“How are your nice Feelings affected by the Times?”

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

The news is scary. In the midst of global pandemic, an economic crisis, and nightly images of police brutality, we keep hearing the same question over and over: What do I tell my children?

This is not a new question. Every time John Adams sat at his writing desk in Philadelphia, quill in hand, he contemplated what to say to his “little flock.” He knew they had the violence of war on their doorstep, and the smallpox virus was creeping ever closer. “My Anxiety about you and the Children, as well as our Country, has been extreme,” he confided to Abigail on 24 July 1775.

John recognized that his children were exceptionally lucky to have a mother like Abigail to explain, care, and console, but he was still their father. In his letter to Abigail of 2 June 1775, John wrote, “My Dear Nabby, and Johnny and Charley & Tommy are never out of my Thoughts.”

letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 2 June 1775.

Adams encouraged his children to communicate with him, telling them he longed “to share with your Mamma the Pleasures of your Conversation.” Sometimes he invited the children to lead the conversation and tell him what they were experiencing. On 17 March 1777, he asked his son Charles, “What Subject do your Thoughts run upon these Times. You are a thoughtfull Child you know, always meditating upon some deep Thing or other. Your Sensibility is exquisite too. Pray how are your nice Feelings affected by the Times?”

John also reminded his children that God was watching over them, and that they could trust Abigail to keep them safe. “I hope you and your Sister and Brothers will take proper Notice of these great Events, and remember under whose wise and kind Providence they are all conducted. Not a Sparrow falls, nor a Hair is lost, but by the Direction of infinite Wisdom. Much less are Cities conquered and evacuated,” he wrote to John Quincy on 18 April 1776. For the baby, Tommy, John simply wrote, “Be always dutifull and obedient to your Mamma.”

John Adams encouraged conviction and virtue in his elder children, writing John Quincy what books to pull out of the family library to prepare for a life of public service and responsible citizenship. “Public Virtues,” he wrote to Abigail on 29 Oct. 1775, “and political Qualities therefore should be incessantly cherished in our Children.” For Tommy, who was too young to understand what was happening, John focused on love and play. “Tell Tom, I would give a Guinea to have him climb upon my shoulder, and another to chase him into his Jail.”

Letter from John Adams
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 29 Oct. 1775

John Adams, like every parent, had many anxieties and aspirations for his children. He urged Abigail to “elevate the Minds of our Children and exalt their Courage; to accelerate and animate their Industry & activity— to excite in them an habitual Contempt of Meanness, abhorrence of Injustice and Inhumanity, and an ambition to excell in every Capacity, Faculty, and Virtue.”

To his daughter, Nabby, Adams provided his most succinct advice for navigating tumultuous times: “To be good, and to do good, is all We have to do.”

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.

Living in an Epidemic: What Did Abigail Do?

by Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

Abigail Adams knew what to do. Whether her correspondent was nursing a broken heart or a broken arm, Abigail had the cure. She penned thousands of letters throughout her life offering advice on matters spiritual, botanical, financial, medical, and political.

But what would Abigail Adams do in the midst of a pandemic? Fortunately, with the trove of letters Abigail left us from the 1776 smallpox epidemic, the question is not “What would Abigail do?” but rather “What did Abigail do?”

First, Abigail kept herself informed and was proactive. Abigail had already lived through a smallpox epidemic in 1764 and knew the importance of staying ahead of the disease. On 17 June 1776, she wrote to John that inoculation was beginning. “Dr. Bulfinch has petitiond the General Court for leave to open a Hospital some where, and it will be granted him. I shall with all the children be one of the first class you may depend upon it.”

Letter written by Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams to John Adams, 29 July 1776

Second, Abigail heeded the advice of medical professionals. Doctors encouraged patients to remain in peak physical form to fight the disease. “We are ordered all the Air we can get,” Abigail wrote on 29 July. “[We] abstain from Spirit, Salt and fats, fruit we Eat, all we can get, and those who like vegetables unseasond may Eat them, but that is not I.” In the same letter, Abigail lamented that their isolation was extended several weeks by the doctor’s uncertainty that the inoculation took with each child, but she trusted his judgment. “This doubtfull Buisness is very dissagreable as it will detain us much longer, but there are several instances now of persons who thought they had had it, and were recoverd, and lived away freely, and now are plentifully dealt by.”

Third, Abigail sought solace when the stress got to be too much. This solace mainly came in the form of candid letters to her husband. “This Suspence is painfull,” she wrote on 30 July. “Tis a pestilence that walketh in Darkness.” She was homesick and stir-crazy and longed “for the sweet air of Braintree.” On 1 August, she acknowledged that “I forget one day what I wrote the day before. This small pox is a great confuser of the mind, I am really put to it to spell the commonest words.”

Letter written by John Adams
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 10 Aug. 1776

John empathized, writing on 23 July, “You will find several dull Hours, and the Children will fatigue you.” On 10 August, he wrote, “This Suspence and Uncertainty must be very irksome to you. But Patience and Perseverance, will overcome this, as well as all other Difficulties. Dont think of Time, nor Expence.”

Abigail kept herself informed, was proactive, and monitored her physical and mental health. But above all, Abigail wrote. During the two months that Abigail and the children were isolated with smallpox, Abigail wrote more than 15 letters to John detailing their experience. “I believe you will be tired of hearing of small pox,” Abigail wrote to John on 29 July. She filled page after page with information not only about herself, but about their neighbors, their servants, and what information she received from the outside world.

Because of Abigail, we can feel and know what it was like to live through the smallpox epidemic in 1776. The MHS invites you to bear witness to history the same way Abigail did. Tell us about your experience living through the COVID-19 pandemic. Historians of the future will thank you. Someday someone might even write a blog post about you.

From Diplomacy to “Defence”

by Sara Georgini, Series Editor, The Papers of John Adams

For John Adams, the end of the American Revolution ushered in a difficult peace. This saga plays out in the 301 documents that compose Volume 18 of The Papers of John Adams, now available in our free Adams Papers Digital Editions, chronicling his public life from December 1785 to January 1787. His tenure as the first American minister to Britain from 1785 to 1788, which he seized on as his dream job—and a post that Adams heavily lobbied for in congressional circles—felt fruitless by late December 1785. After months of court presentations and dinner-table diplomacy, Adams could not persuade the British ministry to settle prewar debts, restore lost property, or normalize commercial relations. His face-to-face encounters with the British ministry ground to “a full stop.” With trademark candor, Adams reported home that King George III was too “obstinate” and possessed an “habitual Contempt of Patriots and Patriotism,” while the new prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, “oscillated like a Pendulum” on key questions of foreign policy. Adams projected that Anglo-American relations would continue suffering in a state of “contemptuous silence” and neglect.

John Adams by Copley
John Adams, by John Singelton Copley, 1783, Harvard Art Museums

The British newspapers made it worse. Editors printed a series of attacks and misrepresentations of both American news and John Adams that his wife Abigail denounced as “false…false as Hell.” A turning point came in February 1786. The British rejected Adams’s memorial requesting their evacuation of posts on the American frontier. Adams, left to uphold a treaty that he never found satisfactory, saw that he was mired in a system that stonewalled American interests. This type of diplomatic toil, Adams wrote to friends back in New England, was akin to “making brick without straw.” By January 1787, Adams had resigned his commissions, ready to return home after a decade’s worth of service. What, then, did he really accomplish in Europe?

Volume 18 of The Papers of John Adams tells us a new story. For, between 1778 and 1788, as he moved from The Hague to Auteuil and from London to New York, John Adams formed an extraordinary and little-known record of cultural diplomacy. First, he recruited allies and funds to the American cause. Then Adams urged them to amplify the history and culture of the new nation. Europe’s “Men of Letters…who are possessed of the best Hearts and most virtuous Principles, are anxious to assist Us in the great Work We have to do,” he wrote to the Scottish educator George Chapman in 1785. Entrusted with dual commissions to manage Dutch loans and craft commercial agreements with the nations of Europe and North Africa, Adams stuck to congressional instructions. He worked on negotiations related to Anglo-American economic relations, as well as proposed treaties with Morocco (successful) and Portugal (not). We used annotation and illustrations to narrate his work, including an image of a rare, Arabic-language manuscript in the Adams Papers.

Sidi Haj Taher Ben Abdelhack Fennish to the American Commissioners
Sidi Haj Taher Ben Abdelhack Fennish to the American Commissioners, [28 June 1786]
Diplomacy, for Adams, was personal and political in scope. He sought to repair Anglo-American relations, one person at a time. He hired an old loyalist friend in exile, John Jeffries, to serve as the family doctor and care for his first grandson. And as he labored over his seminal, three-volume schematic of tripartite federalism, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, Adams wrote letters of introduction for New England merchants. Though he did not bend the congressional instructions that prevented him from giving legal advice, Adams used his post to nurture national needs. He leaned heavily into promoting American whale oil, mainly to aid his debt-ridden friends in New England, then weathering Shays’ Rebellion. Adams was beset by transatlantic tides of paperwork: loyalist pleas and immigration inquiries flooded his desk. Still, he regularly made room for more correspondents and contacts. Not always patiently, the American minister sat for a small army of artists including John Singleton Copley. An advocate of the growing American Republic of Letters, Adams built bridges of correspondence between learned and scientific societies. Thanks to his work, Harvard scholars shared their finds with London’s Royal Society and with French surgeons. American students traded star sightings and observations with the Palatine Academy of Science in Mannheim. Firmly, Adams tugged Europeans’ attention toward the “first fruits” of independent America.

Literature and religion were intellectual pursuits that Adams enjoyed dabbling in. History was his passion. Three years’ posting to London planted Adams in scenery that he had only read about. On his days off, Adams tore through England’s landmarks. He made quick tours of the countryside with Abigail or Thomas Jefferson in tow. He relished seeing the cottage where Shakespeare metered his sonnets, and he breathed in the lush green estates of landed gentry. Ever a fitful diarist, John Adams recorded the sites with Whiggish approval of the country seats’ symmetrical topiary, classical statuary, and working farms. In his letters home, John focused on historic sites. He explored key episodes of the English Civil War through visits to the battle sites of Edgehill and Worcester. Adams, ever forthright and opinionated, was more of a tourist than a diplomat on such trips. At the latter venue, Adams felt “provoked” to remind the local residents that “this is holy Ground, much holier than that on which your Churches stand.”

Title page of Defence
John Adams, Defence, Title Page

There was more to John Adams’ life than diplomacy. Volume 18 reveals the fiftysomething minister in a moment of change. He witnessed the marriage of his daughter, Abigail 2d, to William Stephens Smith; promoted the ordination of American Episcopal bishops; and made his final tours of Europe. During his time in London, he also drafted the first volume of his Defence. With his mission at a standstill, he had ample time to devote to the task. Adams’ opening salvo pieced together or silently quoted from historical examples, mainly drawn from case studies of Italian republics, to show that balanced government prevented civil war. Adams argued that America needed such a structure in order to sustain the hard-won republic. To learn more about his blueprint for the nation, you can start reading Volume 18 of The Papers of John Adams here.

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.

“A worm preying upon the vitals of the Administration”: John Quincy Adams on William Harris Crawford

By Neal Millikan, Series Editor, Digital Editions

During President James Monroe’s administrations, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) served alongside Secretary of the Treasury William Harris Crawford (1772–1834), one of the men against whom he would vie for the presidency in the election of 1824. Adams’s Diary offers his private musings on and feelings toward his fellow cabinet member and political opponent; it also gives tantalizing glimpses of Adams’s deteriorating opinion of Crawford.

John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams engraving by Francis Kearney, circa 1824

On February 3, 1819, Adams recorded in his Diary his current view of the treasury secretary: “Crawford is not a worse man, than the usual herd of ambitious intriguers. Perhaps not so bad as many of them— I do not think him entirely unprincipled; but his ambition swallows up his principle.” However, two years later in his entry for March 3, 1821, Adams’s tone was far more cynical: “Crawford has been a worm preying upon the vitals of the Administration within its own body.” Adams also noted “the emptiness of the Treasury, and Crawford’s utter inability to devise any other source of Revenue but loan upon loan.”

Engraving of William Harris Crawford
William Harris Crawford engraving by S. H. Gimber, no date

Like Adams, Crawford sought to attain the presidency in the 1824 election, but a stroke in the fall of 1823 kept him out of politics for several months. Adams was elected president in February 1825 and subsequently offered the treasury secretary the opportunity to remain in his cabinet position, but Crawford declined. On December 14, President Adams learned a shocking piece of information about Crawford, which he recorded in his Diary. According to a clerk in the Treasury Department, “all personal communication between Mr Monroe and Mr Crawford had ceased” toward the end of Monroe’s presidency. Curious as to the cause of this breach, Adams asked his secretary of the Navy, Samuel Southard, “if this fact had been known to him.” Southard, who had visited the White House shortly after the argument occurred, stated that he “found Mr Monroe walking to and fro across the room in great agitation.” Crawford had recommended certain customs officials for office to whom Monroe objected. Crawford then “said petulantly; well—if you will not appoint the persons well qualified for the places, tell me whom you will appoint; that I may get rid of their importunities.” Monroe then “replied with great warmth; saying that he considered Crawford’s language as extremely improper, and unsuitable to the relations between them.” At this point, Crawford “raised his Cane, as in the attitude to strike, and said ‘you damned infernal old Scoundrel’— Mr Monroe seized the tongs at the fire-place for self-defence; applied a retaliatory epithet to Crawford and told him he would . . . turn him out of the house.” Adams then told Southard: “if I had known it at the time, I should not have invited Mr Crawford to remain in the Treasury Department.”

@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.

Abigail Adams’s “favorite Scotch song”

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

Have you ever wondered what Abigail Adams’s favorite song was? Or maybe you wondered if John and Abigail had a song that was their song. A series of letters written between 1778 and 1787 seems to provide the answer.

Abigail Adams had an established affinity for “Scotch” songs. She was moved by the “Native Simplicity” of the lyrics and thought they had “all the power of a well wrought Tradidy.” While John was overseas serving as a commissioner at Paris, Abigail and her two youngest sons, Charles and Thomas, were fending for themselves in one of the severest winters Braintree had ever known. Abigail’s daughter, Nabby, was staying in Plymouth with friends, and her eldest son, John Quincy, was in France with his father.

“How lonely are my days? How solitary are my Nights?” Abigail wrote to her husband on 27 December 1778. “Secluded from all Society but my two Little Boys, and my domesticks, by the Mountains of snow which surround me . . . I am solitary indeed.” Someone Abigail identified only as a young lady found her in the midst of “a Melancholy hour” and decided to sing to her to cheer her up. That was when Abigail first heard the song “There’s Nae Luck about the House”—a song she would fondly cite again and again over the years.

Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams
Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 27 December 1778

The traditional song, attributed to Jean Adam, tells the story of a wife excitedly greeting her seafaring husband, or “gudeman,” after he’s been “awa’.” Abigail, deeply moved by the sentiments of the song, begged for the music. Her son Charles, then eight years old, learned the song so that he could sing it and console Abigail whenever she needed.

Abigail enclosed the music in one of her letters to John, telling him “It has Beauties in it to me, which an indifferent person would not feel.” She drew out several couplets that she found particularly relatable: “His very foot has Musick in’t, As he comes up the stairs” as well as “And shall I see his face again? And shall I hear him speak?”

On 13 February 1779, when John received the music in France, he was similarly affected. “Your scotch song . . . is a charming one. oh my leaping Heart.”

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams
Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 13 February 1779

Abigail’s affection for the song was shared with her dearest friends. On 15 March 1779, Mercy Otis Warren wrote to her, “You May feelingly join with me and the Bonny Scotch Lass, and Warble the Mournful Chorus from Morn to Eve. Theres Little pleasure in the Rooms When my Good Mans awaw.”

In 1785, when Abigail tried to illustrate to her teenaged niece Lucy the importance of expressing genuine sentiments simply, she referenced the song again. “It is that native simplicity too, which gives to the Scotch songs a merit superior to all others. My favorite Scotch song, ‘There’s na luck about the house,’ will naturally occur to your mind.”

A year later, while living in London, Abigail learned that her family back home in Massachusetts “were all turning musicians.” Her niece was becoming adept at the harpsicord, her nephew had taken up violin, and John Quincy and Charles were learning the flute. “Our young Folks improve fast in their musick,” her sister reported in May 1786. “Two German Flutes, a violin and a harpsicord and two voices form a considerable concert.”

Though she was now reunited with her husband and daughter, Abigail’s family was still separated by the Atlantic Ocean. “Here you would have felt a pleasure which you never experienc’d in a drawing Room at St James,” her sister wrote on 14 July 1786. “To vary our Scene musick is often call’d for . . . and then my sister how do I Wish for you. No one ever injoyd the pleasures of young People more than you use’d too.”

Abigail couldn’t join their late night concerts by the fire, but she came up with a way to make her presence felt. In the winter of 1787, she received a letter from home: “The musical society at Braintree return their thanks for those Scotch Peices of Musick whih you so kindly Sent them.”

“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.”

“On the Borders of Nonsense”: John Quincy Adams, Poet

By Rhonda Barlow, Adams Papers

It was a rainy day in May 1839 and John Quincy Adams, stuck inside, was amusing himself writing poetry. He was trying to imitate the Roman poet Horace, and outdo the English poet Alexander Pope. Horace’s Ode 4.9  encapsulated the idea that without a poet to praise him, the hero was forgotten. Achilles had Homer, Satan had Milton, and Lollius had Horace.

As Pope wrote in his Imitations of Horace,

Sages and chiefs long since had birth
Ere Cæsar was, or Newton named;
Those raised new empires o’er the earth,
And these new heavens and systems framed.

 Vain was the chief’s, the sage’s pride!
They had no poet, and they died!
In vain they schemed, in vain they bled!
They had no poet, and are dead.

With his sarcastic sense of humor, John Quincy admired Horace, and understood that Horace was being ironic: Lollius was not worthy of a poet, yet would be remembered because of Horace. John Quincy caught the irony with these lines of his own:

The pebble on the beach outshines
The Diamond sleeping in the mines
And hidden from the day.

Who were the poets with the power to rescue the heroes from oblivion? Pope had the advantage of England’s rich literary history, and named John Milton and Edmund Spencer. But the young United States had nothing to compare. Undaunted, John Quincy reached back to the classical past:

Hark! on your ears, Tibullus steals
Lucretius Nature’s Law reveals
And Juvenal’s caustic burns.

Anyone familiar with the testy satires of the Roman poet Juvenal can appreciate the jauntiness of the final line. As John Quincy wrote in the margin of his diary, “and here I stick on the borders of nonsense.”

John Quincy spent days working on his poem, captivated by the idea that both the poet and the hero could escape death: “What a magnificent panegyric upon his friend. What consciousness of his own transcendent powers! what a sublime conception of the gifts of poetical inspiration!”

He had not always held Horace’s “consciousness” in such high esteem. Fifty-three years earlier, John Quincy, after reading Horace boast that “I have built a monument more lasting than bronze” and “a great part of me shall escape death,” wrote in his diary:

“I finished this morning the third book of Horace’s Odes. Many of them are very fine, and the last one shows he was himself, sufficiently Sensible of it. When a Poet promises immortality to himself, he is always on the safe side of the Question, for if his works die with him, or soon after him, no body ever can accuse him of vanity or arrogance: but if his predictions are verified, he is considered not only as a Poet, but as a Prophet.”

John Quincy Adams’ diary permits us to see his long engagement with Horace, from his days as a schoolboy to the closing years of his life. As he wrote to his brother, Thomas Boylston, in 1802: “When once a man takes up Horace, it is not easy to lay him down again.”