The spelling of a president’s daughter

Inge Otto, research master student at the University of Leiden, wrote her BA thesis this summer on the letters of Abigail Adams, the daughter of one of the presidents of the United States. What follows is a summary of her findings:

Abigail Adams“Abigail Adams was born in Braintree, Massachusetts in July 1765. She was the eldest child of Abigail Smith (1744-1818), who belonged to a leading family in Braintree, and an ambitious lawyer called John Adams (1735-1826). Thirty years after Abigail’s birth, in 1797, the ambitions and hard work of her father made him the 2nd President of the United States.

During Abigail’s childhood, both her father and two of her brothers were more often away than at home in Braintree: the former for his travels and commitments abroad and the latter for their studies (in Auteuille, France and in Leiden, the Netherlands). To keep in touch with her father, her brothers John Quincy and Charles, and with other relatives, friends, and aquaintances, Abigail and her mother wrote letters.

Abigail Adams (2)A number of Abigail’s letters have come down to us, and they have been collected in the Adams Papers (books) but they are also available on the web (the Massachusetts Historical Society created an online database). For my bachelor thesis I decided to look into Abigail’s letters, and I came across numerous spellings that struck me as odd: chaimber, oald, attemted and Colledge were some of them. Abigail had been taught how to write letters (her father probably had her copy letters for him) and – unusual for girls in the eighteenth century – her parents had sent her to school in Boston for a while. How could these spelling variants be explained?

Unlike today, spelling in the eighteenth century was not fixed yet. In the Late Modern English period printers started to print books according to rules of the so-called printers’ spelling, but people did not necessarily adhere to these rules when writing private letters – not at all. There existed what Osselton (1984) called a “dual spelling system”.

The examples listed above happen to be phonetic spellings I found in letters Abigail wrote to people she had a very close relationship with: her brother John Quincy and her cousin Elizabeth Cranch. The way Abigail spelled these three words reflects the way she pronounced them. The fact that she wrote chaimber rather than chamber, suggests that she pronounced it as /tʃeɪmbə(r)/. In the case of oald, Abigail probably tried to spell the word like other words with the same sound, for instance Coachman – which she used in a letter to JQA in 1785 ­– for this word would be pronounced as /ˈkoʊtʃmən/.

Spelling variants like chaimber, oald, attemted, and Colledge occurred in informal letters Abigail wrote to her brother and cousin. However, formal letters which Abigail had sent to people that were neither relatives or friends of her did not show any of these phonetic spellings. What I concluded in my thesis, then, was that variation in Abigail’s spelling seemed to correlate with the relative formality of her letters.

Isn’t it amaizingly interesting what some 18th-century letters can tell you?”


Anon. The Adams Papers: Digital Collections. Massachusetts: Massachusetts Historical Society.

Butterfield, L.H., ed. (1963a), The Adams Papers Volume 1: December 1761-May        1776. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP.

Butterfield, L.H., ed. (1963b), The Adams Papers Volume 2: June 1776-March 1778. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP.

Gelles, Edith B. (1992), Portia: The World of Abigail Adams. Bloomington: Indiana       University Press.

Osselton, N. E. (1984), “Informal Spelling Systems in Early Modern English: 1500-        1800”, in Rydén, Tieken-Boon van Ostade and Kytö (eds), 33-45.

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