Adams Family Correspondence, volume 1

Abigail Adams to John Adams, 21 February 1776 AA JA Abigail Adams to John Adams, 21 February 1776 Adams, Abigail Adams, John
Abigail Adams to John Adams
Febry 21 1776

Tis a month this day since you left me, and this is the first time I have taken my pen to write to you. My conscience accuses me, but I have waited in hopes of having something worth saying to you, some event worth relating; but it has been a dead calm of dull repose. No event of any importance upon either side excepting the burning of some houses by the Enemy upon Dorchester Neck has taken place since you left us.

The preparations increase and something great is daily expected, something terible it will be. I impatiently wait for, yet dread the day.—I received a Letter from you wrote at Watertown, and a Book Last week;1 for which I am much obliged, tis highly prized here and carries conviction whereever it is read. I have spread it as much as it lay in my power, every one assents to the weighty truths it contains. I wish it could gain Credit enough in your assembly to be carried speadily into Execution.

I have been uneasy upon your account. I know your delicacy must be wounded by the unjust and malicious censures of an unworthy associate, whose self conceit and vanity really makes him an object of contempt ,too dirty to soil my fingers and commisiration. He has not only treated your character in a very abusive and ungentlemanlike manner, but descended to low vulgar attacks and Language upon our Worthy Friend.2

I think from the temper in which he writes you cannot avoid altercation with him, but I hope you will be guarded. Envy and vanity will do his work very effectually.

“To all my foes dear fortune sent thy Gifts But never to my Friends. I tamely can endure the first But this with envy makes me Burst.”

I must beg the favour of you to send me a quire of paper, or I know not whether I shall be able to write you an other Letter. We cannot get any here. I was obliged to beg this, and your Daughter requests a blank Book or two. If Mack Fingal is published be so good as to send it.3

The army is full, more men now in camp than has been since the army was first together. Not very sickly there, But in the Country the 351plurisy fever prevails and is very mortal. We have lost 3 grown persons in this part of the Town this week. Many others lay bad—it carries them of in 8 days.

All our Friends send Love. Write me by every opportunity and believe me at all times Yours.

RC (Adams Papers); addressed in John Thaxter's hand: “To The Honble. John Adams Esqr. In Philadelphia Pr. favour”; franked: “Free Wm Ellery”; endorsed: “Portia. Feb. 21.”


Paine's Common Sense, the authorship of which was not yet known.


This alludes to the bitter quarrel that had sprung up during the preceding months between Robert Treat Paine and James Warren, in which JA, as Warren's confidant and close political ally and Paine's impatient colleague in Congress, was unavoidably involved. Surviving letters of Warren written in July and Aug. 1775 show that he and Paine were on fairly cordial terms until that point, but developments were about to occur that made them enemies. As for JA, he and Paine had long been rivals at the bar in Massachusetts and on somewhat touchy terms of friendship because Paine, senior in age and in professional status to JA, had watched the younger man's prestige and influence surpass his own as the Revolutionary struggle came on. When JA's intercepted letters were published by the British in August, Paine (no doubt rightly) considered himself as one of those in Congress whose “Fidgets,... Whims, and Irritability” JA was complaining of (JA to AA, 24 July 1775, above). On top of this JA was appointed chief justice of the Superior Court in the fall, and Paine was ranked fourth among the five justices then named. (See Warren to JA, 20 Oct., 5 Nov. 1775, Warren-Adams Letters , 1:150, 178.) JA was himself uneasy about this arrangement and well aware of Paine's resentment. “Mr. Paine,” he told AA, “has taken an odd Turn in his Head of late, and is so peevish, passionate and violent that he will make the Place disagreable” (18 Nov. 1775, above). Paine spared JA this trouble by refusing the appointment, but Warren soon made matters much worse. In a letter to JA of 3 Dec. he dropped some inexcusably sarcastic comments on Paine's conduct both in Congress and out ( Warren-Adams Letters , 1:190). JA received this letter on his way home from Congress and sent it on to Philadelphia for Samuel Adams to see. It fell into someone's hands who showed it to Paine when he returned from his mission to Ticonderoga, and it opened the floodgates of his resentment. Early in January he addressed a scorching protest to Warren, in which he said, among other things, that he knew perfectly well who (meaning JA) had been furnishing Warren with the calumnies now circulating and whose “machinations” had “degraded” Paine in the recent appointments. This letter Warren copied and enclosed to JA under a cover of 31 Jan. which called it “A Model of Invective and dulness” and said it might soon be properly answered. (Warren's letter of 31 Jan. is in the Adams Papers, with the copy of Paine's to Warren attached; the enclosure is dated 5 Jan., but Paine's draft in the Paine Papers in MHi is dated 1 Jan. 1776.) No answer by Warren has been found. Before long the Warrens evidently showed Paine's letter to AA, and she may have heard more on the subject from Joseph Palmer, to whom on 1 Jan. Paine had addressed a bitter complaint about the behavior of Warren and JA (draft in Paine Papers; copy in Adams Papers). Palmer's answer was so exemplary that it deserves at least partial quotation:

“I thank you for your late favour, but was exceedingly sorry to find any misunderstanding between Friends, especially at this time of public danger; I don't intend to meddle in this matter, any farther than to urge you both, as you regard the good of your distressed Country, to stifle every private resentment, incompatable with the public 352good, and conduct yourselves in every respect as your Christian profession requires” (24 Jan., Paine Papers).

From the evidence available it appears that both Paine and JA did so act toward each other in the critical months that followed.


John Trumbull, JA's law clerk during 1773–1774, wrote the first part of his M'Fingal: A Modern Epic Poem in 1775 at New Haven, where he had begun the practice of law. JA saw a MS of the poem in Philadelphia and wrote Trumbull, 5 Nov., praising it and asking who sat for the portraits of the principal characters (RC in NjP). Trumbull's interesting reply of 14 Nov. says among other things that no single person was the model for either the tory M'Fingal or the patriot Honorius; “But the Picture of the Townmeeting is drawn from the Life” (Adams Papers). “Canto I” of M'Fingal was published at Philadelphia in Jan. 1776 (though with a 1775 imprint). The complete poem, twice as long and destined to be popular for many years among American readers, was published at Hartford in 1782. See Alexander Cowie, John Trumbull, Connecticut Wit, Chapel Hill, 1936, ch. 7.

Abigail Adams to John Adams, 2 March 1776 AA JA Abigail Adams to John Adams, 2 March 1776 Adams, Abigail Adams, John
Abigail Adams to John Adams
Saturday Evening March 2 1776

I was greatly rejoiced at the return of your servant to find you had safely arrived, and that you were well. I had never heard a word from you after you left New york, and a most ridiciolous story had been industerously propagated in this and the neighbouring Towns to injure the cause and blast your Reputation, viz. that you and your President had gone on board a Man of War from N–y and saild for England. I should not mention so idle a report, but that it had given uneasiness to some of your Friends, not that they in the least credited the report, but because the Gaping vulgar swallowed the story. One man had deserted them and proved a traitor, an other might &c. I assure you such high Disputes took place in the publick house of this parish, that some men were collerd and draged out of the shop, with great Threats for reporting such scandelous lies, and an unkle of ours offerd his life as a forfeit for you if the report proved true.

However it has been a nine days marvel and will now cease. I heartily wish every Tory was Extirpated from 1 America, they are continually by secret means undermineing and injuring our cause.

I am charmed with the Sentiments of Common Sense; and wonder how an honest Heart, one who wishes the welfare of their country, and the happiness of posterity can hesitate one moment at adopting them; I want to know how those Sentiments are received in Congress? I dare say their would be no difficulty in procuring a vote and instructions from all the Assemblies in New England for independancy. I most sincerely wish that now in the Lucky Minuet it might be done.

I have been kept in a continual state of anxiety and expectation 353ever since you left me. It has been said to morrow and to morrow for this month, but when the dreadfull to morrow will be I know not—but hark! the House this instant shakes with the roar of Cannon.—I have been to the door and find tis a cannonade from our Army, orders I find are come for all the remaining Militia to repair to the Lines a monday night by twelve o clock. No Sleep for me to Night; and if I cannot who have no guilt upon my Soul with regard to this Cause, how shall the misirible wretches who have been the procurers of this Dreadfull Scene and those who are to be the actors, lie down with the load of Guilt upon their Souls.

Sunday Eve March 3

I went to Bed after 12 but got no rest, the Cannon continued firing and my Heart Beat pace with them all night. We have had a pretty quiet day, but what to morrow will bring forth God only knows.

Monday Evening

Tolerable quiet to day. The Militia have all musterd with 3 days provision and are all march'd by 8 o clock this afternoon tho their notice was no longer than 8 o clock Saturday, and now we have scarcly a Man but our regular guards either in Weymouth, Hingham or Braintree or Milton and the Militia from the more remote towns are call'd in as Sea coast Guards. Can you form to yourself an Idea of our Sensations. Palmer is chief Colonel, Bass is Leit. Colonel and Soper Major and Hall Captain.2

I have just returnd from Penn's Hill where I have been sitting to hear the amazing roar of cannon and from whence I could see every shell which was thrown. The sound I think is one of the Grandest in Nature and is of the true Speicies of the Sublime. Tis now an incessant Roar. But O the fatal Ideas which are connected with the sound. How many of our dear country men must fall?3

Twesday morning

I went to bed about 12 and rose again a little after one. I could no more sleep than if I had been in the ingagement. The ratling of the windows, the jar of the house and the continual roar of 24 pounders, the Bursting of shells give us such Ideas, and realize a scene to us of which we could scarcly form any conception. About Six this morning, there was quiet; I rejoiced in a few hours calm. I hear we got possession of Dorchester Hill Last Night. 4000 thousand men upon it to day—lost but one Man. The Ships are all drawn round the Town. To night 354we shall realize a more terible scene still. I sometimes think I cannot stand it—I wish myself with you, out of hearing as I cannot assist them. I hope to give you joy of Boston, even if it is in ruins before I send this away.—I am too much agitated to write as I ought, and languid for want of rest.

Thursday Fast Day

All my anxiety, and distress, is at present at an End. I feel dissapointed. This day our Militia are all returning, without effecting any thing more than taking possession of Dorchester Hill. I hope it is wise and just, but from all the Muster and Stir I hoped and expected more important and decisive Scenes; I would not have sufferd all I have for two such Hills. Ever since the taking of that we have had a perfect calm nor can I learn yet what Effect it has had in Boston. I do not hear of one persons escapeing since.

I was very much pleased with your choise of a committe for Canada. All those to whom I have venturd to shew that part of your Letter approve the Scheme of the Priest as a master stroke of policy. I feel sorry that General Lee has left us, but his presence at New York was no doubt of great importance as we have reason to think it prevented Clinton from landing and gathering together such a nest of virmin as would at least have distressd us greatly. But how can you spair him from there? Can you make his place good—can you supply it with a man eaquelly qualified to save us? How do the Virginians realish the Troops said to be destined for them? Are they putting themselves into a State of Defence? I inclose to you a Coppy of a Letter sent by Capt. Furnance Furnass who is in Mr. Ned Churchs imploy and who came into the Cape about 10 days ago. You will learn the Sentiments of our Cousin4 by it, some of which may be true, but I hope he is a much better divine than politician.

I hear in one of his Letters he mentions certain intercepted Letters which he says have made much Noise in England, and Laments that you ever wrote them.5

What will he and others say to Common Sense? I cannot Bear to think of your continuing in a State of Supineness this winter.

“There is a tide in the affairs of Men Which taken, at the flood leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat; 355 And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.” Shakespear
Sunday Eve March 10

I had scarcly finished these lines when my Ears were again assaulted with the roar of Cannon. I could not write any further. My Hand and heart will tremble, at this domestick fury, and firce civil Strife, which cumber all our parts. Tho, Blood and destruction are so much in use And Dreadfull objects so familiar, Yet is not pitty chok'd, nor my Heart grown Callous. I feel for the unhappy wretches who know not where to fly for safety. I feel still more for my Bleading Country men who are hazarding their lives and their Limbs.—A most Terible and incessant Cannonade from half after 8 till Six this morning. I hear we lost four men kill'd and some wounded in attempting to take the Hill nearest the Town call'd Nook Hill.6 We did some work, but the fire from the ships 7 Beat off our Men so that they did not secure it but retired to the fort upon the other Hill.

I have not got all the perticuliars I wish I had but, as I have an opportunity of sending this I shall endeavour to be more perticuliar in my next.

All our Little ones send duty. Tommy has been very sick with what is call'd the Scarlet or purple fever, but has got about again.

If we have Reinforcements here,8 I believe we shall be driven from the sea coast, but in what so ever state I am I will endeavour to be therewith content.

Man wants but Little here below Nor wants that Little long.

You will escuse this very incorrect Letter. You see in what purtubation it has been written and how many times I have left of. Adieu pray write me every opportunity. Yours.

Tooks Grammer is the one you mention.9

RC (Adams Papers); endorsed: “March 10. answd March. 19.” Enclosure: probably Isaac Smith Jr.'s letter to Rev. William Smith(?), dated at Enfield near London, 5 Dec. 1775, above.


Word omitted in MS.


Col. Joseph Palmer of Germantown, Jonathan Bass, Edmund Soper, and John Hall Jr. ( Mass. Soldiers and Sailors , 35611:803; 1:748; 14:642; 7:92). Capt. John Hall Jr. was a stepson of JA's mother by her 2d marriage, 1766.


The purpose of this bombardment, as Washington reported to Congress on the 7th, was “to harrass the Enemy and divert their attention” preparatory to assaulting and fortifying the heights on Dorchester Neck, an operation undertaken on Monday night, 4 March, Gen. John Thomas commanding. Local militia had been called up in large numbers in expectation of a British counterattack (Washington, Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, 4:370–372). Bad weather and rough water preventing a successful assault on the new American fortifications, Howe thereupon decided to evacuate Boston (same, p. 373, note). The militia were dismissed on the 7th (same, p. 374).


Isaac Smith Jr.; see the descriptive note above.


“Very unluckily for us, two intercepted letters, wrote by Mr. John Adams, and one from another member of the Congress have been republished here, and (especially the former,) have furnished a topic for general conversation the week past. They are supposed to contain proof that the Congress, some of them at least, have very different views from what they profess in their publications” (Isaac Smith Jr. to Isaac Smith Sr., London, 26 Sept. [1775], MHi: Smith-Carter Papers).


Nook or Nook's Hill at Dorchester Point, overlooking the harbor and the British lines on Boston Neck. See, further, AA to JA, 16–18 March, below.


Bottom line of MS partly worn away; missing words supplied from CFA's text in JA–AA, Familiar Letters , p. 140.


AA almost certainly meant to write: “If we have no Reinforcements here....”


In his letter of 18 Feb., above. AA was mistaken in her citation; see her letter of 16–18 March, below, and note 6 there.