Hillary Was More Abigail Adams than Eleanor Roosevelt. That May Have Cost Her the Election.News at Home
Wallace Hettle is a Professor of History at the University of Northern Iowa.
Abigail, Hillary, Eleanor
In spite of losing the presidential election, Hillary Clinton will be remembered as the most powerful and successful woman in American political history. Since 2000, given her accomplishments as a Senator and Secretary of State, one could almost forget that she became a national figure as First Lady. In that role, and in how she redefined it, she surpassed the achievements of every other woman to hold that job, even her most famous predecessors, Eleanor Roosevelt and Abigail Adams. However, the historical precedents offered by those two women help explain Clinton’s downfall in the election of 2016.
Hillary was a new kind of First Lady, ready to jump into the political fray. Health care reform was a key part of Bill Clinton’s agenda, and Hillary pushed for change. She headed the administration’s task force on the issue. Her plan failed to pass, but she remained a key advisor to her husband.
On many occasions in the 1990s, she expressed admiration for Eleanor Roosevelt, a First Lady and liberal heroine of the Democratic Party. Eleanor Roosevelt championed civil rights for African Americans while her husband neglected the issue. She also worked for world peace, serving as US Representative to the General Assembly of the UN and working on several international commissions for human rights.
Hillary Clinton’s view of Roosevelt as a model First Lady is unsurprising; like Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary has a streak of political idealism. With a law degree from Yale, Hillary could have gone straight to Wall Street. Instead, she worked on Capitol Hill investigating the Watergate scandal and worked closely with the liberal Children’s Defense Fund.
Hillary was also different from Eleanor. For much of her life, she served as a breadwinner for her family. In Arkansas, while her husband served as governor, she pursued a career as a corporate lawyer at the state’s biggest legal firm. She had to defend herself against sexists who criticized her for working outside the home, creating a ridiculous debate over whether she should have stayed home and made cookies. Since 2000, she has made an enormous amount of money by giving speeches to corporate audiences, including Wall Street interests. While it has looked unseemly, she has maintained her connections with the financial industry after the meltdown of 2008.
In spite of her admiration for Eleanor Roosevelt, Clinton more closely resembles Abigail Adams. Adams is remembered for telling her husband to “remember the ladies” at the Constitutional convention in 1787. She also took on a surprisingly modern role in supporting her family. While her husband served in unpaid political offices at home and abroad, she managed the family farm. For an eighteenth century woman, this was an extraordinary accomplishment. Since many Americans idealize rural life, Abigail Adams work on the farm seems admirable.
Historians have recently learned that in addition to running the farm, Abigail Adams had another, more lucrative job. She successfully traded stocks and bonds, an activity that citizens of the day often condemned as “speculation.” Early in the Revolutionary War, she wisely unloaded her depreciating paper currency and bought long-term bonds that provided higher payouts.
Speculators pocketed profits with seeming disregard for the good of the Revolutionary cause. It is a complicated story, but at the risk of oversimplification, thousands of poor soldiers needed to cash in bonds that they received in lieu of pay. They therefore sold their bonds at a loss to speculators, realizing as little as twenty-five cents on the dollar. Speculation in war bonds was legal but morally dubious, because it involved undeserved profits from soldiers who had risked their lives for independence.
Abigail Adams made extraordinary profits from her speculation: she was one of the country’s wealthiest bondholders at the time of the Constitutional Convention. She ignored directives from John that she buy more land and engage in less speculation, and her extraordinary profit margins proved him wrong. In addition, while John Adams served as an Ambassador in Europe, he used his diplomatic privileges to ship “personal goods” without charge from Europe to America, where Abigail sold them. If the 18th century public had known about this activity, it would have been as unpopular as bonuses for bankrupt investment bankers are today.
Speculators had bet that the revolutionaries would win the war, creating an independent government with the ability to pay off its debts. The Constitution created a strong government capable of honoring financial obligations, including bills owed to speculators. Unsurprisingly, John Adams argued for ratifying the Constitution and repaying the Revolutionary War debts in full. A compromise position, to give the speculators partial payment for the face value of the bonds, proved to be politically unviable.
A Clinton victory would have been a historic step for gender equality. However, she faced a choice between embracing the idealistic legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt or the materialistic path of Abigail Adams. Eleanor Roosevelt, an influential voice for world peace, remains an inspiring figure. Instead, she resembled Abigail Adams, compromised by an affinity for the moneyed interests in our increasingly unequal society.
Even if the country has a strong economy, defending the status quo is difficult. The last Democratic president to succeed a member of his own party was Martin Van Buren in 1836 (save for Harry Truman, who inherited the office upon FDR’s death). However, after the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Bernie Sanders campaign put financial equality at the center of political debate, Democrats had an opportunity to galvanize support on this issue. Even more, her relationship to the financial industry made it impossible for her to campaign as an agent of economic change. Clinton’s belated attempts to address the financial anxieties of middle-class Americans seemed forced and insincere. Therefore, she failed to win enough votes from struggling middle-class families.
Tragically, her ties to Wall Street enabled the emergence of a truly predatory capitalist, Donald Trump, whose repeated bankruptcies and record of evading taxes make the bankers at Goldman Sachs look almost angelic. Americans not only lost the chance to have a woman president; we elected the most openly sexist President-elect in living memory.
There is no disputing the inspirational value of Hillary Clinton’s campaign to become the first woman president of the United States nearly succeeded. After all, she received the more popular votes than Trump in spite of America’s enduring legacy of sexism. She embraced the pro-market legacy of Abigail. Perhaps taking the path blazed by Eleanor Roosevelt would have been more politically successful. That is uncertain, and to say more would be sheer speculation.