“Aut Ceasar aut Nullus”: The 1796 Presidential Election and Abigail Adams’ Latin Motto

Rhonda Barlow, The Adams Papers

Unlike the Harvard-educated men in her family, Abigail Adams did not spend years of her life learning Latin. When John Adams wrote to her and used Latin phrases, he often included the English translation. Once, after quoting several lines of the Roman poet Horace, he advised her to have John Quincy translate it for her. Yet in 1796, when it was unclear who would succeed George Washington as president, Abigail declared, “Aut Ceasar aut Nullus, is my Motto tho I am not used to quote lattin or spell it.”

Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams
Abigail Adams to John Adams, 14 Feb. 1796, Adams Papers

“Either Caesar or nobody.” Abigail’s long correspondence provides clues to how and why she developed this motto. When Abigail read Plutarch’s Lives, the descriptions of the “tyranny, cruelty, devastation and horrour” of the Roman emperors gave her nightmares. She observed that just as Satan “had rather Reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” Julius Caesar would “rather be the first man in a village than the second in Rome.” She remarked that “to be the first in a village, is, preferable to the second in Rome and, is one of the first Maxims in the Catalogue of Ambition.”

When Abigail opened a 20 Jan. 1796 letter from John and read that George Washington would not seek a third term, she wrote back the next day, “My ambition leads me not to be first in Rome,” but “as to holding the office of V P, there I will give my opinion. Resign retire. I would be Second under no Man but Washington.” John also reported on the sectional divisions in Congress, and a possible compromise between “the Southern Gentry” and “the Northern Gentlemen” which would result in Thomas Jefferson becoming president and Adams remaining vice president.

But Abigail was having none of it. Writing to John on 14 Feb. 1796, she declared: “The Southern Gentlemen think I believe that the Northern Gentleman are fools, but the Nothern know that they are so, if they can believe that Such bare faced Dupery will succeed.” As long as Washington was president and Martha Washington first lady, she “had no desire for the first,” but if the Washingtons sought retirement, then, “Aut Ceasar aut Nullus, is my Motto tho I am not used to quote lattin or spell it.”

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 1 March 1796, Adams Papers

John responded with a Latin motto of his own on 1 March 1796: “I am quite at my Ease— I never felt less Aniety when any considerable Change lay before me. aut transit aut finit— I transmigrate or come to an End. The Question is between living at Phila. or at Quincy. between great Cares and Small Cares.” John’s stoical acceptance of his fate belied his own ambition.

Aut Ceasar aut Nullus: Abigail issued her challenge to Congress and the nation. John won the election, and she became the first woman in Rome.

Julius Caesar bust
Bust of Julius Caesar, Vatican Museums

An Adams Tells All About Abigail

by Sara Georgini, The Adams Papers

When did you first hear the letters of John and Abigail Adams? Fashionable Bostonians could pin their first memory to an exact spot. Shortly after lunchtime on a January afternoon in 1838, two hundred curious guests swarmed into the Masonic Grand Lodge downtown. Braving the cold, they came to hear Charles Francis Adams (1807–1886), son and grandson of presidents, tell all about his famous family. He felt ready, even eager, to air a few memories. A month earlier, Charles had begun work on his lecture at the special request of the Massachusetts Historical Society, which hosted a series of talks around town. A studious researcher and a curator of the family archive, Charles wanted to share Abigail’s life story with a larger audience. He asked his father, John Quincy, for permission to narrate the private manuscripts in public. “My intention would be to use such of my grandmother’s letters most especially as would illustrate the female character of the age of the Revolution,” Charles wrote. “Of course, the selection must depend upon my discretion and there would be no publication.” When the query reached him, the senior Adams had retrenched in public service. He sent a hasty reply: “Use all the papers at your pleasure.” Charles dove into the project. Here is how her grandson chose to remember Abigail.

Letters of Mrs. Adams
Originally published in 1840, this bestselling work went through multiple editions: Letters of Mrs. Adams, the Wife of John Adams. With an Introductory Memoir by Her Grandson, Charles Francis Adams

Charles was a systematic reader. Back at the family farm in Quincy, the papers overflowed with love letters and state secrets. He plodded through the stacks, more or less chronologically. In constructing a narrative for his lecture, Charles stuck to the basic timeline of the Revolution. His first pick was an 8 Sept. 1774 letter from John to Abigail. The Massachusetts delegate wrote hurriedly from the Continental Congress: “It would fill Volumes, to give you an Idea of the scenes I behold and the Characters I converse with. We have so much Business, so much Ceremony, so much Company, so many Visits to recive and return, that I have not Time to write. And the Times are such, as render it imprudent to write freely.” In his lecture draft, Charles summarized what happened next in that chain of correspondence: how John Adams compared the Anglo-American politics of the day to those of Julius Caesar; how the Harvard-trained lawyer quoted Shakespeare’s lines on the “shallows” of bravery; how John often addressed Abigail as “Portia.” Charles stressed that John cherished his wife as a confidante and adviser.

Enter Abigail. Two decades after her death, the second First Lady commanded Boston’s biggest stage and reclaimed the nation’s imagination. The first Abigail letter that Charles read was sent to John, dated 24 May 1775, heralding the drumbeat of war. “I wish you was nearer to us. We know not what a day will bring forth, nor what distress one hour may throw us into,” Abigail wrote. “Heitherto I have been able to mantain a calmness and presence of Mind, and hope I shall, let the Exigency of the time be what they will.” Carefully, Charles reconstructed Abigail Adams as an emblem of republic motherhood, a woman who raised her children to guard and grow the nation. In his selection of manuscripts and public remarks, Charles sharply reoriented the Adams family’s political brand around Abigail’s legacy. Appealing to early Victorian views on Christian nurture, he emphasized that women’s domestic influence fueled the American Revolution. Like “light to the diamond,” moral virtue gave to the “political character of a nation all its lustre and its value,” Charles wrote. Women like his grandmother were blessed and burdened to provide it.

Charles Francis Adams carte de visite
Charles Francis Adams, Carte de visite by John & Chas. Watkins, 1862

Abigail Adams’s nature fascinated Charles, and he shared that awe with his audience for at least two hours. He wondered aloud: How did she balance private emotion and public duty? And what  might studying other women’s lives reveal to Americans about the “revolutionary spirit”? He did not include her eloquent plea to “Remember the Ladies,” but he certainly kept her message intact. Thanks to Abigail’s canon, Charles glimpsed a new field for citizens and scholars to explore. “All of the leading actors in the revolutionary drama had mothers or wives or intimate friends with whom they indulged in the expression of their genuine, unadulterated feelings,” Charles said. “And yet when we take a glance over what is now known to exist upon record of them, where do we find anything even tolerably satisfactory to reward our search?” At the first public reading of the Adams Papers, Charles Francis Adams neatly laid out many of the editorial challenges and opportunities that we face today as an editorial project. And his initial encounter with family history encouraged him, as an editor, to learn how to think between the documents. Sometimes his opinions and ideas manifested on the page, when he silently omitted or even “corrected” his grandparents’ words. Yet Charles was the first to impose meaningful order on the archive. He also took on the task of building a presidential library on Peacefield’s leafy grounds.

Did the crowd of 1838 lean forward a little bit more as they listened in on Abigail and John? Charles repeated his lecture to several keen audiences, relieved that his “experiment” was a hit. Heartened by his hard-won popularity as a man of letters, he began compiling a popular edition of Abigail’s correspondence. With a few tweaks, he repurposed his Massachusetts Historical Society talk for use in the introductory memoir. He reminded readers that Abigail’s letters offered a backstage pass to revolutionary drama, and that Americans would benefit from her story. For Charles, remembering Abigail held “double charms…painted by the hand of truth.”

“Light, airy, and genteel”: Abigail Adams on French Women

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

When Abigail Adams arrived in France in August 1784, she must have felt like she had just landed on the moon. In all 39 years of her life, Abigail had never been south of Plymouth, north of Haverhill, west of Worcester, or east of Massachusetts Bay.

Twelve years earlier, Abigail wrote a letter to her cousin Isaac Smith Jr., who was traveling in London. She wanted to ask him “ten thousand Questions” about Europe. “Had nature formed me of the other Sex, I should certainly have been a rover,” she told him. Abigail explained to Isaac that it was too dangerous for a woman to travel alone and that by the time a woman has a husband with whom to travel, she also has a house to maintain and children to raise, creating “obstacles sufficent to prevent their Roving.” Already a mother of a 5-year-old, 3-year-old, and an 11-month-old, Abigail believed she had missed her chance to travel. “Instead of visiting other Countries; [women] are obliged to content themselves with seeing but a very small part of their own.” For these reasons, she told Isaac, “to your Sex we are most of us indebted for all the knowledg we acquire of Distant lands.”

One can’t help but wonder if Abigail remembered writing those words as her carriage bounced through the French countryside en route to her new residence in Auteuil, just outside of Paris. Whether or not she remembered that specific letter, she remembered the feeling of being stuck at home while her male relations traveled. She determined to write long, detailed letters to her female acquaintances, especially her nieces Elizabeth and Lucy Cranch, in an attempt to expand their worldview and to provide them with a female’s perspective of Europe.

In her letters to Elizabeth and Lucy, Abigail described the architecture of theatres, the designs of French gardens, and holiday customs. But John or John Quincy could have done that. That’s one of the things that makes Abigail’s letters remarkable—that she bothered to write to her nieces at all—something their uncle and cousin had largely neglected to do.

Left: Anne-Catherine de Ligniville, Madame Helvétius; Right: Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles, Marquise de Lafayette

Travel books could describe architecture and provide maps, but there wasn’t one that provided a New England woman’s perception of French women. Though her correspondents entreated Abigail to divulge what French women were actually like, Abigail really only became acquainted with two women during her nine months in France—Dr. Franklin’s friend Madame Helvétius and the Marquise de Lafayette. The former “highly disgusted” her with her untidiness of dress and lewd manners; the latter charmed her immediately. When she arrived at the Lafayettes’ front door, “the Marquise. . .with the freedom of an old acquaintance and the Rapture peculiar to the Ladies of this Nation caught me by the hand and gave me a salute upon each cheek, most heartily rejoiced to see me. You would have supposed I had been some long absent Friend, whom she dearly loved.”

Unless she was with the Marquise, who spoke English well, Abigail felt isolated by her ignorance of the French language and took to observing rather than conversing. “It is from my observations of the French ladies at the theatres and public walks, that my chief knowledge of them is derived,” she explained to family friend Hannah Quincy Lincoln Storer. She accordingly described what French women communicated beyond words: “The dress of the French ladies is, like their manners, light, airy, and genteel. They are easy in their deportment, eloquent in their speech, their voices soft and musical, and their attitude pleasing.”

She observed to her sister Mary that “Fashion is the Deity every one worships in this country and from the highest to the lowest you must submit.” During her stay in Europe, Abigail mailed fashion magazines and patterns home so her friends could see what was a la mode and included silk or ribbons whenever possible so they could try the designs for themselves. She gave strict instructions, such as that “the stomacher must be of the petticoat color” and “gowns and petticoats are worn without any trimming of any kind.” Abigail added that Marie Antoinette had set the trend of “dressing very plain. . .but caps, hats, and handkerchiefs are as various as ladies’ and milliners’ fancies can devise.”

Marie Antoinette en chemise, 1783 portrait by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Abigail never resigned herself to French attitudes towards sex and marriage, but she came to admire the easy elegance of French women and found herself missing them when she, John, and their daughter, Nabby, relocated to London in April 1785. She noticed that the English tried to copy French fashions but ended up “divest[ing] them both of taste and Elegance.” Abigail’s brush with European style convinced her that “our fair Country women would do well to establish fashions of their own; let Modesty be the first, ingredient, neatness the second and Economy the third. Then they cannot fail of being Lovely.”