, to the relationship between government and individuals. What questions does Abigail ask regarding the code of law which she feels must be established? She asks five questions. She asks what code of laws will be established; who will establish them; how the laws will be administered; how the laws will protect individual liberties; and who will enforce the laws.
In paragraph 4 Abigail puts forth another reason that citizens might not accept the new government. What is it? How would you summarize the main themes of this excerpt? Here Adams is holding forth on human nature and the need to restrain it, while recognizing the difficulty of establishing a new state that will successfully do so. I wish I knew what mighty things were fabricating. If a form of Goverment is to be established here what one will be assumed?
Will it be left to our assemblies to chuse one? I am more and more convinced that Man is a dangerous creature, and that power whether vested in many or a few is ever grasping, and like the grave cries give, give.
The great fish swallow up the small, and he who is most strenuous for the Rights of the people, when vested with power, is as eager after the perogatives of Goverment. You tell me of degrees of perfection to which Humane Nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances. The Building up a Great Empire, which was only hinted at by my correspondent may now I suppose be realized even by the unbelievers.
Yet will not ten thousand Difficulties arise in the formation of it? The Reigns of Goverment have been so long slaknedthat I fear the people will not quietly submit to those restraints which are necessary for the peace, and security, of the community; if we seperate from Brittain, what Code of Laws will be established. How shall we be governd so as to retain our Liberties?
Can any goverment be free which is not adminstred by general stated Laws? Who shall frame these Laws? Who will give them force and energy? Tis true your Resolution[s] as a Body have heithertoo had the force of Laws. But will they continue to have? When I consider these things and the prejudices of people in favour of Ancient customs and Regulations, I feel anxious for the fate of our Monarchy or Democracy or what ever is to take place.
I soon get lost in a Labyrinth of perplexitiesbut whatever occurs, may justice and righteousness be the Stability of our times, and order arise out of confusion. Great difficulties may be surmounted, by patience and perseverance. How in the first paragraph does Adams parallel the plight of women with the political condition of the colonies? She does so by making the same case against men that the Patriots make against the King of England.
They and he are tyrants. They give women no voice in the laws that govern their lives, just as the King gives the colonies no voice in the laws that govern them. She means that some men can overcome their natural tendency to be tyrants and treat women justly and that such men will be happier for doing so.
What argument does she make in the second paragraph? Cite evidence from the text. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation. That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend.
Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in immitation of the Supreem Being make use of that power only for our happiness.
In this letter Abigail specifically writes about the laws which she thinks should be changed. Which laws are those? Why does she think these laws to protect women are necessary? His tone was derisive and mocking. He laughed at her suggestions, stating that the current state of rebellion had led to a lessening of respect for laws in a of groups children, apprentices, students, Indians, and Negroes and that he would now add women to that list.
John Adams is alluding to the familiar and often invoked power-behind-the-throne argument, which holds that, for all their seeming power, husbands really follow the dictates of wives. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude.Give this a try ladies
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