Adams Family Correspondence, volume 9


Volume 9 of the Adams Family Correspondence covers an eventful four years in the life of the Adams family and in the history of the United States. Spanning the period from 1790 through 1793, these letters chronicle the early years of the federal government under the Constitution, including such milestones as the funding of the national debt and the assumption of state debts, the choice of a permanent site for the government, the creation of a national bank, the reestablishment of an army, and the election of 1792. In the background, the French Revolution influenced ongoing debates about the nature of democracy and inflamed tensions among political factions, which would soon develop into full-fledged political parties.

For the family itself, these years concluded the transition of the second generation of Adamses from children to adults. The youngest, Thomas Boylston, completed his schooling at Harvard, and all three brothers finished their legal training and embarked on careers as lawyers. The eldest son, John Quincy, began his political career, appropriately enough in Boston and Braintree, where he lobbied successfully for the incorporation of the town of Quincy, and began to publish his writings under a variety of pseudonyms. Daughter Abigail Adams Smith continued to raise her first two sons and gave birth to another, Thomas Hollis Smith, who lived less than a year. John and Abigail meanwhile settled uncomfortably into their roles as vice president and second lady of the nation. John found his work onerous and unsatisfying, while Abigail, troubled with ill health, eventually retreated to Braintree to escape the social whirlwind in successive capital cities.

Unlike previous volumes in the Family Correspondence series, which predominantly feature either letters between Abigail and John or those among Abigail and her sisters, this volume moves the younger generation front and center, with a particular emphasis on the correspondence of the three Adams sons, John Quincy, Charles, xxand Thomas Boylston, among themselves and with their parents and sister, Abigail (Nabby) Adams Smith. In general, this is a period of relative scarcity of letters for the Adams family—from over four years, a mere 360 are extant, of which 289 are published here. As usual, Abigail Adams remains the most prominent author, having written 87 letters (30 percent) in the book. John Adams accounts for another 64 (22 percent), and the three sons for 78 (27 percent) more. The latter half of the volume is a virtual round-robin among the three sons and their parents, with occasional additions by Nabby, Elizabeth Smith Shaw, and a handful of others. With fewer letters among Abigail and her sisters, the focus of the correspondence is less on domestic matters and more on national and international events, though Abigail's efforts to manage her various homes remain a topic of concern.

1. Affairs of State

The year 1789 marked John Adams’ return to the American political scene. For the previous decade, he and his family had been on the periphery of the U.S. government—deeply involved in its diplomatic affairs, no doubt, but physically removed from its actual operations. At a distance, they worried about what Congress was doing (or, equally often, not doing) and considered how best to reform the government to better serve the nation's needs. They missed the debates over the Constitution while in Europe, though that did not stop them from commenting on the results or speculating on revisions. John, in particular, had reservations but indicated that he was “clear for accepting the present Plan as it is and trying the Experiment.”1

Now, in the early 1790s, John and Abigail found themselves at the center again, discovering all that had changed in America in the years following the Revolution and realizing that it was not always to their liking. John's role as vice president—what he called “the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his Imagination conceived”—limited him to presiding over the Senate and casting the occasional tie-breaking vote. Nonetheless, he filled the position faithfully. Abigail reported to her sister Mary Cranch that John “has not mist one hour from attendance at Congress. he goes from Home at ten and seldom gets back till four, and xxi5 hours constant sitting in a day for six months together, (for He can not leave his Chair) is pretty tight service.” Worse yet, he had to read bills and listen to debates without interjecting or offering his own views on the matters at hand—frustrating service indeed for an opinionated man like John.2

Meanwhile, Abigail shared hostessing duties with the other leading ladies of the government: Martha Washington, of course, but also Sarah Jay, Lucy Flucker Knox, and even Lady Elizabeth Temple, wife of British consul general Sir John Temple. Hosting dinners and entertaining visitors were integral parts of Abigail's role in the capital, and they took up much of her time and energy. At one point, she reported to her son John Quincy, “we have regularly dined from 16 to 18 and sometimes 20 person every wednesday in the week Since I removed into Town, and on Mondays I see company. the rest of the week is or might be altogether taken up in Par[ties] abroad.” Only her poor health gave her an excuse to step back from the endless series of social obligations.3

The Adamses had a warm relationship with George and Martha Washington, which made the intense social and political environment more palatable. Abigail “lived in habits of intimacy and Friendship” with Martha, taking excursions with her outside New York City and enjoying their mutual interest in grandchildren. They dined at one another's homes when in the same town and corresponded when apart. Martha invited Abigail's niece Louisa Smith to join her grandchildren for dancing lessons. George made certain that Abigail had the place of honor at Martha's levees, “always at the right hand of Mrs W.” And Abigail as usual extolled George Washington, finding him “polite with dignity, affable without familiarity, distant without Haughtyness, Grave without Austerity, Modest, Wise, & Good.”4

Abigail was shrewd enough, however, to recognize that if Washington “was not really one of the best intentiond Men in the world he might be a very dangerous one.” His stature was critical to the stability of the new government, but this situation gave him a worrisome amount of power. When he became gravely ill in the late spring of 1790, Abigail agonized that “the union of the states, and concequently the permanancy of the Government depend under xxiiProvidence upon his Life. at this early day when neither our Finances are arranged nor our Government Sufficiently cemeted to promise duration, His death would I fear have had most disasterous Consequences.” Her fears were not only for the nation. If Washington died, John would succeed him—a situation Abigail dreaded. “Most assuredly,” she wrote to her sister, “I do not wish for the highest Post. I never before realizd what I might be calld to, and the apprehension of it only for a few days greatly distresst me.”5

All of the Adamses were engrossed by the political affairs of the United States and closely followed state and national events. Abigail attended sessions of Congress herself and learned much about behind-the-scenes maneuvers through socializing with legislators and administration officials. Family members batted back and forth their opinions on such issues as the representation debate, Alexander Hamilton's funding plan, the war with Native Americans in the Ohio Country, and the impact of financial speculation, though they generally found themselves on common ground. They kept abreast of news of their home state as well, watching with interest local elections and the doings of the Massachusetts General Court. With Charles in New York and John Quincy in Boston, the family had eyes and ears in three of the country's major cities, and Thomas Boylston was expected to report events from Philadelphia whenever John and Abigail were not in residence.6

The Adamses also read the newspapers avidly. Ever more important in shaping the political debates of the period, the press of the early republic made no claims to objectivity but rather gave voice to different political factions. Like others, the Adams family deplored the vitriolic (sometimes even libelous) tone of many newspapers but had no difficulty endorsing papers that supported their own views. The Adamses were equally happy to take aim at any newspapers that did not adhere to their political agenda. Abigail condemned Benjamin Edes’ Boston Gazette as a “fountain of Sedition”; John Quincy, decrying the inaccurate representations of popular opinion generated by “the paltry malevolence of a few contemptible scribblers in our News papers,” singled out Philip Freneau's National Gazette as “virulent and abusive.” The Adamses canceled their subscriptions to Boston papers that they considered too Antifederalist, such as the xxiii Independent Chronicle and the Herald of Freedom. Nonetheless, they kept tabs on what was being written and routinely recommended to one another items of interest.7

The increasing factionalism that both fed on and nourished newspaper polemics transformed the political landscape. Differences in ideology came to be identified with organized parties, which in turn promoted an us-versus-them mentality that hardened those differences. The Adamses were not immune to these divisions and held their own views as strongly as any partisan. But they did lament how such fights cheapened the political process. Abigail agonized that “the more I see of Mankind, and of their views and designs, (the more Sick I am of publick Life) and the less worthy do they appear to me, and the less deserving of the Sacrifices which Honest men make to serve them.” Regional differences only magnified these disagreements. Following the congressional debates over Hamilton's funding system, Abigail noted to her sister Mary, “I firmly believe if I live Ten years longer, I shall see a devision of the Southern & Northern states, unless more candour & less intrigue, of which I have no hopes, should prevail.” Charles, likewise, found “too much local partiality in the administration of our Government.”8

One of the earliest manifestations of political parties was in the presidential and congressional elections of 1792. John, of course, did not “run” for reelection; he allowed his name to be put forward. Even in this evolving political landscape, candidates did not actively campaign but rather allowed surrogates to promote their interests through the press and through personal connections. John professed indifference to the outcome, telling Nabby that he was “more anxious to get out of public life than to continue in,” but fooled no one in his desire to continue as vice president. Members of the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties lobbied for their candidates—John Adams and George Clinton, respectively—but managed to maintain a certain level of civility. John reported, “We, indeed, have our parties and our sophistry, and our rivalries, but they proceed not to violence. The elections are going on in New-England with a spirit of sobriety and moderation, which will do us honour; xxivand, I have not heard of any thing more intemperate than might be expected, in the southward or middle states.”9

John's sanguine attitude, however, proved premature and understated the divisiveness of the election. Thomas Boylston in the fall of 1792 begged John to come to Philadelphia as soon as possible. “’Tis said to be your happy fate,” he wrote, “to be the most obnoxious character in the United States, to a certain party, (whose hatred & opposition is the glory of every honest man) who for a long time have considered you as the first barrier to be removed in order to the success of their designs.” John too found “Stories of Marches and Countermarches Intrigues and Manœuvres” when he arrived in New York City en route to Philadelphia. Because the Democratic-Republicans knew that they had no chance of unseating Washington, they had instead made John Adams their primary target.10

The results of the election remained uncertain throughout the fall. John counted votes, warning Abigail that “I am told that an unanimous Vote will be for me in Vermont New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island. This is generally expected, but I know full well the Uncertainty of Such Things, and am prepared to meet an Unanimous Vote against me.” He had low expectations for taking any of the southern states. In the end he won decisively, receiving 77 electoral votes to Clinton's 50. On 5 December, the day the votes were cast, John wrote to Abigail, “This Day decides whether I shall be a Farmer or a Statesman after next March.” The country had decided that he should remain a statesman a few years longer.11

2. The Home Front

Abigail's ultimate response to the political bickering and the social bustle surrounding the federal government was to remove herself from the scene. She had dutifully followed John first to New York, then to Philadelphia when it became the capital in the fall of 1790. In the spring of 1792, she and John went home for the summer to Quincy—now split off from Braintree as a separate town—as they had done the previous year. That fall, when John returned to Philadelphia, Abigail remained in Massachusetts. Poor health spurred the initial decision: Abigail, suffering from rheumatism and the xxvresidual effects of malaria, was too ill to travel. Philadelphia's unhealthy climate—including a major yellow fever epidemic in 1793—also encouraged her to stay away. Abigail ultimately decided to make the arrangement permanent for the remainder of John's vice presidency. She and John contented themselves with summers together, which afforded them more time in the same place than they had had for much of their marriage. Abigail's choice to remain in Quincy stemmed from various factors. It moved her closer to her sisters and extended family. It spared her the limelight of Philadelphia society, where she had to be on her guard socially and politically. It allowed her to enjoy the quieter pleasures of life in Quincy. And it freed her to run her own household and manage the family's properties directly rather than through agents and surrogates (most notably, Cotton Tufts, Mary Cranch, and John Quincy Adams).

In all the places she lived, Abigail faced the usual difficulties in managing her household, including high prices, obstreperous servants, and continual maintenance problems. When Abigail and John arrived at Bush Hill, the house they initially rented on the outskirts of Philadelphia, they found “the workmen there with their brushes in hand. This was cold comfort in a house, where I suppose no fire had been kindled for several years. . . . What confusion! Boxes, barrels, chairs, tables, trunks, &c.; every thing to be arranged, and few hands to accomplish it.” Another house, rented the second year in Philadelphia, had “Rooms so small and not able to lay two together, [which] renders it very troublesome to see so much company as we must be obliged to.” Even worse, Abigail struggled to find adequate servants: “I brought all my servants from N york, cook excepted and, thought I could not be worse of than I had been. I have had in the course of 18 months Seven, and I firmly believe in the whole Number, not a virtuous woman amongst them all; the most of them drunkards.” One was “so indecent, that footman Coachman & all were driven out of the House.” She sent a stream of pleas to Mary Cranch in Braintree to find her better help, preferring good, reliable people from Massachusetts to what she considered the lazy and immoral servants in New York, “all Foreigners & chiefly vagabonds.”12

Running the household included making financial decisions, both day-to-day and long-term. Abigail as always was deeply engaged in xxviinvesting the Adamses’ money. Unlike John, she had no interest in land and preferred securities, which she believed would be “less troublesome to take charge of then Land and much more productive, but in these Ideas I have always been so unfortunate as to differ from my partner who thinks he never saved any thing but what he vested in Land.” John's love of land obliged Abigail and her main agent in Braintree, Cotton Tufts, to spend much of their time searching out adequate tenants to farm these properties and care for the houses. Few tenants lived up to their exacting standards, and Abigail and John had difficulty profiting from their landholdings. Abigail was more successful with her own investments in bonds and loan certificates, making handsome profits for the family through shrewd purchases and timely sales, with the assistance of a federal economic policy (supported by her husband) that funded war bonds at par, regardless of the price at which a speculator had acquired them. Tufts handled most of the transactions for Abigail because she, as a woman, could not make them directly. Conscious of her image in the political world, Abigail also attempted to keep these dealings anonymous.13

Despite Abigail's success with investing, the Adamses’ day-to-day finances remained precarious. John's salary for the vice presidency, $5,000 per year, was not sufficient to maintain two residences, one in the capital and one at home in Massachusetts, and the situation only grew worse, first with the government's move to Philadelphia and later with rapid inflation striking the American economy and undercutting his salary's value. In 1790 and 1791, Abigail missed Braintree and wished to return there more frequently, but “reasons, not of state, but of purse” prevented it. She complained that Congress refused to increase John's salary and forced him “to remove twice at his own expence in the course of two years—and to a city where the expence of living is a third dearer than at N york.” The need to support their children further taxed John and Abigail's resources. Nonetheless, they never reached the point of true want and, despite their complaints, found means enough to live in style and to give to those less fortunate.14


Abigail, when absent from Quincy, remained deeply concerned with the goings-on and well-being of her neighbors and friends in the area. She welcomed news of marriages, births, and deaths in town as well as word of who had moved in and who had moved out. She made a point of ensuring that the indigent Mary Palmer, who stayed at the Old House during the winter of 1790, received “a couple of loads of wood” to help with the heating. After Palmer's death, Abigail insisted that Palmer's two daughters, Polly and Elizabeth, remain in the house rent free until they made alternative arrangements. She gave small gifts to various poor widows and tried to quietly assist her sister Mary Cranch when she struggled owing to her husband Richard's ill health. These acts of generosity helped Abigail to keep close to the Braintree community, even when she was away, and allowed her to fulfill her sense of obligation to give back for the many blessings that she had received in her life.15

3. Young Lawyers and Growing Families

During these initial years of the early republic, the three Adams sons all attempted to establish themselves in the legal profession. John Quincy was the first to complete his apprenticeship, with Theophilus Parsons in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and receive admission to the bar. He moved in the summer of 1790 to Boston where he set up office in the Adams family's Court Street house while boarding with his mother's cousins Dr. Thomas and Abigail Welsh. There John Quincy continued to study and slowly began to take cases. Arguing his first lawsuit in October 1790, he felt that he “was too much agitated to be possessed of proper presence of mind” and lost to the respected Harrison Gray Otis. Nevertheless, his practice grew, as did his political standing. On his father's advice, he began to attend the Boston town meeting, where he was eventually invited to sit on a committee advocating reform of the police. He also played an active role in support of the incorporation of a new town—Quincy—out of certain districts in Braintree. His writings under various pseudonyms put him at the center of debates regarding Thomas Paine's Rights of Man and the French Revolution.16


Charles too had a budding legal career, apprenticing with John Laurance in New York City and later working with Robert Troup. Having previously caused the family some concern due to questionable acquaintances and occasional inappropriate behavior while at Harvard, he was now settling down well. Even John, who was rarely generous with his praise, noted that “Charles is uncommonly assiduous in his office, and very attentive to his studies. He is acquiring [a] Reputation for the Ease and Elegance of his manners as well as for the solidity of his Pursuits.” Charles passed his examinations in the summer 1792 and set up his own office in Hanover Square, right in the heart of the city. By December he had argued and won his first case and seemed well on the way to a successful career.17

Thomas Boylston, who graduated from Harvard in the summer of 1790, quickly joined his parents in New York and in the fall of the same year moved with them to Philadelphia. It was not always clear that he would pursue the law like his father and older brothers (his mother and John Quincy thought he might be better suited to business), but he decided in the end to go that route, though Abigail speculated it was “rather from necessity than inclination.” He went to work in the office of Jared Ingersoll and, after initial delays due to ill health, made good progress. He also became John and Abigail's agent in Philadelphia during the periods when they were staying in Braintree, making arrangements for their housing and organizing the paperwork necessary for John to receive his salary. By late 1793, Thomas Boylston too had passed the bar, in Pennsylvania, and declared himself ready “to undertake the cause of the oppressed, & attempt to render justice to him that is wronged.”18

John was proud of his sons but could not restrain himself from offering advice—in large quantities, usually unsolicited—on appropriate readings, study techniques, managing a law office, and other “tricks of the trade” for his young lawyers. He counseled them “to make yourself Master of the Roman Learning” and to make “Love of study an increasing Passion.” Still, he was sympathetic to the difficulty of building a practice and recommended patience. To John Quincy he noted, “You must expect an Interval of Leisure, and Ennui.” He later reiterated, “Some odd incident, altogether unforeseen and unexpected, will very probably bring you into some popular xxixCause, and Spread your Character with a thousand Trumpetts at a time. Such a Thing may not happen however in several years. meantime Patience Courage.” John knew from personal experience that a young lawyer starting out in Boston would struggle to compete against more experienced attorneys and that John Quincy would need to allow his business to build slowly.19

The brothers likewise provided encouragement to one another, particularly to John Quincy, who found the transition especially stressful. Prone to worry and depression, he agonized over his prospects and his failure to find immediate success, even as he acknowledged that he could “have but little expectations at present from business.” When Charles received John Quincy's report on his first case, Charles noted that “the person who is unintimidated upon such occasions has not the common feelings of human nature.” He found it no surprise that John Quincy should be bested by a more experienced lawyer or that he might need to practice his public-speaking skills. But Charles believed John Quincy's greatest obstacle was his own attitude: “I cannot conclude,” Charles wrote, “without wishing you could persuade yourself to take the world a little more fair and easy I am confident you raise hills in your imagination more difficult to ascend than you will in reality find them. May you have great fortitude and a more peaceful mind is the wish of your brother.” Charles knew that he would have to walk the same “anxious path. . . . A prospect is before me not less clouded than yours.” But he seemed better able to face the stress of the situation—or, if he suffered from such anxiety, was unwilling to commit those thoughts to paper.20

Of course, life was not only work for the three sons. All had active social lives, attending assemblies and dances, weddings, ordinations, and even a balloon launch. Thomas Boylston developed a rapport with a circle of Quakers in Philadelphia, while Charles, in New York, came to know Nabby's in-laws, the Smiths, and the company of young men surrounding Baron von Steuben. The brothers made visits, as time allowed, to one another as well as to their parents in Braintree and Philadelphia.

Naturally, some of this socializing led to romance. During his time in Newburyport, John Quincy had become involved with Mary Frazier, a young woman from the area. Unprepared to make a xxxcommitment to her, John Quincy nonetheless felt “a total impossibility to help myself” from the strength of his feelings for her. Consequently, he determined, “I am more than ever convinced of the absolute necessity for me, to leave this town very soon” to escape the situation. Charles met his future wife, Sarah Smith, while socializing with his sister Nabby's in-laws in New York. Sarah, one of William Stephens Smith's younger sisters, had evidently caught his eye by early 1792. The relationship progressed sufficiently to excite the concern of Nabby, who tried to remove Sarah from the scene by bringing her with the Smiths to England. Sarah's mother objected “because she would not go free and unbiassed in her mind,” and little more was said on the subject for the time being.21

Not surprisingly, the Adams parents had thoughts on such relationships. Abigail especially counseled her sons to avoid early marriage.22 Nabby too suggested that John Quincy ought to wait: “I could wish to see you a few years further advanced in Life before you engage in a Connection which if you form at present must impede your progress and advancement.” John Quincy tried to reassure both mother and sister that he had no intention of moving hastily toward gaining a wife he felt unable to support without his parents’ assistance: “You may rest assured, my dear Madam, that I am as resolutely determined never to connect a woman to desperate Fortunes, as I am never to be indebted to a woman for wealth.” While his interest in Mary Frazier continued for several years—he did not absolutely break off the relationship until he was on the verge of leaving for Europe in 1794—John Quincy held to his resolve not to act upon his feelings and remained unattached. Likewise, Charles and Sarah Smith waited until 1795 before they finally married.23

Meanwhile, daughter Nabby was attending to her growing family and her husband's career, which faced its own challenges. William Stephens Smith had hoped to receive a diplomatic appointment xxxibefore he and Nabby left Great Britain in the spring of 1788. When that opportunity failed to materialize, they returned to his home in New York to build their family and pursue other options. In the fall of 1789, Smith was made marshal for the district of New York, not an especially remunerative job. The Adams family as a whole took this situation amiss, believing that Smith was being penalized for his connection to the Adamses. Abigail considered him “poorly provided for in the distribution of offices,” and Smith himself described his situation as “Mortifying.”24

In an effort to improve his financial circumstances, Smith embarked on a “sudden and unexpected” trip to England in December 1790, in part to collect some debts owed to his father's estate and also to assist in a speculative venture organized by Richard Platt. This left Nabby alone in New York with her children, including young Thomas Hollis Smith, born the previous August. She felt the separation keenly, especially with her parents now removed to Philadelphia. She lamented to a cousin, “the absence of my Husband—leaves a blank in my mind which may be alleviated in some degree by the Kind attentions of my friends; but which nothing can fill up.” She also worried about her children's development, fearing that she lacked the “firmness and authority” necessary to train them properly and declaring their education “a task which I feel myself incompetant to the proper performance of.” Smith returned in June 1791, having been offered a more lucrative public position, supervisor of revenue for the New York district.25

In March 1792, however, the whole Smith family traveled to England to allow Smith to try to make a greater fortune through “advantageous private contracts.” He had resigned his position as supervisor of revenue, believing he could do better outside the public sphere and frustrated by what he considered inadequate regard for his earlier sacrifices for the country. He proved successful in this latest venture and was able to bring his family home again by early 1793 with ready means. Smith relished the freedom this newfound wealth provided him: “I feel myself in a great measure independent xxxiiof the smiles or frowns of Courtiers, which I am grevied to find our Capital abounds, with.” He was pleased to no longer be reliant on public offices to maintain his status or provide for his family.26

Despite this success, the Adamses had reservations about Smith. John complained that he had returned from England “almost a Revolutionist” and that Nabby's “Adventurer of an Husband is so proud of his Wealth that he would not let her go I suppose without a Coach and four.” He felt compelled to warn Smith against boastfulness. But John also found Smith “clever and agreable:. . . I wish . . . that my Boys had a little more of his Activity.” Despite the Adamses’ initial pleasure at their daughter's match, they had begun to exhibit a pattern of concern that in time would only increase.27

The Smiths, however, provided one unmistakable joy for the family: grandchildren. Abigail and John reveled in their roles as grandparents. For the Adamses, one of the most difficult aspects of the government's relocation from New York to Philadelphia was that it separated Abigail from Nabby and her children. Abigail, while still in New York, could barely tolerate their short absences to visit Nabby's in-laws on Long Island: “the House really felt so lonely after [ma]ster william went, that I sent for him back yesterday.” Moving a hundred miles away was infinitely more difficult. For a time, the Smith's middle child, John Adams Smith, stayed with the Adamses in Philadelphia, and both grandparents had a wonderful time doting on him. Abigail informed Nabby that “Every day, after dinner, he sets his grandpapa to draw him about in a chair, which is generally done for half an hour, to the derangement of my carpet and the amusement of his grandpapa.” Abigail revealed her feelings for her grandchildren when she wrote to her sister Mary Cranch, who had recently become a grandmother for the first time. Abigail asked, “Can you really believe that you are a Grandmamma? does not the little fellow feel as if he was really your own. if he does not now, by that time you have lived a year with him, or near you, I question if you will be able to feel a difference.” As her own children grew up, grew more independent, and moved on, Abigail looked to her grandchildren to fill her desire to nurture a new generation.28

4. Another Revolution

The most important international event of this period was the French Revolution, beginning with the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and growing in intensity throughout these years. More than a backdrop to American politics, it served as yet another divide between Federalists and Democrats. The Adamses raised objections to the French Revolution far earlier than most American observers, who tended to view events in France sympathetically, as a counterpart to or even continuation of the American Revolution. Prior to the Terror, the French seemed to stand for the same ideals of republicanism and opposition to tyrannical monarchy as the American colonists had. But John Quincy argued that “the national Assembly in tearing the lace from the garb of government, will tear the coat itself into a thousand rags.— That nation may for ought I know finally be free; but I am firmly persuaded it will not be untill they have undergone another revolution. . . . rights like these, blown to the winds, by the single breath of a triumphant democracy are inauspicious omens for the erection of an equitable government of Laws.—”29

Daughter Nabby, living in England with her husband and children in the summer and fall of 1792, had the closest vantage point on events in France. In London, the Smiths were privy to extensive newspaper coverage and also met refugees on a regular basis, including some people whom the Adamses had known when they lived in Auteuil in the mid-1780s. Nabby reported to her mother that “The accounts from Paris are shocking to every humane mind, and too dreadful to relate. . . . I think the King and Queen will fall a sacrifice to the fury of the mobites, and is it not even better they should, than that the people should be annihilated by a general massacre?” Coyly she continued, “I wonder what Mr. Jefferson says to all these things?” William Stephens Smith himself visited Paris and was even offered a commission in the French Army, which desperately sought experienced officers to help the French in their war with the other European powers. Nabby refused to allow her husband to go off on this adventure, however, declaring, “it is too uncertain a cause to volunteer in.”30

As the violence escalated in France, opposition grew in America. When news of the overthrow of the monarchy and the attack on the xxxivTuileries reached Philadelphia in the fall of 1792, Thomas Boylston found that “The dreadful scenes now acting in France, and the universal anarchy which appears to prevail, has excited terrors even in the breasts of the warmest enthousiasts for Revolution.” Similarly, Abigail's sister Elizabeth Shaw inquired whether people had “put on any external marks of mourning for the unfortunate Lewis to whom America is so much indebted.” But some Americans remained committed to the French cause. Charles reported that “The success of The French against the combined armies has excited a blind joy” in New York. In Boston, attendees at a “Civic Feast,” held in January 1793, ate a large ox and drank toasts to liberty and fraternity to celebrate the success of the French Revolution. Abigail wrote to Nabby, “you will see by our Newspapers how citizen Mad our people are, and what a jubelee they have exhibited for the success of the French Arms over the Prussians & Austerians. when they establish a good Government upon a solid Basis then will I join them in rejoicing.”31

The appearance in the United States of “Citizen” Edmond Genet to represent France as its minister plenipotentiary highlighted the importance—and challenges—of Franco-American relations. The United States wanted to honor its long-standing friendship with France but also feared being drawn into a raging European war. The unstable nature of France's government created additional complications. Charles reported that many in New York debated how to respond to Genet's arrival: “Some say that we cannot but receive him out of a principle of gratitude to France who was so early in acknowledging our Independence! but should we carry this so far as to draw all the Nations of Europe into a war with us? Can we receive a minister who comes from we know not who?” The difficulty was exacerbated by Genet's own behavior, in particular his strident promotion of French interests in violation of the United States’ neutrality. Washington eventually felt compelled to issue a proclamation of neutrality and, when that failed to quell Genet's mischievous activities, to demand his recall.32

Genet's removal did little to settle debate over how the United States should respond to the volatile circumstances in France. John believed that Washington needed to take stronger measures lest xxxvFrench-inspired Democratic-Republicans topple the American government: “If the President has made any Mistake at all, it is by too much Partiality for the French Republicans and in not preserving a Neutrality between the Parties in France as well as among the Belligerent Powers. . . . A Party Spirit will convert White into black and Right into Wrong.” But with the French Revolution, as with so many other aspects of American affairs, events were largely out of John's control. The Adamses could do little but observe as the situation unfolded, discuss it among themselves, and hope that others with more power would steer the right course.33

5. Notes on Editorial Method

In 2007, the Adams Papers editorial project undertook a full review of its editorial practices and developed a new policy consistent with current standards for documentary editing. For a full statement of that policy, see Adams Family Correspondence, 8:xxxv–xliii. Readers may still wish to consult the descriptions of editorial policy established at the beginning of the project, as contained in the Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, 1:lii–lxii, and the Adams Family Correspondence, 1:xli–xlviii. These statements document the original conception of the Adams Papers project, though parts of them have now been superseded.

6. Related Digital Resources

The Massachusetts Historical Society continues to support the work of making Adams family materials available to scholars and the public online. Three digital resources in particular complement the Adams Family Correspondence volumes: The Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive, The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection, and Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses. All of these are available through the Historical Society's website at

The Adams Family Papers Electronic Archive contains images and text files of all of the correspondence between John and Abigail Adams owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society as well as John Adams’ diaries and autobiography. The files are fully searchable and can also be browsed by date.


The Diaries of John Quincy Adams Digital Collection provides images of John Quincy Adams’ entire 51-volume diary, which he composed over nearly 70 years. The images can be searched by date or browsed by diary volume.

The Founding Families Digital Editions, a project cosponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Harvard University Press, and the Massachusetts Historical Society, provides searchable text files of the 38 Adams Papers volumes published prior to 2007 (excluding the Portraits volumes) as well as the 7 volumes of the Winthrop Family Papers. The Adams Papers volumes are supplemented by a cumulative index prepared by the Adams Papers editors. This digital edition is designed not to replace the letterpress edition but rather to complement it by providing greater access to a wealth of Adams material.

Readers may wish to supplement the letters included in volume 9 of the Adams Family Correspondence with material from the same time period included in John Adams’ Diary and Autobiography, 3:223–225; in John Quincy Adams’ Diary available online (as described above); and in the letters of John Adams and John Quincy Adams published, respectively, in The Works of John Adams, edited by Charles Francis Adams, 8:496–515, 9:563–574, and Writings of John Quincy Adams, edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford, 1:44–176. Future volumes of the Papers of John Adams will expand on John's public life during these important years of the early republic.

The value of the Family Correspondence series lies only in part with the insight that the letters of the Adamses provide into the public affairs of their times. This volume, like the others that have preceded it, does indeed discuss the growth of the American nation, but it also reveals an intimate portrait of one of the country's first families. The Adamses may have been at the forefront of major events, but the challenges that they faced—rearing children, building careers, managing households, sustaining relationships across long distances—were in many ways quite ordinary. And it is their eloquently written record, balancing the mundane and the extraordinary, that makes the Family Correspondence such compelling reading.

Margaret A. Hogan

November 2008


JA to Cotton Tufts, 23 Jan. 1788, vol. 8:220.


JA to AA, 19 Dec. 1793, and AA to Mary Smith Cranch, 4 July 1790, both below.


AA to Mary Smith Cranch, 24 Jan. [1790], and to JQA, 5 Feb. 1792, both below.


AA to Mary Smith Cranch, 29 Aug. 1790; to AA2, 8 Jan. 1791; Martha Washington to AA, 25 Jan.; and AA to Cranch, 5 Jan. 1790, all below.


AA to Mary Smith Cranch, 5 Jan. and 30 May 1790, both below. See also Martha Washington to AA, 12 May, below.


See, for instance, AA to Mary Smith Cranch, 20 Feb. 1790; to Cotton Tufts, 6 Sept.; JQA to TBA, 3 Dec. 1791; TBA to William Cranch, 23 Jan. 1792; and CA to AA, 22 April, all below.


AA to Cotton Tufts, 17 Jan. 1790; JQA to AA, 17 Oct.; JQA to TBA, 2 Sept. 1792; and Cotton Tufts to JA, 6 Jan. 1791, all below. For a thorough discussion of newspaper culture during this period, see Jeffrey L. Pasley, “The Tyranny of Printers”: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic, Charlottesville, Va., 2001.


AA to Cotton Tufts, 7 March 1790; to Mary Smith Cranch, 20 April 1792; and CA to AA, 22 April, all below.


JA to AA2, 29 Oct. 1792, but see also TBA to AA, 17 Oct., both below.


TBA to JA, 30 Oct. 1792, and JA to AA, 2 Dec., both below.


JA to AA, 24 Nov. and 5 Dec. 1792, both below. For the final electoral vote tally, see JQA to JA, 8 Dec., and note 1, below.


AA to AA2, 21 Nov. 1790; to Mary Smith Cranch, 30 Oct. 1791; to Cranch, 9 Jan.; and to Cranch, 28 April 1790, all below. See also AA's letters to Mary Cranch of 5 Jan. and 21 April 1790, both below.


AA to Mary Smith Cranch, 10 Oct. 1790, and to Cotton Tufts, 18 April, both below. For most of the discussion on the Adamses’ finances, see AA's correspondence with Cotton Tufts throughout the volume. For AA's investing, see Woody Holton, “Abigail Adams, Bond Speculator,” WMQ , 3d series, 64:821–838 (Oct. 2007).


AA to JQA, 20 Aug. 1790, and to Cotton Tufts, 11 March 1791, both below.


AA to Cotton Tufts, 17 Jan. 1790; to Mary Smith Cranch, 20 Feb.; to Cranch, 15 March; and to Cotton Tufts, 18 Dec. 1791, all below.


JA to JQA, 9 Feb. 1790; JQA to JA, 19 March; JQA to AA, 17 Oct.; and JQA to TBA, 1 Feb. 1792, all below. For JQA's writings as Publicola, see TBA to AA, 27 May, note 5, below.


JA to JQA, [ante 8] Sept. 1790; CA to AA, 15 Aug. 1792; to JA, 20 Aug.; and JA to AA, 2 Dec., all below.


AA to JQA, 12 Sept. 1790, and TBA to AA, 9 Dec. 1793, both below.


JA to JQA, 4 Oct. 1790; to CA, 5 June 1793; to JQA, 19 Feb. 1790; and to JQA, 13 Dec., all below.


JQA to AA, 14 Aug. 1790; CA to JQA, 21 Oct., and 7 Nov., all below.


JQA to William Cranch, 7 April 1790, and note 5; and AA2 to AA, 27 March 1792, both below.


Interestingly, AA believed that she herself had married too young. She wrote to TBA some years later, in response to his thoughts on his growing relationship with Ann Harrod, “I once heard you say, you would not give a copper to be married after 30. but I must add, few gentlemen are fit to be married untill that age; nor do I think a Lady less qualified to make a good wife with the judgement and experience of even that age. sure I am too many enter that state prematurely, with experience upon my side. I say of myself that I did, much too young for the proper fulfillment of duties which soon devolved upon me” (20 March 1803, private owner).


AA2 to JQA, 18 April 1790, and JQA to AA, 29 Aug., both below.


Vol. 8:228, 274–275; JQA to AA2, 20 Nov. 1790; AA to Mary Smith Cranch, 12 Dec.; and AA2 to AA, 30 Dec., all below.


AA to Mary Smith Cranch, 12 Dec. 1790; AA2 to Elizabeth Cranch Norton, 7 Feb. 1791; AA2 to Cranch, 8 Feb.; and JA to WSS, 14 March, all below. TBA seconded AA2's concerns about her ability to properly raise her children. Writing to William Cranch, TBA commented that if the Smith sons “could be under the government of your good mother for one week before you come, you would be pleased with their vivacity; but under present management I fear you will perceive very soon where the defect lies” (4 Sept., below).


AA to JQA, 5 Feb. 1792, and WSS to JA, 5 Oct., both below.


JA to AA, 27 Feb. and 2 March 1793, both below.


AA to Mary Smith Cranch, 3 April 1790, and to AA2, 21 Feb. 1791, both below. See also AA to Abigail Bromfield Rogers, [5 Sept. 1790], below.


JQA to JA, 19 Oct. 1790, below.


AA2 to AA, 13 Sept. 1792, below.


TBA to JA, 30 Oct. 1792; Elizabeth Smith Shaw to Mary Smith Cranch, 21 April 1793; CA to JA, 5 Jan.; and AA to AA2, 10 Feb., all below.


CA to JA, 19 Feb. 1793, below. See also CA to JA, 25 Aug.; TBA to AA, 3 Nov.; and JA to AA, 5 Dec., all below.


JA to AA, 19 Dec. 1793, below.