Adams Family Correspondence, volume 11


As volume 11 of the Adams Family Correspondence opens in July 1795, neither John Adams nor the rest of his family had any notion of the profound changes that would be wrought in their lives over the next twenty months. John was in Quincy with Abigail, farming and enjoying the break between congressional sessions. Children John Quincy and Thomas Boylston had established a comfortable routine in the Netherlands, and Charles and Abigail 2d (Nabby) were content with their lives in New York City. By February 1797, the period at which this volume concludes, John was preparing for his presidential inauguration, Abigail was attempting to organize her return to Philadelphia and assumption of duties as first lady, and John Quincy was looking forward to marriage and a new diplomatic appointment. Charles had married and become a father, and Thomas Boylston was facing the decision of whether to remain in Europe as his brother’s secretary or return to the United States and resume his legal career. Nabby and her husband had been forced out of New York City by financial pressures and were regrouping in the small town of Eastchester, New York. Most significantly, the entire country was anxiously waiting to see what the first change in presidential administrations would bring.

In the interim, Congress debated the implementation of the Jay Treaty, and the country became increasingly divided, such that by late 1796 factions had developed into full-fledged political parties. Scandal forced the resignation of Edmund Randolph as secretary of state, but diplomacy triumphed in new U.S. treaties with Spain, Algiers, and a coalition of Native Americans. The general war still waged in Europe and spilled over into the West Indies. Yet truces between France and several of the belligerents hinted at possible resolution, and, under the Directory, France experienced its longest period of stable governance since the start of its revolution. On the xx home front, Abigail continued to insure the smooth running of the family farm in John’s absence and, of course, monitored Massachusetts politics on his behalf.

Of the 303 letters in this volume, nearly a third were written by John Adams, who—still lacking meaningful employment as vice president—poured considerable energy into keeping up regular correspondence with Abigail and their children. Abigail and John Quincy rounded out the other main correspondents; the three of them account for fully three-quarters of the letters printed here. Other letter writers include Charles and Thomas Boylston (16 and 17 letters, respectively), Abigail Adams Smith (Nabby, 3 letters), Abigail’s sister Elizabeth Smith Shaw Peabody (8 letters), and for the first time, Louisa Catherine Johnson (17 letters), along with a few others. The vast majority of these letters are recipient copies, with a handful only available as drafts. John Quincy also retained much of his correspondence in letterbooks; for descriptions of the ones he kept during this period, especially Letterbook 4, his primary collection of private letters for the years 1795 to 1797, see vol. 10:xxxii–xxxiii.

As has been the pattern over the last several volumes of the Family Correspondence series, John’s and Abigail’s letters to each other remain at the core of the book during the periods when they were apart; the rest of the time, the letters among Abigail, John, and their children, especially their sons, take center stage. Almost 40 percent of the letters—117 total—are between John and Abigail. An additional 39 letters they wrote during the same time period have been omitted from the volume primarily for lack of space. John continued to write more frequently (101 letters in all), but Abigail at greater length. Abigail, in fact, complained once again that John was not providing the news she wanted to hear, noting that “Gentlemen are not half [so] particular as the Ladies are in their details.” John dismissed the charge: “As to the details in which you Say the Ladies excell Us, I have not Patience—I who have the Patience of Job, have not Patience to write Letters in the style of Grandison & Lovelace.”1 Regular post, fortunately, ensured that letters, no matter their level of detail, arrived quickly and reliably—a far cry from the pattern of the 1770s and 1780s.

Writing to their children—and getting responses in return—was far more challenging for John and Abigail. Letters to Europe continued to take anywhere from one to three months to make the xxi transatlantic crossing, and replies were equally delayed. Over the course of the twenty months covered by volume 11 of the Family Correspondence, John and Abigail wrote 45 letters to their sons in Europe, of which 38 are printed here. Several others are mentioned but were apparently lost, some en route and some at later dates. Abigail complained particularly that the war between Great Britain and the Netherlands (as a French satellite) obstructed communications, and “our Letters too are liable to Capture so that the freedom of communication is much barred.”2 Correspondence to England was easier but still protracted.

John and Abigail no doubt also wrote regularly to Charles and Nabby, but most of those letters are not extant, so tracking their correspondence is considerably more challenging. Only one letter from Abigail to Charles survives from this time period, an apparent draft dated 5 February 1797. Similarly, merely seven letters from John or Abigail to Nabby are known to have existed for the same period, five of which are published here. Of those to Nabby that do exist, the majority come from the Journal and Correspondence of Miss Adams, Daughter of John Adams, edited by Nabby’s daughter, Caroline Amelia Smith de Windt, in three volumes, 1841–1849, few of which survived a mid-nineteenth-century fire.

The children responded in kind to their parents’ correspondence, and 45 letters written by the four Adams offspring to Abigail or John appear in the book. The largest number is from John Quincy, with Charles and Thomas Boylston close behind. Only a single letter from Nabby to her parents still survives from this time period, though, once again, textual indications make clear that others were written and have since been lost.

This volume offers the first taste of what will become a central feature of the Family Correspondence series in the years to come: the correspondence between John Quincy and his future wife, Louisa Catherine Johnson. From June 1796, after they separated for the first time since their engagement and began corresponding, through the end of February 1797, they wrote 47 letters to one another, 34 of which are printed here. Their letters alternate between the typical romantic stylings of young lovers and less-gentle missives, with didactic, demanding instructions on John Quincy’s part and sharp responses from Louisa, suggesting a tumultuous relationship and early difficulties with communication.


There is also evidence that Louisa was not the sole author of some of her letters to John Quincy. She commented in her Diary that “My officious governess however undertook to correct my letters and to give them such a tournure as she thought would be most elegant—” And she told him how “totally incapacitated do I feel myself for writing were it not through fear of giving you pain I certainly shou’d indulge my avowed aversion to it and decline the task.”3 Undoubtedly her first few letters were short and casual, while later ones became longer and more carefully styled, suggesting either greater experience or the advice and influence of another. Over time, however, Louisa became an accomplished author in her own right, and her correspondence will eventually become a worthy successor to Abigail’s in the world of Adams Family Correspondence.


“I have this day … heard News that is of some Importance.” Thus John first broached to Abigail a subject, indeed, of “some Importance”: “One of the Ministry told me to day,” he continued, “that the President was solemnly determined to serve no longer than the End of his present Period.” John recognized immediately its significance. “You know the Consequence of this,” he wrote Abigail, “to me and to yourself. Either We must enter upon Ardours more trying than any ever yet experienced; or retire to Quincy Farmers for Life.” John had toiled, faithfully but restlessly, as vice president for eight years, waiting for just such an opportunity. He had no intention of continuing as second in command under anyone else. He would either be elected president or retire from public life altogether.4

George Washington’s decision not to seek a third term as president—widely rumored by the spring of 1796 and formally announced in September—was hardly an enormous surprise. He had been reluctant to assume the presidency in the first place, and his second term particularly was marked by contentious political divisions. Still, it was not a change that many people could easily endorse. Charles Adams noted to John Quincy that he was “confident The People of this Country will never accept” Washington’s resignation. Only his death, Charles thought, would allow for a peaceful transition. xxiii Likewise, Abigail reported to Thomas Boylston: “All America is or ought to be in mourning The President of the united states refuses again to be considerd as a canditate for that office.”5

Well before the election season formally began, the two political parties—Federalists and Democratic-Republicans—were drawing battle lines and differentiating themselves and their political philosophies. One major precursor to the election contest was the debate over the Anglo-American commercial treaty negotiated by John Jay in the fall of 1794. Although the Senate consented to it in June 1795, the treaty remained highly contested well after George Washington formally signed it in August 1795. Federalists supported it as a means to improve trade relations with Great Britian and resolve issues outstanding from the 1783 Treaty of Paris. But Democratic-Republicans despised it as a capitulation to Britain and rejection of the United States’ traditional friendship with France. Abigail commented that “no event Since the commencment of the Government, has excited so much undue heat, so much bitter Acrimony, so much base invective, as has been pourd forth against mr. Jay and the Treaty.” Newspapers offered lengthy articles pro and con, and publishers printed numerous pamphlets on the topic, resembling somewhat the outpouring of commentary during the debate over the ratification of the Constitution.6

The Adamses, as was their common practice, shared these pieces, so copies of Alexander Hamilton’s Camillus and Rufus King’s Curtius, among other protreaty works, traveled across the Atlantic to keep the younger generation well-informed about the political fight. But at the same time the Adamses lauded these writings, they decried those of the opposition: “Before this reaches you,” Abigail commented to John Quincy, “you will hear no Doubt of the Party opposition to the Treaty. … Rancorous Knaves & Desperate incendiarys Skulk behind the press, and stab the fairest and best characters in the United States.” She even refused to send her son some works, noting, “I doubt not many of these papers will reach you, but I cannot have a Hand, in transmitting such base calumny.”7 Abigail’s attitude toward the press, while not new, was increasingly one of frustration and considerable anger, especially as her husband and xxiv George Washington became prime targets; her eventual support for laws to curtail press freedoms in the late 1790s may well have had its genesis at this time.

Apart from using newspapers to argue their case, Democratic-Republicans, having lost the battle over ratification of the treaty, sought to block its implementation by denying it funding in the House of Representatives in the spring of 1796. They also encouraged opposition to the treaty at the state level. In Virginia, for instance, they succeeded in December 1795 in having a series of resolutions introduced that recommended constitutional amendments giving the House of Representatives power to approve treaties and limiting some of the powers of the Senate. John considered these recommendations “hairbrain’d,” but other state legislatures took them seriously enough to formally debate, if not actually approve, them. Democratic-Republicans hoped these maneuvers would garner support for congressional opposition to implementing the treaty and, in the long term, rally support for their candidates in the 1796 elections.8

France responded equally adamantly against the treaty, with its minister to the United States, Pierre Auguste Adet, ultimately tendering his resignation in protest. France felt that the Jay Treaty put it at a significant competitive disadvantage, vis-à-vis U.S. trade, to the British, who claimed the right to seize goods from neutral vessels bound for enemy ports. The French, still bound by the “free ships make free goods” provision of the 1778 Franco-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce, could not respond in kind to disrupt neutral shipping to British ports. Adet chose to make his concerns known publicly, arguing in a letter widely published in the newspapers that the United States had surrendered its neutrality and violated the terms of its treaties with France.9

In the end, the Democratic-Republicans could not muster sufficient opposition to undermine the treaty. They were forced to back down in the face of Washington’s firm refusal to release documents related to the negotiations. Federalists engaged in an active petition drive, sending memorials to Congress urging the prompt enactment of the treaty. This effort swayed a bare majority to vote in favor of full funding on 30 April, after debates full of “Rancour, and very unbecomeing bitterness.” These events further cemented the political divisions within the United States and provided an important xxv undercurrent to the presidential election. As John observed, the question of succession “may occasion as much Controversy and Animosity as The Treaty with Great Britain, which was ultimately determined by no proper Considerations of Merit, but merely by fear of Constituents in many.”10

Such controversies made the presidency in many ways a less than appealing position, and not everyone considered winning it a positive goal: “Whoever may be the successor of the present first magistrate,” John Quincy commented to Charles, “will hold a situation so uncomfortable and so dangerous, that there is nothing in its possession to make it desirable.” John too questioned why anyone would accept a public position: “The Expences of living at the Seat of Government are so exorbitant, so far beyond all Proportion to the salaries and the Sure Reward of Integrity in the discharge of public functions is such obloquy Contempt and Insult, that no Man of any feeling is willing to renounce his home, forsake his Property & Profession for the sake of removing to Philadelphia where he is almost sure of disgrace & Ruin.” John was speaking of the search for cabinet secretaries, but he also had in mind the presidency and its various challenges.11

Abigail especially had reservations—on John’s behalf, no doubt, but also for what the presidency would mean for herself. “My Ambition leads me not to be first in Rome,” she wrote to John upon first hearing the news of the likely succession. “There is not a beam of Light, nor a shadow of comfort or pleasure in the contemplation of the object. if personal considerations alone were to weigh, I should immediatly say retire with the Principle.” She considered the position “a most unpleasent Seat, full of Thorns Briars thistles, Murmuring fault finding calumny obliqui discrage for I ought I know & What not.” She particularly feared that she could never live up to the standards set by Martha Washington, whom she admired. But Abigail also believed that “the Hand of Providence ought to be attended to and what is designd, Cherefully Submitted to.”12

John expressed some concerns over the post—he promised “cool deliberation” of his intentions—but he had a difficult time truly masking his ambitions. He repeatedly suggested to Abigail that he would be happy whatever the outcome of the election, but he also argued that if the Fates gave him the position, “it would be dastardly xxvi to Shrink if it were in ones Power” to accept the responsibility. In another letter, he commented to her, “I hate to live in Phila. in Summer and I hate still more to relinquish my farm— I hate Speeches, Messages Addresses & answers, Proclamations and such Affected, studied constrained Things— I hate Levees & Drawing Rooms— I hate to Speak to a 1000 People to whom I have nothing to Say— Yet all this I can do— But I am too old to continue more than one or at most more than two heats, and that is scarcely time enough to form conduct & compleat any very useful system.” In the same breath as he declaimed hatred of all the tasks of the position, he contemplated multiple terms in office. Essentially, John convinced himself that he had a moral obligation to serve if that is how the election should play out—and the closer it came to actually voting, the more certain he became that duty required him to take his rightful place as head of the nation.13

By the late winter and early spring of 1796, people were openly discussing potential successors to Washington. Thomas Jefferson was one obvious candidate—the Philadelphia Aurora General Advertiser described him as “that good patriot, statesman & philosopher”—and John Jay also seemed likely. John Adams, of course, was part of the discussion as a prospective candidate as well as a participant in the deciding process. As he reported to Abigail, “I Suspect, but dont know, that Patrick Henry, Mr Jefferson, Mr Jay and Mr Hamilton will all be voted for. I ask no questions: but questions are forced upon me— I have had Some Conversations purposely Sought, in order as I believe indeed as I know, to convince me, that the Fœds had no thought of overleaping the Succession.” By the fall the contest had largely settled into a competition between John Adams and Thomas Pinckney for the Federalists and Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr for the Democratic-Republicans.14

The Constitution, established before the advent of political parties, specified that each state could determine its own process for selecting presidential electors, who, in turn, would cast votes for two individuals each. The person receiving the most votes would become president; whoever received the second most would become vice president, regardless of party affiliation. Nor was any distinction made between individuals competing for the presidency versus the vice presidency. In 1796, then, factions attempted to orchestrate xxvii vote counts to insure the election of favored candidates in a chosen order.15

As the first contested presidential election in the United States, both sides engaged in levels of electioneering that would have been unthinkable four or eight years earlier—but would seem commonplace, even modest, to modern eyes. Apart from extensive newspaper publications and pamphleteering, parties distributed thousands of sample ballots—possibly as many as thirty thousand in Pennsylvania alone—encouraging votes for slates of specific electors. Abigail found the whole process distasteful. “When Balanced as our Government is,” she wrote to John Quincy, “the progress of corruption is gaining Such ground, that I fear America will never go through an other Election without Blood shed.” Both she and John blamed much of the vitriol on “foreign influence.” John claimed that “the French Manoeuvres have gained the Votes of Pensilvania and how many others is unknown.”16

By the end of December, although the electoral votes had not yet been officially announced, the outcome was certain. John Adams won the election with 71 electoral votes, while Thomas Jefferson placed second with 68 votes. The resulting division—a president from one party, a vice president from another—had been of some concern throughout the process. John himself noted in January 1796, “It will be a dangerous Crisis in public affairs if the President and Vice President should be in opposite Boxes.” But the Adamses trusted to their long friendship with Jefferson and hoped such a crisis would not ensue. Abigail commented to Elbridge Gerry regarding Jefferson, “I have long known him, and entertain for him a personal Friendship, and tho I cannot accord with him in Some of his politicks, I do not believe him culpable to the extent he has been represented. placed at the Head of the Senate, I trust his conduct will be wise and prude[nt. I] hope it will be a means of softning the animiosity of Party, and of cementing & strengthining the bond of union.”17

John and Abigail turned to preparations for the transition: “The Prospect before me,” John wrote to her, “opens many Questions and Inquiries concerning House, Furniture, Equipage, Servants and xxviii many other Things which will give me trouble and occupation enough and the more because you will not be here—” Abigail was ambivalent about the prospect, noting to Thomas Boylston, “Joy dwells in these dear silent shades at Quincy and domestick pleasures in Peace and tranquility. if I should be calld to quit thee, with what regreet shall I part from thee.” But she would do what was needed, hiring servants, purchasing a carriage, and finding proper accommodations for John’s mother. By the end of February 1797, Abigail was actively making arrangements, hoping to leave for Philadelphia in the next month or so. John, too, was busy, preparing for his forthcoming inauguration.18


Politics was hardly the only issue on the minds of the Adamses. As always, the family’s correspondence contains an intimate look at their private lives, and in this period, discussions of marriage and family life took on a particularly prominent role. Not surprisingly given their ages—John Quincy turned twenty-eight in 1795, with Charles three years younger and Thomas Boylston aged twenty-three—the young Adams men were devoting serious thoughts to their personal lives and to the possibility of marriage. Their letters, especially those of John Quincy, reflect all the usual uncertainties of young men seeking to find their place in the world and companions to accompany them.

On the marriage front, Charles acted first. He had been courting Sarah (Sally) Smith, one of William Stephens Smith’s sisters, since at least 1792, despite apparent reservations by their families. Neither John nor Abigail opposed Sally per se, but rather questioned Charles’ ability to “see his way clear & be able to support a Family.” When Abigail had visited the young couple in June 1795, she “advised them to continue longer single” but did not oppose “their determination, to be for none other.” By August 1795 Charles had made up his mind. He wrote to Abigail formally asking her “to consent to the proposal and to bestow your parental blessing upon your affectionate son.” Interestingly, however, Charles did not wait for that consent to proceed. He and Sally married on 29 August in a xxix joint wedding with Sally’s sister Margaret. The only other Adams present was likely Charles’ sister Nabby, who reported to John Quincy: “After all the Hair Breadth scrapes and iminent dangers he has run, He is at last Safe Landed—and I beleive is very happy.”19

Charles’ marriage sparked some jealousy in John Quincy, who sincerely congratulated his brother but also wrote to Thomas Boylston of being “buffeted about the world in solitary celibacy.” Serving as U.S. minister to the Netherlands—“an easy, dull, peaceable kind of life”—gave him little optimism for a potential match. John Quincy also continued to mourn, at least to some extent, the loss of his relationship with Mary Frazier, to whom he had become attached while living in Newburyport. That relationship had been broken off several years before, partially at Abigail’s behest, but John Quincy could not help but question whether it made him unable to find another partner: “Can a widowed heart: an heart which at the monition of parental solicitude and tenderess, has offered up at the shrine of worldly prudence the painful sacrifice of an ardent affection, and pronounced by mutual consent and acquiescence an irrevocable separation from the object of all its hopes and all its wishes; can such an heart readily submit to the controul of other bonds?” Nonetheless, John Quincy refused to consider what he called “a marriage of convenience.” He hoped for a love match and insisted that “it will be time enough to think” of such other options “at five and forty.” Clearly, John Quincy still had hope that the right woman might be found.20

He was prepared, then, when circumstances brought him to London in November 1795 on a diplomatic mission related to the Jay Treaty, and into the social circle of the Johnson family. Joshua Johnson, a merchant originally from Maryland, was serving as the U.S. consul in London, and his home had become a social center for American expatriates in the city. Along with numerous others, John Quincy came for a visit and there met three Johnson sisters of eligible age: Ann (Nancy), Louisa, and Carolina. He became a regular caller, and for a time it remained unclear to which sister he was attracted. But he finally “made his attentions” to Louisa “decidedly publick” at a ball celebrating her twenty-first birthday in January xxx 1796, and by the end of the spring, they had reached a formal understanding.21

Interestingly, John Quincy at first avoided making a definitive statement to his parents of his new romantic relationship. Instead, he dropped hints. Toward the end of February 1796 he indicated he had little time to write: “Perhaps I may tell you the reason of this at a future day; or perhaps you may guess at it without being told.” In late March he informed them, “I begin to think very seriously of the duty incumbent upon all good citizens to have a family.— If you think this the language of a convert, perhaps you will enquire how he became so?— I am not yet prepared to answer that.” But they nonetheless understood his meaning. John congratulated him in a letter of 19 May in equally oblique terms: “I suspect by your last Letter to your Mamma that some Family or other afforded the means of making your Winter in London tollerable at least.” John went on to note that he had suspected John Quincy would form an “Attachment” in Europe, and while he might have preferred that John Quincy marry an American, “You are now of an Age to judge for yourself.— And whether you return and choose here, or whether you choose elsewhere, Your deliberate Choice shall be mine.”22

As John Quincy and Louisa’s correspondence amply demonstrates, the course of true love did not run quite smooth. John Quincy left London in late May 1796 to return to the Netherlands, having long since completed his diplomatic responsibilities in England. Believing he did not yet have the financial resources to marry Louisa—in the same letter in which he informed his parents of his intent to marry, he also indicated, “I must not yet take upon me the incumbrance of a family”—their wedding was postponed indefinitely. Instead, the young couple began an extended correspondence. Initially their letters focused on pledges of their love and affection, emphasizing the difficulty of their separation. John Quincy closed one letter “with every Sentiment of the tenderest attachment to yourself, from your ever faithful friend,” while Louisa noted, “I feel an aching void which only a letter from you can remove.”23

But miscommunications abounded, leading to hurt feelings and offense. John Quincy hoped to prepare Louisa for the difficulties of xxxi life as the wife of a foreign minister but managed to convey his instructions with condescension and a professorial tone that rankled: “The modes of life, the manners and customs of the people where you may have occasion to reside, will be entirely different from those which you have been used to: perhaps many of them will appear unpleasant to you. For your own happiness, endeavour to acquire the faculty not merely of acquiescence, in unavoidable inconveniences, but even of a cheerful conformity to things which must be endured, and above all establish as an invariable rule for your conversation, to express no general or national reflections.—” Louisa attempted to reassure John Quincy of her fondness and obedience, her willingness to learn and trust in him: “When I reflect upon the part in life I shall have to act with the little I have seen of the world my conscious deficiency appears manifest and I already think I see you blush for my awkwardness but I know the generosity of your disposition and am convinced you will forgive and encourage me by your kindness to mend—” But over time, she could not always contain her frustration, writing that his letters “afforded me both pleasure and pain.” She objected to his accusations that she cared only for his rank, denying that she was “too much elated with your situation” as a diplomat and challenging his assumption that, as a woman, she was too “fond of parade.”24

By the fall of 1796, John Quincy had received word of his appointment as the U.S. minister plenipotentiary to Portugal. A promotion for John Quincy (from minister resident to minister plenipotentiary), this new posting created the opportunity he needed to move toward marriage, and he planned to travel to Lisbon by way of London, where the wedding would take place. But delays in receiving permission to take up his new post continued to push back his departure and thus the marriage, distressing Louisa and leading to some of the most heated exchanges between the couple and a near termination of their engagement. Both sides relented, however, and as of February 1797, when this volume closes, John Quincy was still awaiting directions from the United States.25

The Adams brothers were not the only ones facing changing personal lives. Abigail’s sister Elizabeth, too, was moving toward her xxxii second marriage, having lost her first husband, Rev. John Shaw, in September 1794. Driven not only by a desire for companionship but also by “pecuniary motives,” Elizabeth acted quickly to marry the Rev. Stephen Peabody of Atkinson, New Hampshire, who, like Shaw before him, combined work as a minister and schoolmaster. They were married on “a dreadful stormy” 8 December 1795. The auspices were not ideal that day, with the “house wet—neighbours disappointed, every thing wrong, & wearing a sad aspect—” Elizabeth was leaving the home where her children had been born, and the town where she had lived happily for many years. Nevertheless, she knew she needed to proceed, and she found her new husband “one of the kindest of Friends, to have supported, & encouraged me.”26

Elizabeth Peabody’s marriage did not only affect herself. It also held significance for her children by John Shaw, who had to adapt to a new stepfather and a new home. Abigail helped in this adjustment, counseling William Smith Shaw that “Time would reconcile him to the Thought of seeing another in the Room of him whom he had lost, especially as there could be no objection to the person.” Fortunately, Abigail was able to report to Elizabeth that William “appeard on this visit much happier than when he was last here. he spoke of mr Peabody with respect and regard.”27 William, too, as a student at Harvard College, had the advantage of being somewhat removed from the situation. Elizabeth’s daughters, Betsy Quincy and Abigail, had no such reprieve. While their experiences are not recorded in the Adamses’ correspondence, they no doubt also struggled with the changes to the family. Part affection, part necessity, a second marriage for a mature woman of limited financial means could prove successful but was grounded in quite different expectations—and had far different ramifications—from that of a young man in love.

Nabby and William Stephens Smith and their three children—William Steuben, John Adams, and Caroline Amelia—feature only tangentially in this volume, though Nabby was able to report to her brother John Quincy that Caroline “is the finest Girl of her age ever seen—that she almost walks, talks, and is a most surprising Child.” As had been the case throughout their marriage, Col. William Stephens Smith’s financial adventures continued to prove a burden to his wife and children. After purchasing a large parcel of land in xxxiii New York City and beginning to build a substantial mansion, Smith lost his newfound fortune when the land-speculation bubble burst in 1796, and he was forced to sell. Abigail hoped that this setback “might Serve as a check upon that too great propensity to extravagance in living, Which has given so much cause of apprehension to the col’s best Friends.” By February 1797 the Smiths were living in modest quarters in the small town of Eastchester, New York, some twenty miles north of New York City. This move marked the beginning of a lengthy downward spiral for the Smiths, as William Stephens Smith increasingly found himself unable to provide adequately for his wife and children. As John reported to Abigail, “I Spent a pleasant Day before Yesterday with Mrs Smith and her Children at East Chester where they now live. At night the Col & his two Brothers came home from hunting Patridges and Quails an Amusement which had engaged them two Days. Halcyon Days are over, at that house but Horses are still very plenty.”28


John Quincy and Thomas Boylston continued to have front-row seats for the ongoing turbulence in Europe, from the general European war to the political convulsions in France and the Netherlands. By the summer of 1795 France and Great Britain had been at war for two years, and France and Prussia for nearly four. As Thomas Boylston wrote to his father in July 1795, “If to you the state of Europe is enigmatical & incomprehensible, it is no less so I believe to the mind of every reflecting man. Its Wars its Revolutions, and its Convulsions, must have their course, but what will follow in their train, or where they will terminate is beyond the reach of calculation.” Fighting proceeded on both sides of the Rhine River throughout the fall of 1795, culminating in Austrian victories in the early winter. An armistice between Austria and France temporarily halted hostilities but only through May 1796; thereafter, warfare resumed in the Rhine valley. French defeat at the hands of the Austrian Army in the summer and early fall of 1796 prevented any hope of a quick resolution to the conflict.29

Fighting also continued in Italy, where in the spring of 1796 Napoleon Bonaparte began his successful campaign, dividing xxxiv Sardinian troops from the Austrian Army and forcing a separate peace between France and Sardinia—“a very important and decisive victory,” according to John Quincy. Not content with this, Napoleon continued to push farther into Italy. “By land, the french armies are every where successful,” John Quincy informed his mother in July. “They are in all probability before this at Rome. They have made Peace with all the Italian Sovereigns but the Emperor and the Pope. The successor of St: Peter stands a great chance to lose his keys, and to exchange the tiara for the bonnet-rouge.—” Later the same year, France also manuevered Spain and Prussia into peace treaties, leaving Britain and Austria dangerously alone in pursuing the general war.30

Fortunately, the situation was considerably more peaceful in the Netherlands. John Quincy could report to his mother that “the Peace and tranquility of this Country has not hitherto been interrupted since the Revolution.” The Batavian Revolution had changed little in day-to-day life and even politically, while some disruption occurred, the violence was never on a scale to what had occurred in France. On 1 March 1796 Thomas Boylston attended the reopening of the National Assembly “in full Diplomatic Dress” and found himself impressed with the “Dutch decorum. The enthusiastic fervor, which has been so remarkable, for producing movements of violence & tumult, in french popular assemblies, is not an appendage of the Batavian character.” Still he was skeptical that this event was anything more than a “mockery of regeneration,” an opinion that proved prescient when the assembly took over two years to develop an acceptable new constitution.31

France, too, was struggling to find its political footing, fortunately with somewhat less violence than had become the norm during the Terror. In August 1795 the National Convention adopted, and a popular referendum subsequently confirmed, a new constitution for France. The document created a five-person executive authority, known as the Directory, and two legislative bodies, one with power to propose laws, the other to approve them. As Thomas Boylston rather sarcastically reported to his father the following summer, “In France, the operation of what is called the regular or Constitutional Government, has been in every respect superior to that of any of its predecessors. Compared with antecedent experiments, it may even be styled a Government of laws.” While “Jacobinism still lurks in secret places,” the overall operation of the government was xxxv considerably more orderly, and “It is doubtless a blessing for the French nation, that order and subordination are once more established among them.”32

In Great Britain, food shortages in the fall and winter of 1795 led to growing unrest. Frustration with the seemingly endless war with France also contributed to rising discontent, leading to an attack on King George III on 29 October 1795 while he was riding to the opening of Parliament. The government under William Pitt responded with a crackdown on political clubs, passing the Treasonable and Seditious Practices Act and the Seditious Meetings Act, which clarified the definition of treason, punishable by death, and limited the size of political gatherings. As John Quincy summarized the situation, “The Government here is very busy against Sedition; and Sedition no less busy against the Government. Some prospect of a famine, but none of Peace.”33

European affairs, as troubled as they could sometimes be, presented important opportunities for John Quincy and Thomas Boylston as individuals. When George Washington tasked John Quincy with delivering the Jay Treaty ratifications to Great Britain in the fall of 1795, it served to highlight John Quincy’s growing stature in the American diplomatic corps. While ultimately a fruitless mission for John Quincy—the ratifications had been exchanged by the time he finally reached Britain in November 1795—the assignment spoke to the value Washington and Secretary of State Timothy Pickering placed in John Quincy’s work. His reports back home, which his father described as “full of accurate Information, profound Sagacity and nice discernment,” had been well-received throughout the political establishment, and Washington himself had told John that John Quincy’s “Prospects … are fair: and I shall be much mistaken, if, in as short a Period as can well be expected, he is not found at the head of the Diplomatic Corps.”34 Operating thousands of miles from the American political maelstrom helped to remove John Quincy somewhat from the most virulent disputes of the period, and while the Adams name kept him firmly aligned with the Federalists, he was respected as a diplomat on both sides of the political divide.

John Quincy’s extended absence in England left Thomas Boylston xxxvi in charge of the U.S. mission in the Netherlands. He appreciated the trust placed in him but found the duties somewhat daunting. On top of the usual secretarial responsibilities he had routinely performed for his brother, Thomas Boylston now also had to spend time drafting letters, negotiating with Dutch bankers regarding American loans, and coordinating passports for American citizens in distress. He found his “duties & occupations have been so much altered & so considerably multiplied, that I considered every moment lost that was not devoted to the discharge of them.” John tried to encourage him, informing him that “I have read your public Dispatches with great Pleasure. I find your Situation has led you to an Attentive Observation of the Events of the War and the Maneuvres of Politicks and your curious felicity of Expression enables you to represent both to great Advantage.” And Abigail expressed her pleasure to John at this new, if temporary, position: “I rejoice at the opportunity Thomas has of shewing that he is equal to the trust reposed in him. … I think we have great cause of pleasure and satisfaction in our Children. I hope You feel very proud of them; I do I assure You.”35

Still, by the summer of 1796, John Quincy had returned to The Hague, leaving Thomas Boylston free to contemplate his future. He had originally committed to spending two years in Europe, and by the spring of 1796 was considering a return to the United States. John instructed him to consult first “Your own Good, Happiness & Advantage” but could not refrain from noting, “To me it would be a great Pleasure to have you near me. It is very hard upon your Mother as well as me to be seperated as We are from all our Children but We hope it will not be always so.” Thomas Boylston himself remained ambivalent. His interest in returning to the legal profession was limited, but he felt he had few other options: “I know that the return to the Bar … will be the commencement of an Ordeal by no means pleasant to encounter. I dread it, but will not shrink from it, both from a conviction of its necessity, & because I well know my Father’s partiality to the idea of having only Lawyers among his Sons.” Equally he feared once more becoming dependent on his father for financial support. He wrote to John Quincy, “I had rather be a Clerk for life, than subject myself again to that condition” of economic dependence. In the end, he chose to remain in Europe xxxvii with his brother, following John Quincy in the fall of 1797 to his new posting in Berlin.36


For a complete statement of Adams Papers editorial policy as revised in 2007, see Adams Family Correspondence, 8:xxxv–xliii. Readers may also wish to consult the descriptions of the editorial standards established at the beginning of the project in Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, 1:lii–lxii, and Adams Family Correspondence, 1:xli–xlviii. These statements document the original conception of the Adams Papers project, though significant parts of them have now been superseded.

The only major addition to the 2007 policy regards the selection for publication in the Adams Family Correspondence series of John Quincy Adams’ letters from his diplomatic posts to his father. In general, we will only include those letters when they focus substantially on family matters. If their content revolves largely or entirely around diplomatic and political affairs, they will be reserved for consideration and likely inclusion in The Papers of John Adams or The Papers of John Quincy Adams. Similarly, letters written by Thomas Boylston Adams in his capacity as John Quincy’s secretary, and letters between Thomas Boylston and John Quincy on public matters, will be treated in the same fashion. John Quincy’s letters to other family members—especially Abigail, to whom he often wrote at the same time as he did to his father—will continue to be published routinely in the Family Correspondence books.


The Massachusetts Historical Society continues to support the work of making Adams family materials available to scholars and the public online. Four 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, the Adams Papers Digital Edition, and the Online Adams Catalog. 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 text searchable and can also be browsed by date.

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

The Adams Papers Digital Edition, a project cosponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Harvard University Press, and the Massachusetts Historical Society, offers searchable text files of the 38 Adams Papers volumes published prior to 2007 (excluding the Portraits volumes), 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.

The Online Adams Catalog represents a fully searchable electronic database of all known Adams documents, dating primarily from the 1760s to 1889, at the Massachusetts Historical Society and other public and private repositories. The digital conversion—based on the original Adams Papers control file begun in the 1950s and steadily updated since that time—was supported by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and the Massachusetts Historical Society, and was initiated by Packard Humanities Institute funds in 2009. The catalog allows public online access to a database of over 110,000 records, with some 30,000 cross-reference links to online, printed, and microfilm editions of the items, or to websites of the holding repositories. Each record contains information on a document’s author, recipient, and date and on the location of the original, if known.

The letters in volume 11 of the Adams Family Correspondence may be supplemented with material from the same time period included 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, 8:517–530, and Writings of John Quincy Adams, edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford, 1:381–508, 2:1–132. Also of note is the unpublished Diary that Thomas Boylston Adams kept while in Europe, available on the Adams Papers microfilm. Future volumes of xxxix the Papers of John Adams will provide considerably more coverage of John’s public activities during these years.

The Adamses’ correspondence printed here provides a fascinating window into American and European life in the 1790s. Whether commenting on urgent political issues like the Jay Treaty, or mulling important life choices such as marriage and career, the Adamses used their letters to share observations, solicit advice, and, most of all, maintain their sense of connection to one another. Their insights on myriad subjects, combined with the Adamses’ extraordinary talents as writers, give their correspondence enduring value.

Finally, this volume, while significant in its own right, also provides an important prologue to a major new challenge for the Adams family. As John wrote to Abigail the day after he had the awkward duty of counting electoral votes in the Senate and declaring himself the next president of the United States, “The Die is cast, and you must prepare yourself for honourable Tryals.”37 No doubt, the Adamses would prove equal to the task.

Margaret A. Hogan October 2012

AA to JA, 20 Dec. 1795; JA to AA, 28 Dec., both below.


AA to TBA, 10 March 1796, below.


LCA, D&A, 1:44; LCA to JQA, 4 July 1796, below.


JA to AA, 5 Jan. 1796; JA to AA, 2 Feb., both below.


CA to JQA, 6 Jan. 1796; AA to TBA, 25 Sept., both below.


AA to JQA, 15 Sept. 1795, below. For more on the newspaper wars surrounding the Jay Treaty, see Todd Estes, The Jay Treaty Debate, Public Opinion, and the Evolution of Early American Political Culture, Amherst, 2006, p. 104–126.


JA to JQA, 25 Aug. 1795, and note 3; AA to JQA, 8 Oct., both below.


JA to AA, 24 Dec. 1795, and note 3, below. See also AA to TBA, 10 March 1796, and note 5, below.


See AA to JQA, 11 Nov. 1796, and note 3, below.


JA to AA, 1 April 1796, note 1; AA to TBA, 10 June; JA to AA, 3 May, all below.


JQA to CA, 15 Sept. 1795; JA to AA, 7 Jan. 1796, both below.


AA to JA, 21 Jan. [1796], 14 Feb., 20 Feb., all below.


JA to AA, 7 Jan. 1796, 6 Feb., 1 March, all below.


JA to AA, 10 Feb. 1796, and note 1; 1 March, both below.


This situation was not resolved until the Constitution was altered with the passage of the 12th Amendment in 1804.


AA to JQA, 28 Nov. 1796; to JA, 4 [Dec.]; JA to AA, 4 Dec., all below.


JA to AA, 7 Jan. 1796; AA to Elbridge Gerry, 31 Dec., both below. See also JA to AA, 1 Jan. 1797, and note 1, below, for Jefferson’s response to his election.


JA to AA, 27 Dec. 1796; AA to TBA, 8 Nov., both below. For some of AA’s arrangements, see, for example, AA to JA, 15, 22, 28, 30 Jan. 1797, all below.


Vol. 9:275–276; 10:110–111, 345, 346; AA to JQA, 29 Feb. 1796; CA to AA, 16 Aug. 1795; AA2 to JQA, 26 Oct., all below. On the “Epidemic Matrimony” of the Smith family, see AA to TBA, 30 Nov.; JA to AA, 6 Dec., both below.


JQA to TBA, 2 Nov. 1795; to CA, 6 July; to AA, 7 Nov., all below.


LCA, D&A, 1:41. For more on the courtship between JQA and LCA, see Margery M. Heffron, “‘A Fine Romance’: The Courtship Correspondence between Louisa Catherine Johnson and John Quincy Adams,” NEQ, 83:200–218 (2010). For the genealogy of the Johnson family, see LCA, D&A, 2:773–774.


JQA to AA, 20 Feb. 1796, 30 March; JA to JQA, 19 May, all below.


JQA to AA, 5 May 1796; to LCA, 9 July; LCA to JQA, 24 July, all below.


JQA to LCA, 13 Aug. 1796; LCA to JQA, 28 Aug., 30 Sept., 1 Nov., all below.


For the letters regarding the scheduling of JQA and LCA’s wedding, and a possible plan for it to take place in the Netherlands, to which JQA strenuously objected, see JQA to LCA, 20 Dec. 1796; LCA to JQA, 30 Dec.; JQA to LCA, 10 Jan. 1797; LCA to JQA, 10, 17, 20 Jan.; JQA to LCA, 31 Jan.; LCA to JQA, 31 Jan., all below. For JQA’s correspondence with Joshua Johnson on the same, see JQA to Johnson, 9, 27 Jan., both below.


Elizabeth Smith Shaw to AA and Mary Smith Cranch, 24 Sept. 1795; Elizabeth Smith Shaw Peabody to AA, 9 Jan. 1796, both below.


AA to Elizabeth Smith Shaw Peabody, 12 Feb. 1796, below.


AA2 to JQA, 26 Oct. [1795]; AA to JA, 10 April 1796, and note 7; JA to AA, 1 Dec., all below.


TBA to JA, 13 July 1795, below.


JQA to AA, 5 May 1796, and note 2; 25 July, both below.


JQA to AA, 30 July 1795; TBA to JA, 24 June 1796; JQA to AA, 30 March, note 3, all below.


TBA to JA, 6 Aug. 1796, below. See also JQA to CA, 6 July 1795, and note 4, below.


JQA to TBA, 18 Nov. 1795, and note 7, below. See also TBA to AA, 1 Dec., and note 3, below.


JA to JQA, 19 Sept. 1795, below.


TBA to JA, 14 Dec. 1795; JA to TBA, 25 March 1796; AA to JA, 28 March, all below.


JA to TBA, 25 March 1796; TBA to JQA, 23 April, both below.


JA to AA, 9 Feb. 1797, below.