“Never Was There a Young Man Who Deserved More a Severe Punishment Than Yourself”
Abigail Adams 2D to John Quincy Adams, 27 November 1785 468
Thus begins one of the liveliest letters by Abigail Adams 2d, begun on 27 November 1785
to the young man who had recently become her favorite correspondent, her brother John Quincy Adams. The correspondence began in May 1785, with John Quincy's departure from France for America to complete his education, and young Abigail's nearly simultaneous departure for London with her parents. Saddened by their separation after a most enjoyable year spent together in Auteuil and Paris, sister and brother faithfully wrote one another long and vivid accounts of their activities, filled with incisive portraits of the people they met, for the remainder of the year. But delays in transatlantic communication and difficulties in routing their first letters through France at times caused them nearly as much frustration as their parents had known during the war years.
When Abigail 2d began this letter, it had been almost three months since she last received letters from John Quincy bringing her news of his arrival and stay in New York. Later in the course of this letter Abigail 2d acknowledged the receipt on 29 November of her brother's letters of 1 and 8 August, the last finished on 19 August in New Haven. As December began she had not yet heard from him of his arrival in Boston at the end of August, although the Adamses
had received other letters from Boston, coming on different ships, dated from as late as October. Thus she could write, on the page illustrated here: “a few weeks have elapsd since, without my writing a word [her last letter, of 18 October]
, to you, but you have not any shawdow of complaint to make, and I do not even think it proper to make any apology to you.”
Complaints to one another for being poor correspondents, and then apologies when letters did arrive, particularly by John Quincy Adams, appear in many of their letters, from May to December 1785 (all of which are printed below), but neither brother nor sister remained bothered for long. John Quincy would soon turn to a fairly sober, unfailingly articulate and perceptive description of the several communities through which he passed, from northern France to eastern Massachusetts. Abigail 2d did the same, less incisively, but with many interesting observations, for the one large community in which she lived, London.
As this letter shows, young Abigail often engaged in jesting humor, and even outright teasing. Beginning with the last lines on the page reproduced here: “I met a Lady . . . who knew you in Stockholm. Now what think you young Man. Does not your heart go pitepat, now bounce, as if it would break your rib,” she continued: “Nor do you know how many of yours adventures She confided to me. No matter what they were, I well remembered with how much pleasure you used to speak of Sweeden, and how many encomioums you passed upon some Ladies there.”
The passage is young Abigail at her best, displaying that playful humor found in some measure in most of her letters to her cousin Elizabeth Cranch, beginning in 1779 (appearing throughout vols. 3–6), and later to her brother John Quincy. This letter gives us an enticing hint of whatever John Quincy Adams may have been thinking and doing during the five weeks he spent in Stockholm, November—December 1781, beyond the few names of officials and merchants that he met (JQA, Diary
; John Quincy Adams to John Adams, 1 February 1783, printed in vol. 5). For a striking confirmation of her hint, see John Quincy Adams to Alexander H. Everett, 19 Aug. 1811 (Everett-Peabody Papers, MHi
), quoted at illustration no. 8, vol. 5.
In all her letters to John Quincy Adams, Abigail Adams 2d showed the same keen interest in her family's more private life in London during the summer and fall of 1785. Many of her letters convey information found nowhere else in the Adams Papers. In 1785, Abigail Adams 2d played a role that she had never played before— and after her marriage, in June 1786, would never play again—that of principal chronicler of the daily life of the Adams family.
From the original in the Adams Papers.