Abigail Smith Adams was no accidental soldier of the American Revolution. She never ended up on the frontlines operating an artillery piece when its male operator died (like Molly Pitcher did); never attempted to disguise herself as a man in order to serve (like Anna Marie Lane did); never formed an armed “female militia” to guard important infrastructure (like Prudence Cummings Wright did); nor did she ever serve as a spy for the Continental Army (like Catherine Barry did). 

But Abigail Adams undeniably did have a soldier’s heart and a soldier’s spirit when it came to defending her native land and protecting the nascent United States of America. When the militia defending the newly-declared independent nation against the British army finally acquired muskets, they were still lacking bullets—a dire need Adams, unprompted, did her part to answer, by melting down her personal pewter serving utensils into bullets. 

The second First Lady of the United States, Abigail Adams is justly famous for her “before-her-time” spiritedness (“remember the ladies”) and her forthrightness (“may I not in my turn make complaints?”), not to mention her activism (“if we mean to have heroes, statesmen and philosophers, we should have learned women”) and her humanitarianism (“I wish most sincerely there was not a Slave in the province”). Less well known is that Adams held a quasi-political appointment in 1775, to the Massachusetts Colony General Court. Her husband, second President of the United States John Adams, believed that his wife shone “as a Stateswoman.” 

Considering that even in our contemporary times Abigail Adams’ public spiritedness would be noteworthy, the civic spirit and behavior she exhibited throughout the advent, event, and afterward of the American Revolution is truly remarkable. And in a pattern that modern scholarship confirms, that public spiritedness may have resulted from none other than the example of a military veteran among her relatives—of her maternal grandfather, Colonel John Quincy, who was both a soldier and a politician. 

As a girl and young woman, Abigail spent considerable time with her grandfather, who was considered to be one of the most important men in the Massachusetts colony. Colonel Quincy (after whom Abigail eventually named her son, the sixth President of the United States, John Quincy Adams) served in several public positions throughout his career. He was both a provincial statesman and speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, as well as a colonel of the Suffolk regiment (militia). His multi-faceted modeling of public service impressed upon his granddaughter its vital importance. As the Adams’ generation—the Founding generation—knew all too well, civic knowledge by itself was not enough to fuel an active citizenship. Visible examples of civic behavior in action were also needed. 

For this identical reason, those who study the propensity of young adults to serve in the U.S. military have long wondered how the military-civilian “gap” or “divide” that has become more pronounced during the All-Volunteer Force era (1973 to today) and post-9/11 has negatively affected the inclination to join the military. Currently, less than half of 1% of American adults can claim active duty service. Fewer young adults today have a family tie to anyone who has served than perhaps at any other point in American history; conversely, over 60% of those currently serving in the military have an immediate family member who has also served. With little connection or familiarity with the realities (both positive and negative) of service, potential recruits are particularly vulnerable to being swayed away from public service by distorted images of that service. Today, among the top reasons that young adults cite for not considering military service is the fear of getting physically hurt and suffering adverse mental health.

But as Air Force General CQ Brown Jr. recently reminded his audience at the Reagan National Defense Forum, the more young adults are presented with healthy examples of the military and given accurate information about military service, the more willing they are to consider it as an option for their own life. 

Military service is just one (very important) expression of public service. Abigail Adams is an example of how the military service of her grandfather influenced her own public service, and of how—despite the fact that she had no military experience herself—she still transmitted that civic sense to her own children through her civic behavior. How fortuitous then, that the anniversary of her birth just happens to fall during November, the month designated every year to celebrate veterans and military families.