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Browsing: Adams Family Correspondence, Volume 1

This note contained in document ADMS-04-01-02-0167
1. This is one of the two letters JA wrote from Philadelphia this day that fell into British hands when the bearer, Benjamin Hichborn of Boston, was captured at Conanicut Ferry near Newport, R.I., and foolishly failed to throw away a number of letters he was carrying. The other intercepted JA letter was addressed to James Warren; it alluded at its outset to John Dickinson (though it did not name him) as “A certain great Fortune and piddling Genius” who had “given a silly Cast to our whole Doings”; and it led to the historic quarrel between JA and Dickinson. (Texts of the letter to Warren are in JA, Works, 1:179–180, and Warren-Adams Letters, 1:88–89.) Brought to Boston on 6 Aug., JA's letters were published in Margaret Draper's Massachusetts Gazette; MS copies were sent to London by Gage, Graves, and others; British papers printed and reprinted them; and for some months—until events caught up with his sentiments—JA was notorious on both sides of the Atlantic as the arch-advocate of American military resistance and independence from Great Britain.
An editorial note summarizing this incident and its effects, with references to sources and discussions, is in JA's Diary and Autobiography, 2:174–175. JA's later recollections of the affair are in same, 3:318–319. A fuller account must be deferred until the letter to Warren, which was the more controversial of the two, is printed in Series III of the present edition. By that time, one may at least hope, the missing originals may have come to light.
In the meantime it should be pointed out that although about two dozen MS texts of the intercepted letters are present (mostly as photoduplicates) or recorded in the Adams Papers Editorial Files, the best of these are no better than contemporary copies, all with demonstrable textual defects. So far as is known, the original letters remained in Vice-Admiral Samuel Graves' hands (he transmitted only copies to Gage and to the Admiralty), though it is possible that the originals were sent to the printer, and 18th-century printing offices were graveyards for MSS no matter how important. The editors attach little weight to the fact that in the American Clipper (a serial sale catalogue of the now defunct American Autograph Shop, Merion Station, Penna.) for Oct. 1938, item 7 purports to be the “A.L.S.” of the present letter, offered for sale at $127.50. The text as there printed strongly suggests that this item is simply another early MS copy.
The most authoritative of the con• { 257 } temporary MS copies of the letter to AA known to the editors are the following: (1) P.R.O.: C.O.5, vol. 122:15i, originally enclosure No. 8, according to its endorsement, in Graves to Philip Stephens, secretary to the Lords of the Admiralty, 17 Aug. 1775. (2) P.R.O.: C.O.5, vol. 92:248, enclosure No. 1 in Gage to Dartmouth, 20 Aug. 1775 (covering letter printed in Gage, Corr., 1:412–413). (3) MiU-C: Gage Papers, English Series, FC of an enclosure in Gage to Dartmouth, 20 Aug. 1775; endorsement on FC of covering letter states that this packet was “Sent by Mrs. Gage” and a “Duplicate by Lt. [Belkmoon?].” (4) Brit. Mus.: Add. MSS., Haldimand Papers, vol. 21687:225–226; endorsed. (5) William Salt Library, Stafford, England: Dartmouth Papers; endorsed: “Copy of a Letter from J.A. (John Adams) to Mrs. Abigail Adams. Philadelphia, 24th. July, 1775.”
The only text in the Adams Papers claiming any textual authority is a curious one. It is a 19th-century Tr, apparently made for JQA when he was working on his father's papers in 1829–1830, which was originally an abbreviated and otherwise defective text but which was then carefully corrected in the same or another unidentified hand, so that it is virtually identical with the text in Massachusetts Gazette. Attached to Tr is a single leaf from an earlier (i.e. contemporary) copy containing on one side the postscript and address of JA's letter to AA, and on the other side the following undated and unsigned message which looks altogether like an original note of transmittal:
“Hon. sir, If Col. Hatch is with you please to let him see this which has been corrected by one in the hands of Judge [Peter] Oliver.
“Mrs. Adams is daughter of a clergyman at Weymouth, and Thaxter is a clerk to her husband.”
The writer and recipient of this message are unknown but they were certainly loyalists. So was Nathaniel Hatch (1723–1784), Harvard 1742, of Boston and Dorchester, a colonel of militia, judge of the Suffolk Court of Common Pleas, and mandamus councilor (Sibley-Shipton, Harvard Graduates, 11:150–152; JA, Diary and Autobiography, 1:311; 2:1, 94). This MS is, then, a fragment of one of the numerous contemporary copies of JA's letter to AA that circulated among the Massachusetts loyalists.
The contemporary copies listed above do not vary markedly from one another except in scribal details, and a comparison of all of them with the text printed in Massachusetts Gazette leads to the tentative conclusion that on the whole the newspaper text is at least as faithful to the original as any MS now known, if not more so. It looks, in fact, as if the printer had used either the original or a more accurate copy than any now available, and that he simulated in type JA's writing in small matters of form with unusual care. The editors have so concluded in spite of the fact that still another letter captured on Hichborn's person is known to have been doctored when printed in the same issue of the Massachusetts Gazette (see Allen French, “The First George Washington Scandal,” MHS, Procs., 65 [1932–1936]:460–474), and also despite JA's own later allegation that his letter to Warren had been “made... worse [when printed], than it was in the Original” (Diary and Autobiography, 3:319).
Cite web page as: Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, ed.C. James Taylor. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2017.