“The Sublimity of it, charms me!”: John Adams and the Boston Tea Party

By Amanda Norton, Adams Papers

In the fall of 1773, three ships carrying a cargo of tea from the British East India Company were on their way into Boston Harbor. Subject to the Tea Act of 1773, allowing the tea to be unloaded in Boston would have meant the acceptance of the principle of Parliamentary taxation, an idea that Bostonians had been fighting for a decade. After Governor Thomas Hutchinson and the ship owners refused to prevent the ships’ landing, the Sons of Liberty decided to take action, and 242 years ago on the night of December 16, a group of patriots wearing Native American dress snuck on board the three ships and dumped their cargo into the harbor.

The next day, budding patriot John Adams wrote to his friend James Warren enthusiastically about the audacious stroke: “The Dye is cast: The People have passed the River and cutt away the Bridge: last Night Three Cargoes of Tea, were emptied into the Harbour. This is the grandest, Event, which has ever yet happened Since, the Controversy, with Britain, opened!” He added, “The Sublimity of it, charms me!”

“The People should never rise, without doing something to be remembered—something notable And striking.” he noted in his diary. “This Destruction of the Tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important Consequences, and so lasting, that I cant but consider it as an Epocha in History.” “The Question is whether the Destruction of this Tea was necessary?” he queried. “I apprehend it was absolutely and indispensably so.”

In his letter to Warren, Adams looked ahead as to what would follow this momentous affair. “Threats, Phantoms, Bugbears, by the million, will be invented and propagated among the People upon this occasion. Individuals will be threatened with Suits and Prosecutions. Armies and Navies will be talked of—military Execution—Charters annull’d—Treason—Tryals in England and all that—But—these Terrors, are all but Imaginations. Yet if they should become Realities they had better be Suffered, than the great Principle, of Parliamentary Taxation given up.”

There were indeed serious consequences for the people of Boston in the form of the Coercive, or Intolerable, Acts levied by Parliament in retaliation. The harsh punishment backfired however. Colonists grew more unified in sentiment, and the calling of the First Continental Congress in 1774 was a pivotal step in the movement toward revolution and eventually, independence.

John Adams to James Warren, 17 December 1773, Warren-Adams Papers

 

“I can do nothing without you”: The 250th Anniversary of John and Abigail Adams

By Amanda A. Mathews, Adams Papers

This month we celebrate the 250th wedding anniversary of John and Abigail Adams. Their marriage endured through separations, long in distance and time, war, partisan politics, and family hardships. Their distance and struggle became our treasure, because it is through their incredible correspondence that we obtain such an intimate look inside their lives—lives that in so many ways, are not so alien to our own.

     

About a month before their 25 October 1764, wedding, John Adams wrote to Abigail Smith movingly describing how important she was to him:

Oh my dear Girl, I thank Heaven that another Fortnight will restore you to me—after so long a separation. My soul and Body have both been thrown into Disorder, by your Absence, and a Month of two more would make me the most insufferable Cynick, in the World. I see nothing but Faults, Follies, Frailties and Defects in any Body, lately. People have lost all their good Properties or I my Justice, or Discernment.

But you who have always softened and warmed my Heart, shall restore my Benevolence as well as my Health and Tranquility of mind. You shall polish and refine my sentiments of Life and Manners, banish all the unsocial and ill natured Particles in my Composition, and form me to that happy Temper, that can reconcile a quick Discernment with a perfect Candour.

Abigail was that and more for John. His counselor and confidant, the one that even at the age of 61 and President of the United States, he could “do nothing without,” Abigail, while managing his beloved farm and caring for family, provided him with local news and gossip, advice, and a sympathetic ear. Likewise, for Abigail, when faced with trials of her own, she looked forward to a reunion with her dearest friend, where “I come to place my head upon your Bosom and to receive and give that consolation which sympathetick hearts alone know how to communicate.”

When Abigail died on October 28, 1818, just days after their fifty-fourth wedding anniversary, a heartbroken John wrote to his son John Quincy Adams, “My consolations are more than I can number. The Separation cannot be So long as twenty Separations heretofore. The Pangs and the Anguish have not been So great as when you and I embarked for France in 1778. . . . Love to your Wife. May you never experience her Loss.”

If you would like to learn more about this great American love story, the Abigail Adams Historical Society in Weymouth, MA, is holding a multi-day celebration and conference including remarks from Sara Martin, the Series Editor of the Adams Family Correspondence series, on October 24–26, 2014. Click here for more information.

 

 

Images:  Abigail Adams. Pastel on paper by Benjamin Blyth, circa 1766. Artwork 01.026; John Adams. Pastel on paper by Benjamin Blyth, circa 1766. Artwork 01.027