The Profound Effects of an Early American Leadership Couple

Who comes to mind when you think of someone with intellectual depth? Maybe your list of smart people include: Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, or Albert Einstein?

Ok. Now, which married couples come to mind that possess intellectual depth and astuteness? That might be a bit harder to answer, as it requires both husband and wife to possess the value of profundity.

As a differentiating value, profundity means intellectual depth; penetrating knowledge; keen insight; astuteness; or deepness. This is likely not a value you hear about too often.

However, there is one famous couple who clearly displayed the qualities of profundity and left a lasting and profound effect upon an entire nation:

John and Abigail Adams – the 2nd President and First Lady of the United States (1797-1801).

I first wrote about this early American leadership couple here.

John Adams – a thoughtful leader

John Adams is often referred to as a man who was “learned and thoughtful” and “more remarkable as a political philosopher than as a politician”. Indeed, living a long and fulfilling life of 90 years, Adams had a profound effect on the formation of America, and the political system we experience today.

As one of the Founding Fathers of America, Adams was a statesman, diplomat, and a leading advocate of American independence from Great Britain. Well educated, he was an intellectual political theorist who promoted republicanism. He was also a prolific writer espousing his formative ideas, both in published works and in letters to his wife, Abigail, who served as his key advisor.

As President, Adams followed Washington’s lead in making the presidency the example of republican values, and stressing civic virtue. Curiously, he remained quite independent of his cabinet throughout his term, often making decisions despite strong opposition. In fact, it was out of this management style that he avoided war with France, even though his cabinet had a strong desire for war. Even though this decision played an important role in his defeat for reelection, Adams was ultimately thrilled with that decision, so much so that he had it engraved on his tombstone.

Maybe he was just too smart for the other politicians. But there was one who was his equal: his wife.

Abigail Adams – a strong partner

Like other women of the time, Abigail Adams lacked a formal education. But her curiosity stimulated her keen intelligence and she was a veracious reader. She was taught to read and write at home, and given access to the extensive libraries of her father and maternal grandfather. She took special interest in philosophy, theology, the classics, ancient history, government and law.

Reading and writing formed an important bond between Abigail and John, whom she married in 1764. Their marriage, which endured for more than half a century, is often referred to as one of the heart and the mind. She was clearly his equal in intellectual depth, insight, and astuteness.

Based on the incredible 1,200 letters preserved between John and Abigail, today we have “a treasure trove of unexpected intimacy and candor, more revealing than any other correspondence between a prominent American husband and wife in American history”, writes historian Joseph Ellis. Interestingly, Ellis suggests that Abigail was a better and more colorful letter-writer than John, even though he was one of the best letter-writers of the time. In addition, Ellis also argues that Abigail was the more resilient and more emotionally balanced of the two.

As an intellectually open-minded woman for her day, Abigail’s influence was clearly felt on the topic of women’s property rights and advocating more opportunities for women, particularly in the field of education. She felt strongly that women should educate themselves and be recognized for their intellectual capabilities. This would enable them to better guide and influence the lives of their children, and their husbands.

This might help explain why their son – John Quincy Adams – was so well prepared to later become the 6th President of the United States (1825-1829).

Lasting Effects

Unfortunately, Abigail never got to see her son, John Quincy Adams, become President. She died in 1818, at the age of 73.

However, John did see his son become President. Amazingly, as if almost following a script, John died on a most special day: July 4th 1826. This was the exact day celebrating the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. It was also the same day that Thomas Jefferson died.

Lastly, if anyone would suggest that intellectual depth and belief in God couldn’t exist together, then consider John Adams statement denouncing political opponent Thomas Paine’s criticisms of Christianity. Adams states: “The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity and humanity, let the Blackguard Paine say what he will.


What other leadership couples have demonstrated the value of profundity?