Abigail Adams’s “curious conversation” with Thomas Jefferson

by Hobson Woodward, Series Editor, Adams Family Correspondence

Volume 14 of the Adams Family Correspondence, published by Harvard University Press, arrived in the Adams Papers offices last month. Spanning the period October 1799 through February 1801, the volume chronicles the final months of Abigail and John Adams’s public service. Among the 277 documents included in the book is one that records a “curious conversation” between Abigail and the family’s former friend and political rival, Thomas Jefferson. The conversation took place at a dinner party in January 1801. A month earlier, presidential electors had cast their ballots. While the official election results would not be announced until 11 February, John Adams’s loss was already widely presumed. Ultimately, it was the House of Representatives that determined the outcome of the election of 1800, casting 36 ballots before breaking the electoral tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr on 17 February. Thus, the tension of the moment makes the conversation between Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson all the more extraordinary.

25 January 1801 letter from Abigail Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams
Letter from Abigail Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, 25 January 1801

Abigail enclosed her transcript of the conversation with a 25 January 1801 letter to her son Thomas Boylston, telling him that it “was not heard by any one but ourselves, as we spoke low.” The enclosure relates an impressive exchange on Washington politics, where the president’s wife and one of the contenders for his replacement offered their impressions of a partisan Congress and ruminated on the characters of particular members. The give-and-take was frank, unrestrained. Thomas Jefferson said he avoided attending the House of Representatives, writing, “I am sure there are persons there who would take a pleasure in saying something, purposely to affront me.” Abigail Adams was equally candid, noting, “Some are mere Brutes, others are Gentlemen— but party Spirit, is a blind spirit.”

enclosure, Adams Family Papers, MHS
enclosure, Adams Family Papers, MHS

The conversation then turned to the Senate’s debate over the ratification of the Convention of 1800, an agreement that ended the Quasi-War and resulted from John Adams’s decision to send a second peace mission to France. Thomas Jefferson believed the Senate would not give its advice and consent, a position that surprised Abigail Adams given that mercantile interests favored ratification. If defeat did occur, Abigail claimed the fault would lay with Federalists allied with Alexander Hamilton, who had opposed the president’s diplomatic efforts. “There have always been a party determined to defeat it from the first sending the Mission,” Abigail said, adding, “I Mean the Hamiltonians; they must abide the concequences.”

The conversation came to a close when the vice president attempted to broach the subject of what the House would do about the deadlocked presidential election. There, the First Lady declined to respond. The election “is a subject which I do not chuse to converse upon,” Abigail claimed. Instead, she offered a telling anecdote:

I have heard of a Clergyman who upon some difficulty amongst his people, took a text from these words—“and they knew not what to do”—from whence he drew this      inference, []that when a people were in such a Situation, that they do not know what         to do; they should take great care that they do not do—they know not what.”

To that, Abigail wrote, “he laught out, and here ended the conversation.”

enclosure, Adams Family Papers, MHS
enclosure, Adams Family Papers, MHS

Future volumes of Adams Family Correspondence will include letters between Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson both before and after the breach in their relationship that lasted from 1804 to 1813. The letters provide fascinating insight into the friendship between the Adamses and Jefferson, though none reveal quite the same rapport as Abigail did when she took up her quill to transcribe her “curious conversation” with Thomas Jefferson.

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the Packard Humanities Institute. The Florence Gould Foundation and a number of private donors also contribute critical support. All Adams Papers volumes are published by Harvard University Press.

@JQAdams_MHS Celebrating 1 Decade of Diary Entries on Twitter!

by Alexandra Bush, Digital Production Assistant

Screenshot of JQA Twitter page
@JQAdams_MHS Twitter Page

Today marks the 10 year anniversary of the @JQAdams_MHS Twitter feed, which tweeted its first entry from John Quincy Adams’ line-a-day diary on 5 August 2009! The MHS staff has diligently posted one entry every day since, exactly 200 years after each was recorded by JQA, e.g. posting his 5 August, 1809 entry on 5 August, 2009 and so on. Since then we have accompanied him through all manner of wild weather, meetings, portrait sittings, evening walks, trips abroad, political debates, astronomical observations, and more. While JQA’s line-a-day entries aren’t exactly verbose, they provide an evocative look into his daily life.

The journey began in 2009, or 1809 for JQA, on the eve of his tenure as the United States’ ambassador to Russia, where he dined with Czar Alexander I and negotiated and signed the Treaty of Ghent. Next we followed him to London upon his appointment as envoy and ambassador to Great Britain in 1815/2015, marking the beginning of a years-long string of complaints about the dreary weather. JQA became Secretary of State to President James Monroe in 1817/2017, whereupon he returned to Washington, D.C. These past few years have seen JQA firmly establishing his presence in the capitol; assisting in matters of international relations, helping to formally define the borders of the United States, and baring his soul to the world every summer morning during his nude Potomac swims. What’s in store for the future? Only time—or our meticulously digitized, transcribed, and fully searchable web database of each of his diaries from 1779 to 1848—will tell.

Our followers’ impressions of JQA’s succinct line-a-day entries are one of the best parts of this venture. It is wonderful to see how words written 200 years ago can still be impactful today.

@Loiarchives writes:
@JQAdams_MHS Dear JQA, why do I find your tweets so calming? 

@SpiritbearNY writes:
Huh. He felt about his journal, which consumed his mornings, the way many of us feel about our use of social media. At least he was documenting history, though, not rage tweeting about his political enemies. 🙄

@fararelliott writes:
I love JQA – a bath is essential to celebrating Independence Day.

@k59griffie writes:
Another luscious word from the diary of @JQAdams_MHS : “underwitted.” He has given me two great words:  vagarious and underwitted.  I am happy.

Sometimes, though, the voice of a long-dead historical figure on a modern social media site can be a little confusing.

@AngusDoubleBeef asks:
Is this really John Quincy Adams or like a fan account?

Regardless of your views on the possibility of tweeting from beyond the grave, we encourage anyone with a Twitter account to follow @JQAdams_MHS. Join us as we finish out his Secretary of State years and celebrate his presidency in 2025! None of this would have been possible without the tireless work of the members of the Adams Papers Editorial Project, whose long hours of transcription provide us with a constantly growing source of fascinating JQA writings. You can find images and transcriptions of JQA’s diary including line-a-day entries, long-form entries, drafts, and more, on the MHS website. See full page images here http://www.masshist.org/jqadiaries/php/ and transcriptions of long entries here https://www.masshist.org/publications/jqadiaries/index.php.