Unique in their time, Abigail Adams and Theodosia Burr Alston possessed intellectual accomplishments, social prominence, and economic status. Also, both women enjoyed supportive marriages with influential husbands as well as proximity to leading male figures of the Revolution and the new nation. Yet, similar to other women of their era, Abigail Adams and Theodosia Burr Alston nurtured their children’s educational and moral development, supported their husbands’ public service, and kept informed about current events. While marked differences in lifestyle, geographic environment, familial dynamics, and the public and political affiliations of their male family members distinguished them from each other, as Republican Mothers, they contributed to the success of the republican experiment.
The American Revolution, with its emphasis on virtue and public service, and Enlightenment philosophy, with its emphasis on reason and the perfectibility of the individual, gave birth to a new female ideal: the Republican Mother. Though this specific term would not be coined for two centuries, during the era of the American Revolution and the new Republic, contemporary writers, philosophers, and political and religious leaders espoused the tenets of the ideal. While this new image of women still implied the domestic role as a woman’s most important and proper position in her society, it also underscored the need for better educated women. Specifically, society entrusted women with instilling virtue, disinterested service, and patriotism in their children—especially the male children, who would become the Republic’s future leaders.
In addition to gaining education for the sake of becoming effective teachers of future leaders, women needed to become capable of managing business affairs in the absence of men, who might be called at any moment into public service. The conviction of contributing service to the nation found a pronounced emphasis in the Revolutionary era. As legacies of Puritanism, duty and public service resonated just as strong in late eighteenth-century America as in previous generations. Although a generation separated Abigail Adams and Theodosia Burr Alston, they became extraordinary examples of Republican Mothers.