‘All men would be tyrants if they could’

Special to The Colorado Statesman

It’s not every day that the usually courtly Justice Greg Hobbs provokes his learned colleague on the Colorado Supreme Court, Justice Nancy Rice, to figuratively blow her top — while a distinguished audience of judges and attorneys bursts into rollicking laughter and appreciative applause.

John Adams, depicted by Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs, reads one of the historic letters as part of the Law Day celebration.
Photo by Jamie Cotten/Law Week
Supreme Court Justices Greg Hobbs and Nancy Rice are decked out in colonial garb for the dramatic reading of love letters between John and Abigail Adams.
Photo by Jamie Cotten/Law Week

No, it’s not every day — it’s Law Day. The crowd of some 60 people who gathered at the Colorado Bar Assn. office to celebrate that event on April 18 — officially it’s observed on May 1 — were treated to a dramatic look into the roots of gender equality as the two jurists traded their robes for colonial garb and gave a dramatic reading drawn from the more than 1100 letters exchanged between what may have been the first thoroughly modern American couple, John and Abigail Adams.

The letters were written between 1762 and 1801 and begin by chronicling the courtship between the rising New England attorney and Abigail Smith. Addressing Abigail by his pet name of “Diana,” John observes, “Love sweetens life and life sometimes destroys love.”

As John is increasingly swept up in the events that will ultimately lead to open rebellion against England unfold, Abigail repeatedly brings her statesman/swain back to earth. At one point, John thunders: “The fires of patriotism should soon begin to burn!”

Abigail flirtatiously answers, “What about the other fires, John?”

Like politicians and husbands throughout the ages, John sometimes displays a public pompousness that carries over into his private life. At one point, Hobbs, in his John Adams role, reminds Rice, playing Abigail, “I promised you some time ago a catalogue of your faults.”

“Oh Dear, I was so hoping that he’d had forgotten about that,” Rice/Abigail sighs.

While praising Abigail’s “Habit of Reading, Writing and Thinking,” John goes on to list a peculiar list of faults including Abigail’s lack of mastery of cards, her refusal to learn to sing, and even her habit of crossing her legs, which he finds unseemly.

Rice/Abigail parries the critique by first shuffling cards deftly, then tossing out a few ill-formed notes before observing, “If I did sing, you would think very differently.” Then, crossing her legs defiantly, she ends the exchange by firmly ruling: “A gentleman has no business concerning himself about the legs of a lady!”

Advantage, Abigail. Thus, it comes as no surprise when Abigail escalates her own equal standing in their marriage into a call for the fair treatment of women generally. In a famous exchange that begins with Abigail’s letter to John dated March 31, 1776, she writes:

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.

“Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.

“Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.

“That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute; but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up — the harsh title of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend.”

On April 14, John replies in his patronizing best:

“As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh.

“We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bonds of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their guardians, and negroes grew insolent to their masters.

“But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe, more numerous and powerful than all the rest, were grown discontented.

“This is rather too coarse a compliment, but you are so saucy, I won’t blot it out.

“Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and, in practice, you know we are the subjects.

“We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight.”

Upon receiving this insufferable answer, Rice rips off her bonnet and hurls it to the floor. While history doesn’t record Abigail’s actual reaction, the Rice portrayal seems fully in accord with this remarkable woman’s temperament. Indeed, Abigail’s frustration is still evident on May 7, 1776, when she replies to John:

“I cannot say that I think you are very generous to the ladies; for, whilst you are proclaiming peace and good-will to men, emancipating all nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over wives.

“But you must remember that arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken; and, notwithstanding all your wise laws and maxims, we have it in our power, not only to free ourselves, but to subdue our masters, and without violence, throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet.”

Alas, it would be 144 years before Abigail’s prophecy was borne out with passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. It took another 59 years before the first woman, Jean E. Dubofsky, became a justice of the Colorado Supreme Court. Since that time, five other women have been named to the court: Mary Mullarkey, Rebecca Kourlis, Rice, Allison Eid and Monica Marquez.

But while the ending of American women’s long journey to equality may not yet be in sight, there can be little doubt about its beginning — When Abigail Adams and her Colonial sisters answered the Declaration of Independence’s ringing call that “All men are created equal” by pointedly adding: “Remember the ladies!”

Bob Ewegen is a veteran of 45 years in journalism, including 36 years at the Denver Post. He is now director of research and communications at the Mile High Law Office in Denver.