Adams Family Correspondence, volume 4

James Lovell to Abigail Adams, 16 June 1781 Lovell, James AA James Lovell to Abigail Adams, 16 June 1781 Lovell, James Adams, Abigail
James Lovell to Abigail Adams
June 16. 1781

I have already acknowledged the Receipt of your Letter of May 10th covering a Copy of March 17th, and accompanied by one of May 14th.1 I think I told you I would be more particular, at some 149future Day, in considering certain Parts of them. I meant to do it by Cyphers; but the present Opportunity renders that mode needless. Genl. Ward will probably take a safe Road for himself and consequently for my Scrawl.2

“A captured Letter, not to Portia thank Fortune,—published by the Enemy—has made some Talk; let the Writer's Conscience tell him whether any Thing ought to escape his Pen, even to a confidential Friend, that might be just Occasion of Pain to an affectionate Wife.” —“I have not yet seen it, I fear it is not fit I should.” 3

As to the Letter Madam, there is one Expression or rather one Mode of Expression that I wish was not there. I am very unwilling that it should be submitted to the Eye of one so very much my Friend as you profess yourself to be. My Enemies are welcome to read it a thousand Times over. It was an unbecoming Levity, and quite unfit for a “Senator.”4 But it is not that which will give Pain to my affectionate Wife. She will be pained with what you would smile at. For she is more apt to fear than to despise the Enmity of Little-GreatFolks. I should have submitted the Letter, however to your severe anti-shandean Criticism, if I had not thought that an angried Few would have wisely kept from saying any Thing about it, rather than to make spiteful Interpretations of Parts that did not refer to themselves purely to vent that Malice which had been put into a State of Fermentation by Jemmy Rivington's marginal Notes upon those Parts which did really appertain to their Worthyships.5 I am persuaded Madam I thus hit upon the authors—original Authors I mean, of those Suggestions which have troubled you. I did not want to aggrivate their Feelings by giving Communications of what I imagined they would chuse to stifle; that is to say the marginal Notes. By Mr. Samuel Adams I sent to Mr. Gerry the original Print. I assure you there is only the Levity of an Hieroglyphic instead of the Words at home that I regret.

I must now be very serious. There is in the World, in the Hands of one of my best Friends, a Bond of about 80 Pounds Lawful Money against me, but I have that Amount and more against a Farm mortgaged to me for myself and others, tho' not worth what it is dipped6 for. This is the whole Connexion I have with Money matters, and a poor one it is, except with my Pay for Time and Service as a Delegate, which ceases the day I arrive in Boston, though my Wife and Children will expect to dine the day after and peradventure they will be extravagant enough to expect it the third Day also. I shall not say much about the Probability, that many of those who have dined and supped 150formerly, often, for a Course of years, elegantly both as to the Table and Sideboard, tho not luxuriously, upon the Product of the exemplary Industry of the Usher of a Grammar School, will call to pay their Compliments to the Honorable Delegate of Congress, and wellcome him Home, while He poor Wretch cannot in Return offer them a Glass of small Beer to drink in Case of Thirst.

Do those who condemn my Absence mean to take me into their Stores as a Clerk? Will they risk such a Test of my Desire to live with one of the most faithful endearing Wives within the Circle of my whole Acquaintance, the tender and discrete Mother of my numerous Children, the benevolent Neighbour, the chearful sensible Companion of both Sexes.

“I must return if only for a short Visit.”7 Will they be willing to maint... —But, I shall forget who I am writing to, and shall draw upon myself, and not myself only, a Condemnation of a secret Compact against short Visits.—I am told that a Dollar and an Half per Day is to cloathe me as a Delegate, and to support the Wife and the seven Children of the same Delegate! Some of my Boys however begin to help me.

And now Madam, do not think that this serious Subject shall prevent my taking Occasion to censure your Sophistry in one part of your Letter.8

“What Right has She, who is appropriated, to appear lovely or charming in any Eyes but his whose Property she is?” I answer, all that Right and Title which Virtue inherits above Vice.

“I am persuaded” says a Lady who had seen much of the World, “that a Woman who is determined to place her Happiness in her Husband's Affections, should abandon the extravagant Desire of engaging public Adoration.”

I underscore Part to show that it had nothing to do with your own Question above.

But I go further, and say, that the Lady needed not to travel to get double the Wisdom of what she here discovers. She might have sat in her Chamber and known that a Woman who is determined to place her Happiness in her Husband's affections not only “should” but would abandon “the extravagant” and even any Desire of Engaging “public Adoration.9

“Portia can join with Juba in the Play.” “By Heavens I had rather have that best of Friend's approve my Deeds than Worlds for my Admirers.” In Troth a very pretty Scrap of a Play! but quoted very unseasonably. For let me ask may not those very Deeds be approved 151and the Author of them consequently be admired by Thousands and Tens of Thousands; and has not a Wife, as well as a Maid, a Right thus “to appear lovely and charming to other Eyes than his whose Property she is”? Property! oh the dutch Idea!10

Besides, Madam, your fine tuned Instrument cannot be an american one; it must be english with which we are at War. It cannot be italien, or it would be more sensibly touched by the amiable than by the lovely, the first being of roman and the last of british Extract; but otherwise, critically the same.

My Letter dated April 13. was written the 23.11—The Duke of Leinster not Leominster carried your Letter safely, but she is herself carried into New York.

I begin now to be uneasy about your Goods. Oeconomy has banished all Waggoning almost from this City; and if I send by Water to Trenton I know not the Store Keeper's there, so that I shall run new Risques. Perhaps I may hear from you or Mr. Cranch Tomorrow. I am worried by a Paragraph in one of my Son's Letters which mentions your Good's by Doctor Winship being injured by the Rain. It must have been before Mr. Hughes boxed them; and he mentioned no such Thing to me.

I “have received your Letter of March 2712 (and worse ones too) in that Spirit of Friendship with which they flowed from the Pen of Portia.”13 You see nevertheless that I think it a bad one and it is that Thought which prevents me from following the Dictates of my own Sincerity in subscribing:

I have not yet worn out the Word Madam J L

RC (Adams Papers).


All the letters mentioned are printed above, that of 14 May under the date of AA's draft, 13 May. Lovell had acknowledged receipt of these in his of 29 May, also above.


AA acknowledged receipt of the present letter, brought by Maj. Gen. Artemas Ward, in her reply of 14 July, below.


Lovell is quoting from AA's letter of 17 March, as he does repeatedly below, not always verbatim and hence sometimes distorting her emphasis if not her meaning.


For a nearly complete printed text of Lovell's letter to Elbridge Gerry of 20 Nov. 1780, intercepted and published by the British in Rivington's New York Royal Gazette, 27 Dec. 1780, p. 2, col. 1, see Burnett, ed., Letters of Members , 5:451–453. Burnett's text is from the intercepted original in the Sir Henry Clinton Papers in MiU-C, and he locates another MS and another contemporary newspaper printing. He also furnishes excellent explanatory notes on the somewhat cryptic allusions in Lovell's letter to Congressional business, to George Washington, and to John Hancock. But he prints without explaining Lovell's brief paragraph mentioning his wife that had, from what she had heard about it, so perturbed AA and prompted the reproaches in her letter to Lovell of 17 March. This paragraph reads:


“'Is it not Time to pay a Visit to Mass:'? Does my Wife look as if she wanted a toothless grey headed sciatic Husband near her? I am more Benefit to her at a Distance than in ♂ as the Almanac has it.”

This is “the unbecoming Levity” toward Mrs. Lovell which had caused so much talk and was all that Lovell admitted to AA he regretted coming to light through the interception and publication of his letter. Specifically, as he explains below, he regretted using “an Hieroglyphic” (i.e. “in ♂”) “instead of the Words at home.” With its mixture of learned and sexually suggestive implications, this was a bit of verbal play very typical of Lovell: in astronomy ♂ is the sign for Mars; in biology it is the male principle.


Rivington's “marginal Notes” were footnotes appended, not to the text of Lovell's letter to Gerry of 20 Nov. 1780, but to another Lovell letter intercepted at the same time and printed in the same issue of the Royal Gazette (27 Dec. 1780, p. 2, col. 2). This letter was addressed to John Hancock, 21 Nov. 1780; besides dealing with certain financial matters, it tendered Hancock warm congratulations on his recent election as governor under the new Constitution. The printer commented on Lovell's “duplicity of ... heart” in toadying to Hancock, since the two men were known to be political enemies, and cast sundry reflections on Lovell's humble origins and doubtful solvency. It should be observed that, since AA had not seen the newspaper text or notes, Lovell's labored explanation must have been largely meaningless to her, except for the revelation that if he gave up his post (and pay) in Congress he would have no means of supporting his family.


See OED under dip, verb, 7b: “To involve in debt or pecuniary liabilities; to mortgage ... (colloq.).”


Paraphrased from AA's letter to Lovell of 13 May, above.


Of 17 March, to which Lovell now reverts.


Opening quotation mark editorially supplied.


For AA's disapproving response to this phrase, see her reply of 14 July, below.


It is printed above under the corrected date.


Error for March 17.


Quotation marks as in MS, but the opening quotation mark should in fact precede “in that Spirit.”

Sarah Sever to Abigail Adams, 16 June 1781 Sever, Sarah Russell, Sarah Sever AA Sarah Sever to Abigail Adams, 16 June 1781 Sever, Sarah Russell, Sarah Sever Adams, Abigail
Sarah Sever to Abigail Adams
Kingston June 16th 1781

I am exceedingly oblig'd to Mrs. Adams for her condescention, in the communications she has made in the very kind billet, this day handed me, by Mr. Austin.1

I am sincerely pain'd at the disagreable intelligence from my Cousin!2 Poor unfortunate youth! I hope his life is not so near drawing to its close! Just as his conduct merited the approbation of the Judicious; when his freinds might flatter themselves, with the satisfaction he might afford; from his alter'd manners in the morning of life, to be cut of—'twou'd be melancholy! But it might have been still more so!—had the fatal ball snapt the brittle thread, and not have left one moment for reflection,—it might have aggravated the wounds of the sorrowing bosom.—I am very anxious to hear from him; I hope he will be spar'd! Shou'd he suffer an amputation, Tho' 'twill be apparently a severe misfortune, it may prove a blessing.


I am rejoic'd that my Aunt is recovering. It must be ever regreted when eyes so valuable, shall lose their usefulness. Tis no small misfortune to us, the removal of my Uncle's family. But tis a satisfaction my Dear Madam, that the same cause, carrys you an addition of happiness. I expect to be familiariz'd to gloomy scenes; and I hope they will teach me useful lessons.—Mama has been confin'd more than a month to her chamber,—she is very frail and indispos'd. And My brother, who this week puts on a military garb, and leaves us to take the feild, will not hasten her recovery.3 She and papa join in offering their best regards to Mrs. Adams.

I hope, Madam, you continue to have agreable tidings from your absent freinds. May the period be not far distant, when the Atlantic will no longer separate you from the partner of your heart. May you enjoy many years of domestic felicity in peace and freindship.

Will Mrs. Adams condescend to pardon the presumption of engaging her attention so long, from one so ev'ry way unworthy?—'Tis a proof of her goodness if she does.—Miss Nabby promis'd I shou'd hear from her; she has not been good as her word. I hope we shall have the pleasure of seeing her with Miss Betsy, in the course of the summer. Our alter'd village does not promise many pleasures, but our little power shall be exerted to make it agreable to them.—To see you at Kingston my dear Lady, wou'd make us all very happy.—Will you be pleas'd to make my affectionate regards acceptable to your good sister and family. My love to Miss Nabby, and give me leave to subscribe myself with ev'ry sentiment of respect & esteem, your sincere freind & humble servant,

S. Sever

RC (Adams Papers).


The “very kind billet,” presumably from AA, has not been found. The messenger may have been Jonathan Loring Austin, who returned about this time from Europe after being captured by the British; see note on him in vol. 3:262, above, with references there.

The writer of this letter, Sarah Sever (1757–1787), was the daughter of James Warren's sister Sarah (Mrs. William Sever), of Kingston. Though romantically linked with John Thaxter, she married in 1784 the Boston merchant Thomas Russell. See Sibley-Shipton, Harvard Graduates , 11:575–578; Vital Records of Kingston, Massachusetts, to the Year 1850, Boston, 1911, p. 132, 276; Mass. Centinel, 28 Nov. 1787, p. 3, col. 2.


James Warren Jr., identified above, vol. 3:133, was wounded in one or more actions on board the Alliance, which had just arrived in battered condition in Boston (Boston Gazette, 11 June 1781, p. 2, cols. 1–2; William Bell Clark, Gallant John Barry, 1745–1803, N.Y., 1938, p. 224).


James Sever (1761–1845), Harvard 1781, had been commissioned in Feb. 1781 ensign in the 7th Massachusetts regiment ( Mass. Soldiers and Sailors ; Heitman, Register Continental Army ).