Adams Family Correspondence, volume 4

James Lovell to Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams to John Thaxter


Although the list enclosed by AA of the Braintree sailors who were made prisoners and sent to Mill Prison at Plymouth after capture of the Essex by the English privateer Queen Charlotte has not been found, it may be reconstructed by adding to the names of Jeriah Bass, Job Field, and Edward Savil, named in this letter, those of two Beales (Nathanael and another), Gridley and Lemuel Clark, Samuel Curtis, Lewis Glover, William Horton, Briant Newcombe, and Thomas Vinton. (The documents on which the present note is based are listed in a single sequence in a separate paragraph below.)

Before AA wrote, JA had already been apprised by five of the men themselves of their plight, had been requested by them to provide for their relief, and had responded promptly by sending them two guineas apiece through Edmund Jenings in Brussels for disbursement through Jenings' friend Michael Sawrey, a benevolently inclined merchant who lived in Plymouth. Before or at about the same time JA received AA's appeal, he had also heard directly from two more of the Braintree lads, had had letters singly or jointly from the parents of the rest of the twelve, and had received a plea for additional aid from the five he had supplied in October. To these requests, JA responded by having Jenings transmit, as he had before, 40s sterling to each of eight of the men, including two who had shared in the earlier distribution. At the same time he asked that Sawrey inform him through Jenings whether these or any of the others “befriended before” were in need of more and how much. Sawrey responded with a list of seven: Bass, the two Clarks, Curtis, Glover, Horton, and Vinton. JA advanced additional sums then or later, so that all or most of the twelve had received £4 or more each from him before their return to Braintree.

The letters to JA from the Braintree prisoners and their families in 1781–1782 make clear that all the financial aid given by JA was on the express promise of reimbursement. Since he had no public funds available for this purpose, the advances were out of his own funds. Most of the recipients attempted to repay AA, who put them off while awaiting instructions from her husband.

Although JA did not himself acknowledge to AA until Sept. 1782 that he had responded to her appeal in behalf of the prisoners, word of his “Benevolent exertions and generous aid” reached her through their families in July and August. By that time, “enlargement” or exchange of all twelve (whether or not by JA's efforts is not clear) had taken place, and by October eleven of them had reached Braintree.

Two additional prisoners at Plymouth, Capt. John Manley and Capt. Silas Talbot, apparently were added by Sawrey in the fall of 1781 to those JA had named to receive disbursements. What was evidently still another group, of whom the grandson of Rev. Charles Chauncy of Boston was one, escaped to the Netherlands in the summer of 1781 and were there given money and aid by JA. Beyond these instances, JA responded, without apparent success, to appeals in 1781–1782 to locate and aid in having exchanged, Benjamin Brackett, fifteen-year-old nephew of Joshua Brackett of Boston, and a Capt. Armstrong, friend of Tristram Dalton of Newburyport. It is edifying to find that two of the prisoners aided by JA while in the Netherlands turned up aboard the Active when AA sailed from Boston to Europe in that vessel in 1784. Dr. Chauncy's grandson, “A likely young fellow whose countanance is a good Letter of recommendation,” was serving as second mate of the Active; and Job Field, a seaman “whose place on board the ship I had procured for him,” AA recorded, was so “Handy, attentive, obligeing and kind, and so excellent a Nurse, that we all prized him” (AA, Diary, June-July 1784, in JA, Diary and Autobiography , 3:155, 162).

The documents on which the above account is based are listed in chronological order herewith. All are in the Adams Papers, and the letters between JA and AA that fall within the time span of the present volume are printed herein. Job Field et al. to JA, 8 Sept.; JA to Job Field et al., 24 Oct., LbC; JA to Edmund Jenings, 24 Oct.; Jenings to JA, 28 Oct., 26 Nov.; JA to Jenings, 29 Nov.; Samuel Bass 2d to JA, 13 Dec.; Joshua Brackett 260to JA, 15 Dec.; Thomas Vinton Jr. to JA, 20 Dec. 1781. Thomas Vinton Jr. to JA, 5 Feb.; Edward Savil et al. to JA, 14 Feb.; JA to Jenings, 21 Feb.; Jenings to JA, 31 March, 6 June; AA to JA, 17 July, 5 Aug., 3 Sept.; JA to AA 17 Sept.; AA to JA, 25 Oct.; Tristram Dalton to JA, 26 Oct. 1782. AA recounts taking tea with Michael Sawrey and his wife when the Adamses visited Plymouth, England, in 1787 (AA to Mary Smith Cranch, 15 Sept. 1787, MWA; quoted in JA, Diary and Autobiography , 3:209).

JA's concern with the plight of prisoners was of long duration. In the early days of hostilities he had been exercised over the reported treatment accorded prisoners of war taken by British troops in America; while in France in 1778 he had with Franklin and Arthur Lee dispatched to the British Ministry numerous protests against the treatment of prisoners in British hands and proposals for exchange of naval prisoners. While awaiting the sailing of the Alliance at Nantes in 1779 he had overseen an exchange; again at Bilbao in early 1780 he had undertaken to see that American prisoners escaped from Portugal received proper clothing. See above, vol. 2:224–226, 230–231; JA, Diary and Autobiography , 2:358–359, 432; 4:127–128, 138–139, 236, and index under Prisoners of War.

During his mission to the Netherlands JA's problem with prisoners and former prisoners of war became more acute. The nature of this problem is epitomized and illuminated in the case of Thomas Beer and his family, which JA had recently had to deal with. Beer was not an American or a prisoner but an Englishman who had “been obliged to flee from England on account of his having assisted the American prisonners to Escape.” So Francis Coffyn wrote JA from Dunkirk on 2 Oct. 1781, adding that, on advice from Franklin in Paris, Coffyn had paid Beer “ten Guineas to help him to Holland, with his wife and two young children; I hope your Excellency will be pleased to recommand him and get him Employed in the Rope makers business in which he seems to be Expert, as he was one of the Surveyors in the King of England's yards; to facilitate his passage to America” (Adams Papers). On 18 Oct. JA wrote from Amsterdam to Franklin:

“Thomas Beer, with his Wife and two small Children, came to my House, this Forenoon, and presented me, a Letter from Mr. Coffyn of Dunkirk ... recommending Beer to me as a Person who had been obliged to flee from England, for having assisted American Prisoners to escape; and inclosing a Copy of a Letter from your Excellency to Mr. Coffyn of 22 of August, advising Beer to go to Holland, where your Excellency imagined there was great demand for all Kind of Workmen, who are usefull in fitting out ships, ... and requesting Mr. Coffyn, for the future to send the Prisoners, to my Care, at Amsterdam, and to desire his Friend, at Ostend, to give them the same direction.

“As to Beer, I know not what to do with him. He has spent his last Guilder, and the Man, Woman and Children all looked as if they had been weeping, over their Distresses in deplorable Misery. I gave him some Money, to feed his Children a night or two and went out to see, if I could get him Work with a Rope Maker. But I was told that your Excellency was much mistaken.... That Navigation being in a manner stopped, such Tradesmen had the least to do of any, and particularly the Rope Makers complained of Want of Work more than ever and more than any other set of Tradesmen. However, a Gentleman will enquire if he can find a Place for him.

“I have no Objection to American Prisoners coming this Way, and shall continue to do any Thing in my Power, as I have done, to solace them in their distress. I have now for a Year past, relieved considerable Numbers who have escaped from England, with small Sums, and with my best endeavours tried to procure them Employment and Passages.

“But your Excellency is very sensible I have no publick Money in my Hands, and that therefore, the small sums of Money, which I have been able to furnish them must have been out of my own Pockett. This Resource is likely to fail very soon, if my Salary is not to be paid me, in future.

“If your Excellency would give me 261your Consent that I should take up small Sums of Money, of Messrs. Fizeau and Grand, &c., for the Purpose of assisting our Countrymen who escape from Prison, I should esteem myself honoured by this Trust, for none of my Time, is spent with more Pleasure than that which is devoted to the Consolation of these Prisoners.—The Masters of Vessels have hitherto been very good in giving Passages, and We have made various shifts to dispose of such as have been here, and have succeeded so as to give tolerable Satisfaction but we should do much better if We had a little more Money.

“I have often told your Excellency, that the House of De Neufville & son had received a few thousand Guilders, upon the Loan Opened by me in behalf of the United States.—I have not yet touched this Money, because I thought it should He, to answer Bills of Exchange upon the Draughts of Congress: But as there is so little, if your Excellency would advise me to it, I would devote it to lie for the Benefit of the poor Prisoners, and would make it go as far, in relieving their distresses as I could.” (LbC in JA's hand, Adams Papers; RC in John Thaxter's hand, PPAmP.)