Adams Family Correspondence, volume 1

Mary Nicolson to Abigail Adams

John Adams to Abigail Adams


Except for bad spelling and punctuation this is an accurate rendering of William Collins' “Ode Written in the Beginning of the Year 1746,” commemorating the British troops who fell at Prestonpans and Falkirk and published in Collins' Odes, London, 1747. JQA learned these moving lines—among the finest produced in the 18th century—in 1775 and never forgot them. In a draft of a letter he wrote in a faltering hand to an English Quaker, Joseph Sturge, on the subject of war and pacifism, dated March 1846 (Adams Papers), he gave his own recollection of the events AA here describes:

“The year 1775 was the eighth year of my age. Among the first fruits of the War, was the expulsion of my father's family from their peaceful abode in Boston, to take refuge in his and my native town of Braintree.... For the space of 224twelve months my mother with her infant children dwelt, liable every hour of the day and of the night to be butchered in cold blood, or taken and carried into Boston as hostages, by any foraging or marauding detachment of men, like that actually sent forth on the 19th. of April, to capture John Hancock and Samuel Adams on their way to attend the continental Congress at Philadelphia. My father was separated from his family, on his way to attend the same continental Congress, and there my mother, with her children lived in unintermitted danger of being consumed with them all in a conflagration kindled by a torch in the same hands which on the 17th. of June lighted the fires in Charlestown. I saw with my own eyes those fires, and heard Britannia's thunders in the Battle of Bunker's hill and witnessed the tears of my mother and mingled with them my own, at the fall of Warren a dear friend of my father, and a beloved Physician to me. He had been our family physician and surgeon, and had saved my fore finger from amputation under a very bad fracture.... My mother was the daughter of a Christian Clergyman and therefore bred in the faith of deliberate detestation of War.... Yet in that same Spring and Summer of 1775 she taught me to repeat daily after the Lord's prayer, before rising from bed the Ode of Collins, on the patriot warriors who fell in the War to subdue the Jacobite rebellion of 1745.

How sleep the brave, who sink to rest.... Here follows the rest of Collins' “Ode,” with a single word misquoted.

“Of the impression made upon my heart by the sentiments inculcated in these beautiful effusions of patriotism and poetry, you may form an estimate by the fact that now, seventy one years after they were thus taught me, I repeat them from memory without reference to the book.”

JQA's feelings ran so deep on the subject of Bunker Hill battle and Joseph Warren's death that in his Diary he commented with increasing disapproval on the anniversary celebrations of the battle, which grew more and more elaborate during his lifetime. In 1786, for example, he declined to go with his fellow students and the faculty of Harvard College to participate in “a scene of revels, and feasting,” with the head of the table “placed on the very spot where the immortal Warren fell.” And the celebration in 1843 marking the completion of the Monument, with Daniel Webster (“a traitor to the cause of human freedom”) speaking and President Tyler (“a Slave monger”) in attendance, revolted JQA: “I have throughout my life had an utter aversion to all pageants, and public dinners, and never attended one, when I could decently avoid it.... But now with the ideal association of the thundering cannon which I heard, and the smoke of burning Charlestown which I saw on that awful day, combined with this Pyramid of Quincy granite, and Daniel Webster spouting with a Negro holding an umbrella over his head, and John Tyler's nose with a shadow outstreching that of the monumental column; how could I have witnessed all this at once without an unbecoming burst of indignation or of laughter?”

A cairn of stones at the summit of Penn's Hill in Quincy was erected in 1896 to mark the spot where AA and JQA reputedly viewed the battle and conflagration. The ceremonies dedicating it were simpler than those on Bunker Hill in 1843; see Wilson, Where Amer. Independence Began , p. 257–259, with illustration. But whether JQA would have approved of them is problematical.