Hacking John Adams

By Amanda A. Mathews, Adams Papers

At the end of 2014, the hack into Sony Pictures and the subsequent publication of the private communications of Sony employees drew massive public interest. While many decried the methods, and resentful of foreign meddling, many people were still deeply interested in the revelations about the executives’ opinions on various celebrities.

John Adams faced a “hack” of his own in the summer of 1775 when private letters he had written to his wife, Abigail Adams, and to his friend James Warren were intercepted by the British and subsequently published in Boston and London. Adams, participating in the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, was growing increasingly frustrated at the reluctance of some of the members to take strong measures of resistance against Great Britain and took to his letters to vent his frustration, in particular against John Dickinson, a member from Pennsylvania who believed that even with hostilities ongoing, reconciliation with Great Britain was still possible and should be pursued. John Adams fed up with this, vented to Warren: “In Confidence,—I am determined to write freely to you this Time. —A certain great Fortune and piddling Genius whose Fame has been trumpeted so loudly, has given a silly Cast to our whole Doings—We are between Hawk and Buzzard.” To Abigail he alluded to his fellow congressmen: “I wish I had given you a compleat History from the Beginning to the End of the Journey, of the Behaviour of my Compatriots.——No Mortal Tale could equal it.——I will tell you in Future, but you shall keep it secret.——The Fidgets, the Whims, the Caprice, the Vanity, the Superstition, the Irritability of some of us, is enough to——” and there broke it off.

Entrusting these private thoughts to Benjamin Hichborn, a young lawyer, making his way back to Boston, Adams had no idea that he had just penned words that would bring him more fame than anything he had written to that point. While at a ferry crossing in Rhode Island, a British naval vessel captured the ferry and took possession of the letters Hichborn carried. Unsurprisingly they found the contents very interesting. The British officers made several copies, some of which were sent off to London, and the letters were also quickly printed in the Massachusetts Gazette and other Boston papers, trying to create division within the patriot cause.

The breach deepened the rift between Adams and Dickinson and occasioned a great deal of gossip on both sides of the Atlantic; however it had no long term effect on John Adams’ reputation in the Congress, continuing to be an influential member, nor did it influence British policy. Still, just as many were fascinated to know what executives really thought about Angelina Jolie, there were many Americans in 1775 fascinated to hear such candid opinions about congressional members.

To read more about the incident and the subsequent reaction see the complete coverage.