By Sara Georgini, The Adams Papers
“Huzza for the new World and farewell to the Old One,” John Adams wrote in late 1787, wrapping up a decade of diplomatic service in Europe and packing for his new farm, Peacefield. “For a Man who has been thirty Years rolling like a stone,” his recall was welcome news indeed. After completing several missions in Paris, The Hague, and London, Adams was eager to head home in order to witness the progress of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and the establishment of the federal government. His last 28 months abroad, chronicled in the Adams Papers’ newest release, Volume 19 of the Papers of John Adams, were busy. The Massachusetts lawyer-turned-statesman secured American credit in Europe. He fought his way through the delicate etiquette of resigning his diplomatic commissions to Great Britain and the Netherlands. He wrote the second and third volumes of his landmark work on tripartite federalism, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. With wife Abigail, he made plans for a quiet retirement in leafy Braintree. So long a citizen of the world, John Adams pondered his role in shaping the young nation’s progress. “Shall I feel, the Stings of Ambition, and the frosts of Neglect?” he wrote. “Shall I desire to go to Congress, or the General Court, and be a Fish out of Water? I Suppose so, because, other People have been so. but I dont believe So.”
Volume 19, which stretches from February 1787 to May 1789, marks a transitional period in John Adams’ public career and personal life. Through the window of 341 documents, we watch a rich trove of stories unfold: the United States’ uneasy peace with Britain; the risky state of American credit abroad; the political fallout of popular uprisings like Shays’ Rebellion; the crafting of the federal Constitution; a surge in the British impressment of American sailors; and the monumental effort to form a cohesive federal government. Meanwhile, Adams settled into rural retirement with Abigail and watched the Constitution’s ratification evolve. His respite was cut short in April 1789. By volume’s end, John Adams returned to the adventure of public life, preparing to serve as America’s first vice president.
From Europe, Adams reported on a high tide of political crises. Piecing together Thomas Jefferson’s and the Marquis de Lafayette’s accounts of the reforms unspooling at the Assembly of Notables in 1787, and again at the convening of the Estates General two years later, Adams perceived France’s prerevolutionary peril. Adams, from his perch at No. 8 (now No. 9) Grosvenor Square, longed to go and see the “Illustrious” group. “I wish I could be a Sylph or a Gnome & flit away to Versailles on a sun-Beam—to hear your August Debates,” he wrote to Lafayette. To Adams’ mind, the late eighteenth century heralded both an age of revolutions and an age of constitutions that realigned the continent’s balance of power. “England will rise in Consideration and Power, and France will Fall, in the Eyes of all Europe,” he wrote.
John Adams spent his last summer in Europe traveling with family—including his first grandchild, William Steuben Smith—in rural Devonshire, compiling the second volume of his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, and mulling his legacy. He answered reference questions about the Revolution from scholars such as Philip Mazzei, Mercy Otis Warren, David Ramsay, and Reverend William Gordon. Retirement beckoned, but Adams was conflicted about trading the public stage for the solitude of Peacefield. Reflecting on his service, Adams claimed two wins: the ratification of the Moroccan-American Treaty of Peace and Friendship; and the progress of a proposed Portuguese-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce. The Adamses’ exit saddened friends like Jefferson, who wrote: “I shall now feel be-widowed.” Adams packed up his papers, including the letterbooks where he kept a close financial record of what it cost to be an American diplomat in Europe–a fascinating (and frugal!) report of expenditures that appears in the Appendix of Volume 19. He sold his chariot at The Hague. He closed up the London legation. “And now as We Say at Sea,” Adams wrote to Jefferson, “huzza for the new World and farewell to the Old One.”
Home at last in June 1788, Adams briefly settled into the life of a gentleman scholar. Throughout the autumn, a stream of support for Adams’ political ascent materialized in the mail. Reverend Jeremy Belknap, later a founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and Dr. Benjamin Rush conveyed support for Adams as a contender for the vice presidency. On 6 April 1789, senators began counting votes from the Electoral College. George Washington was the unanimous choice for president. Adams, who received 34 out of 69 votes, was elected as the first vice president. Basking in ceremonial fanfare, Adams traveled to New York City. To the ever-candid Adams, the Federalists’ victory felt bittersweet. The 54-year-old statesman now faced an unprecedented task in shaping the largely undefined office of the vice presidency. Adams’ days became a whirlwind of meetings, visits, and reunions. He was flooded with requests for patronage. Many Americans hoped to earn jobs as port collectors, naval officers, or customs inspectors. Office seekers appealed to Adams’ Federalist views, Harvard College roots, or New England connections. Within the Adams Papers, these letters form a unique genre documenting patronage in early American politics. Moved by the sentiment but bound by the Constitution, Adams rejected many pleas. Early on, he staked out strict constitutional boundaries for the vice president’s powers. Looking out from his seat in a Senate increasingly riven by regional factions, Vice President John Adams wondered: What came next for the new nation?