Abigail Adams: “A true friend to Matrimony”

Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

“You know I have always been a true friend to Matrimony,” Abigail Adams wrote to her friend Hannah Phillips Cushing on 1 Sept. 1804. “Upon this principle I last week parted with my most beloved domestic who was to me as a child in sickness and in Health and who had lived 14 years with me.” Abigail was referring to the Adamses’ servant Rebeckah Tirrell who married another longtime servant, Richard Dexter, at Peacefield on 23 August.

Here is where the letter gets interesting. “At the Wedding,” Abigail continued, “amongst other Guests were six couple who had lived with me during her residence with me all of whom had been married from me in that period & all but one married in my family. this I believe is rather a singular instance.”

Besides the bride and groom, the five other couples were Esther Field and John Briesler Sr. (m. 1788), Polly Doble Howard and Jonathan Baxter Jr. (m. 1797), Abigail Hunt and Ebenezer Harmon (m. 1798), Betsy Howard and William Shipley (m. 1801), and Elizabeth Epps and Tilly Whitcomb (m. 1802).

As if this occurrence didn’t have enough Upstairs, Downstairs flavor, Abigail’s letters prove that drama sometimes preceded the marital bliss. The first couple produced by the Adams household—Esther Field and John Briesler Sr.—probably caused Abigail the most grief. Field and Briesler had accompanied John and Abigail Adams to London during John’s time at the Court of St. James. They were married on 15 February 1788 at St. Marylebone church in London. Their daughter was born in May.

A frazzled Abigail confided to her sister, “I have the greatest anxiety upon Esthers account, if I bring her Home alive I bring her Home a marri’d woman.” Abigail stressed that no one outside of the family knew Esther’s situation. “I have related this to you in confidence that you may send for her Mother & let her know her situation. . . . in addition to every thing else, I have to prepare for her what is necessary for her situation.” Abigail wrote that Esther “came in the utmost distress to beg me to forgive her” and added that John Briesler, “as good a servant as ever Bore the Name,” was “so humble and is so attentive, so faithfull & so trust worthy, that I am willing to do all I can for them.”

Doing all they could included going along with a vanished marriage certificate and a revised wedding date of September 1787, according to John Quincy’s 14 Aug. 1838 diary entry.

JQA diary
John Quincy Adams’s diary entry for 14 Aug. 1838.

Abigail was willing to get involved even when propriety was not on the line. Her servant Polly Doble Howard was engaged to her sons’ servant, Tilly Whitcomb. When Whitcomb accompanied John Quincy and Thomas Boylston to Europe, Abigail passed along messages for the lovebirds. “Polly requests me to give information for her that Ten long weeks she has been constant.” (No error here. Howard was indeed engaged to Whitcomb before they broke off the engagement and she married Jonathan Baxter Jr. in June 1797. Whitcomb would marry Adams servant Elizabeth Epps five years later.)

Even in the midst of her time as First Lady, Abigail hosted weddings for her servants. To her nephew William Smith Shaw, she wrote a familiar phrase: “I am a great friend to Matrimony, and always like to promote it, where there is a prospect of happiness & comfort.” After Ebenezer Harmon and Abigail Hunt were pronounced man and wife, Abigail “regaled them with a Glass of wine, & some cake and Cheese.” Abigail went to bed while the guests were still dancing “with the pleasurable reflection of having made Several honest families happy & pleasd.”

Perhaps it was the daily example of America’s first power couple that made the idea of marriage attractive to so many of the Adamses’ servants. Whatever the cause, Abigail reflected, “My Muster role would have been double if I had taken in all those Who had married with & from me Since I became a housekeeper.”

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the Packard Humanities Institute. The Florence Gould Foundation and a number of private donors also contribute critical support. All Adams Papers volumes are published by Harvard University Press.

Louisa Catherine Adams: “I was a Mother ”

By Sara Martin, Editor in Chief, The Adams Papers

On 8 July 1801 Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams stepped aboard the ship America in Hamburg. She was ill, worried for the son she birthed less than three months earlier, and sailing toward an America she knew only as “the land of my Fathers.” Volumes 15 and 16 of the Adams Family Correspondence, two forthcoming volumes in the Adams Papers series, chronicle the exciting and daunting changes in Louisa’s life during the first decade of the nineteenth century. She met the Adams family in the United States, carved a place for herself and her husband, John Quincy Adams, in Washington society, and most importantly embraced motherhood.

Miniature portrait of Louisa Catherine Johnson
Louisa Catherine Johnson,
miniature, circa 1792

The daughter of an American father, Joshua Johnson, and English mother, Catherine Nuth Johnson, Louisa was born in London on 12 February 1775. She received her education in France, after her family fled to Nantes during the American Revolution. Returning to London after the war, Joshua Johnson became the U.S. consul at London in 1790, and the Johnson household served as a center for Americans in the British capital. When John Quincy Adams arrived in bustling city in late 1795, he was welcomed into the Johnson home and found the three eldest Johnson “daughters pretty and agreeable.” Louisa captivated his particular focus, and the couple was engaged before John Quincy returned to his diplomatic post at The Hague in late May 1796. More than thirty letters exchanged during their courtship are included in volumes 11 and 12 of the Adams Family Correspondence and are available online through the Adams Papers Digital Edition.

Following the couple’s July 1797 marriage, they moved to Berlin, where John Quincy spent more than three years as the U.S. minister to Prussia. The young diplomat successfully negotiated a new treaty with Prussia but found many of his other duties onerous. Neither he nor Louisa relished the constant whirl of Berlin’s lavish court life, and they escaped the capital when they could, enjoying trips to Dresden and Töplitz and making an extensive tour of Silesia. Louisa’s health in this period was precarious. She experienced several miscarriages before the birth of the couple’s first child, a son named George Washington Adams, in April 1801. “I was a Mother—God had heard my prayer,” Louisa recalled in her autobiography years later.

So it was with a great deal of trepidation that Louisa boarded the America for America in July 1801. After “Sixty long and wearisome days” the family arrived in Philadelphia that September. Louisa spent several weeks visiting her family in Washington, D.C., before traveling to Quincy to meet her in-laws. “Quincy! What shall I say of my impressions of Quincy,” Louisa recalled of her introduction into the Adamses’ community. “Had I steped into Noah’s Ark I do not think I could have been more utterly astonished.” With her cosmopolitan upbringing in Europe, Quincy society seemed foreign. She often felt herself on the outside, looking in.

With John Quincy’s election to the U.S. Senate in 1803, Louisa returned to Washington, a city she found charming on her first arrival in 1801: “I am quite delighted with the situation of this place and I think should it ever be finished it will be one of the most beautiful spots in the world.” The close proximity to her family held great appeal, and she remained in the capital during the 1804 recess, while John Quincy visited his parents in Massachusetts. The situation was reversed in 1806 and 1807, when Louisa stayed in Boston while John Quincy returned to his post in the capital.

Louisa’s frequent letters during these periods of separation discuss a wide range of activities, from what she was reading and who she was visiting to what was going on in Congress and Washington society or locally in Massachusetts. Tender moments between husband and wife are joined by periods of miscommunication and disagreement. But much of Louisa’s letters are filled with commentary about their children, for they welcomed a second son, John Adams, in July 1803, and then another, Charles Francis Adams, in August 1807.

Letter from Louisa Catherine Adams to John Quincy Adams
Louisa Catherine Adams to John Quincy Adams, 9 July 1804

“I feel oppressed with such a heavy weight of care when I look at our lovely children separated as I am from you my life is a scene of continual anxiety,” Louisa wrote on 9 July 1804. “You know how fondly I doat on my Children you may therefore rest assured they shall be watched with the fondest care and every thing that is possible for a mother to do shall be done to promote their welfare during your absence.” Much of Louisa’s anxiety pertained to the children’s health. In a 4 October 1801 letter she noted a “terrible eruption” on George’s skin but was relieved when it “proved to be nothing more than bug bites.” She also commented on common illnesses from teething and seasonal complaints, along with the challenges in getting the children inoculated.

Louisa was delighted—and occasionally exasperated—by her sons’ antics. “George . . . says you are very naughty to go away and leave him he does teaze me so when I write I scarcely know what I am doing,” she wrote on 20 May 1804. And in January 1807 she reported that while John eagerly anticipated the return of his “very good Papa” it had “been impossible to prevail on him to go to school.” George, on the other hand, boasted that he “believed he was too clever” for his schoolmaster.

Letter from Louisa Catherine Adams to John Quincy Adams
Louisa Catherine Adams to John Quincy Adams, 21 January 1807

As the first decade of the nineteenth century drew to a close, Louisa returned to Europe with John Quincy. With her children always centermost in her thoughts, this time she looked longingly back toward Massachusetts, where she left her two oldest children under the care of the Adamses . But that is a story for a later Adams Papers volume.

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the Packard Humanities Institute. The Florence Gould Foundation and a number of private donors also contribute critical support. All Adams Papers volumes are published by Harvard University Press.

After the Storm

By Sara Georgini, Series Editor, The Papers of John Adams

Campaign token
John Adams campaign token or button coat stud, [1800].
He came home in a whirlwind. His “little bark…oversett in a Squal of Thunder and Lightening and hail attended with a Strong Smell of Sulphur,” outgoing President John Adams fought the five hundred miles from Washington, D.C., to his native Quincy in two weeks flat. Traveling in early March 1801 meant a rough ride. Mud inked along the new, boggy roads, pooling in deep gulches that braked Adams’ path to a crawl. No longer the kind of celebrity who drew feasts, toasts, and fêtes, Adams plodded through dreary tavern stops. Minutes after he reached Peacefield to reunite with wife Abigail and his family, a violent storm splintered the New England sky. Gales of wind shuddered across his farm. Rain whipped down, flooding crops and confining the Adamses for several days. John Adams didn’t mind. It was “So old fashioned a storm that I begin to hope that nature is returning to her old good nature and good humour and is substituting fermentations in the Elements, for revolutions in the moral intellectual and political World,” he wrote on 31 March. Turning the page on his presidency, Adams sensed greater change was in the air.

Back at the capital, Thomas Jefferson pondered the challenge of how to lead that shift. “The storm is over, and we are in port,” Jefferson wrote to Samuel Adams on 29 March. “The ship was not rigged for the service she was put on. we will shew the smoothness of her motions on her republican tack.” The election of 1800 evolved American democracy in big ways. Electioneering dominated the press, as Adams’ Federalist Party supporters continuously clashed with their rivals, Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. Both camps diverged on domestic and foreign issues; Adams’ unpopularity surged as he enforced the Alien and Sedition Acts and loudly defended the need for peace with France. As voting stretched from September to December, party cleavage ended the Federalists’ hold on a congressional majority. The whole electoral system rebooted, too. States’ methods for choosing presidential electors changed, igniting confusion and popular concern. When Jefferson tied with Aaron Burr for the top seat, the House of Representatives slogged through nearly a week of balloting to break the deadlock in the Virginian’s favor. In all the political chaos, a silver lining glimmered: Adams and Jefferson’s joint commitment to a peaceful transfer of power between parties pointed to the young democracy’s potential.

In its aftermath, citizens like Abigail Adams, Hannah Phillips Cushing, and Margaret Bayard Smith leaned in to private letters where they weighed the election’s role in history. Cushing, wife of U.S. Supreme Court justice William Cushing, lamented Federalists’ waning “judgment and prudence.” And was this election a harbinger, she wondered, of how presidents might stir public unrest through doling out highly coveted appointments? Smith, a Washington chronicler who began as a Federalist and was, in 1800, newly wed to a Democratic-Republican newspaper editor, looked for daylight between the parties’ views. She found it in the crowds at Jefferson’s inauguration, watching opponents unite to agree (at least) that the system worked fine, with a few tweaks. Jefferson, “called by the voice of his country,” still impressed Smith eight years later, when she visited him at Monticello. But what Smith noticed on the morning of Jefferson’s inauguration—the enduring trust of the people who guided the president—helped to solidify her political thought. “The political theory of republicanism, which seated power in a virtuous people, encouraged individuals to evaluate all facets of their lives along the lines of civic-mindedness, and from her earliest writings, Margaret discussed the connections she saw between political ideals and the way that people behaved,” MHS President Catherine Allgor wrote of Smith in 2012. “Intellectual, well educated, and politically aware, she made few decisions lightly.” Often minus a vote but not a voice, early American women offer us an intriguing glimpse of the election’s fallout and the nation’s future in 1801. You can explore their ideas in our free Adams Papers digital editions, available here.

Like many Americans adapting to the ebb and tide of the U.S. election cycle, Abigail Adams struggled to take the long view. Party drama would recede as a new generation of lawmakers shouldered their duties, she thought. The contours of political difference that felt so crystalline in the election’s maelstrom would soften, uniting them in common cause. “Before many more years pass away, every candid Republican will be ready to acknowledge the justice and wisdom of many measures, which party Spirit and a distorded view led them to condemn,” Abigail wrote to Hannah Philips Cushing. “They will find more Love of country, more disinterested patriotism in the measures of the federal government than they can produce, public good and not popularity were sought.” With a new president waiting in the wings for 2021, we invite you to join us for a special discussion on contested elections, featuring scholars Joanne B. Freeman, Peter S. Onuf, Rachel A. Shelden, Erik B. Alexander, and Ted Widmer on Wednesday, 6 January 2021, 5:30pm EST via Zoom webinar. You can read all about it and register to join us here.

Stepping into the Spotlight: John Quincy Adams’s Diary, 1789–1801

by Neal Millikan, Series Editor for Digital Editions

Transcriptions of more than 700 pages of John Quincy Adams’s diary have just been added to the John Quincy Adams Digital Diary, a born-digital edition of the Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The new material spans the period January 1789 through August 1801 and chronicle Adams’s experiences as a law student in Newburyport, a young lawyer in Boston, and a diplomat in the Netherlands and Prussia.

“My present situation is not over eligible: how to improve it is the subject which most employs my mind,” Adams wrote on 7 April 1791. “I have much leisure upon my hands, and my own improvement seems to be the proper object of my pursuit,” although he questioned his own “egotism” as he tried and failed to faithfully keep his journal. Adams had completed his legal studies under Theophilus Parsons in Newburyport the previous July and was been admitted to the Massachusetts Bar. Choosing to establish his office in Boston, the 23-year-old struggled to gain ground professionally even as he began to find his political voice.

In the summer of 1791 Adams responded to Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man with a series of articles under the pseudonym “Publicola.” The following year brought pieces by “Menander” opposing the state anti-theater ordinance, and in late 1793 and early 1794 he earned recognition for his “Columbus” and “Barneveld” series, commenting on the behavior of the Antoine Charbonnet Duplaine, the French consul at Boston, and Edmond Genet, the French minister to the United States.

Thomas Boylston Adams by Mr. Parker, 1795
Thomas Boylston Adams by Mr. Parker, 1795

These activities found favor in Federalist circles. In May 1794 President George Washington nominated John Quincy Adams as minister resident to the Netherlands. It was the first of four diplomatic postings Adams held. He and his youngest brother, Thomas Boylston Adams, who served as JQA’s secretary, arrived at The Hague in late October. During an errand to London in 1795, John Quincy met Louisa Catherine Johnson, the daughter of U.S. consul Joshua Johnson and Catherine Nuth Johnson. After more than a year’s courtship, the couple married in London on 26 July 1797 and soon departed for John Quincy’s new diplomatic post at Berlin, where the minister successfully negotiated a new Prussian-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1799. Neither John Quincy nor Louisa relished the demands of court life with its lavish social engagements. Louisa’s frequent ill health during these years weighed on John Quincy, and he noted his feelings in his diary. After Louisa had several miscarriages, she gave birth to their first son, George Washington Adams in April 1801, shortly before John Quincy received his recall and the family returned to the United States.

miniature portrait of Louisa Catherine Adams
Louisa Catherine Johnson, circa 1792

For more on John Quincy Adams’s life during these years, read the headnotes for his early legal career and early diplomatic career, or, navigate to the entries to begin reading his diary. The addition of material for the 1789–1801 period joins existing transcriptions of Adams’s diary for his years as secretary of state (1817–1825) and president (1825–1829) and brings the total number of transcriptions freely available on the MHS website to nearly 4,000 pages. Thanks to MHS web developer, Bill Beck, the John Quincy Adams Digital Diary also now includes side-by-side viewing capability. By choosing the “transcription + image” dual mode, users can view the transcription alongside the manuscript image; or, they can still view the transcription alone. This dual-mode option appears at the top of each entry. Check it out! And let us know what you think. The tool is still in its beta phase, and we welcome user feedback. You can reach us at adamspapers@masshist.org.

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding for the John Quincy Adams Digital Diary is provided by the Amelia Peabody Charitable Fund. Harvard University Press and a number of private donors also contributed critical support.


Nabby and John Quincy Adams: Life Strangers

by Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

Three days before her second birthday, Abigail Adams 2d, or “Nabby,” received the perfect birthday present—a little brother named John Quincy. As she remembered it, the love was instant, and history is on her side. The first mention of John Quincy Adams in the Adams Family Papers is an account given by Abigail of a two-year-old Nabby rocking a two-month-old JQA to sleep, singing, “Come pappa come home to Brother Johnny.”

During the next decade the siblings lost two little sisters, gained two brothers, and lost their father to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Yet, in the midst of revolution and war, they still found time to be children—trading books, going fishing and ice skating, taking long walks, and gossiping about their cousins. Then in February 1778 their father was sent to Paris, and he decided to take ten-year-old John Quincy with him.

Over the next six years, Nabby felt the loss of John Quincy’s company severely. Nabby wrote to her brother, “I cannot bear the idea of growing into life strangers to each other,” adding, “Indeed, it sometimes seems to me as if you were lost.” To her cousin Elizabeth Cranch, Nabby admitted, “I do not talk upon the subject, but there is not a day passes over my Life but this subject occupys my thoughts, and disbelieve it if you please, I can seldom reflect upon it without tears.”

Abigail Adams Smith
Miniature of Abigail Adams Smith

After years of waiting, Nabby and her mother set sail for London to reunite with John Quincy. On 30 July 1784, nineteen-year-old Nabby was in the middle of a letter to her cousin when she wrote, “This moment a servant tells me that my Brother has arrived and has stoped at the next house to dress. Why has he done this. He knowns not the impatience of his sister.” Abigail later related: “His sister he says he should have known in any part of the World,” and added, “Were I not their Mother, I would Say a likelier pair you will seldom see in a summers day.”

Less than a year later, JQA had to return to the United States to prepare for Harvard. Nabby lamented, “He is gone—alas to my sorrow—for I lost in him all the Companion that I had—and it is not possible his place should be supplyd.”

Determined to be “life strangers” no more, John Quincy and Nabby kept up their correspondence, writing uncommonly long letters to each other in which they covered all topics—particularly gossiping about the people with whom they came into contact, royalty included. Nabby and John Quincy shared a somewhat snarky sense of humor, and their letters were considered too candid even for John and Abigail’s eyes. Abigail wrote to her son, “Your Sister has written you so many pages that I suppose she has not left me any thing material to write to you but. . .I am very rarely honourd with a sight of any of them.”

Nabby told JQA of her daydream that she would settle in New York near her husband’s family “and have you one of these Days come as a Member from the Massachusetts to Congress. We should be quite at home again.”

A shifting capital dashed Nabby’s daydream, but John Quincy and Nabby never became strangers again. JQA was a devoted uncle to Nabby’s children, and Nabby nursed John Quincy’s wife through bouts of illness and difficult childbirths.

Their 46-year friendship confirmed Nabby’s prediction that she made in the same letter where she fretted they were becoming strangers: “There is no higher pleasure, no greater happiness, than a family bound by the ties of love, and cemented by the bonds of affection, where each for the other feels more than for himself, and where the chief end and aim is to render each other happy: this I wish may be our situation; it will; and the advantages arising will be mutual.”

I Lived like John Quincy Adams for a Week (and This is What I Learned)

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

It is an oft-repeated maxim that “what we love we shall grow to resemble.” Well, I love John Quincy Adams, and in the past few years I’ve noticed several of his habits cropping up in my life. Thinking that all of his habits are good, I made the decision that for one week I would live as closely as I could to the way JQA lived.

Knowing a week wasn’t enough time to kick start a political career, I went to John Quincy’s diary and looked at a more leisurely time in his life—July 1803. In July, he summarized his daily routine thusly: “Rise between 5 and 6. Bathe and walk about two hours— Read or amuse myself with George untill 9. Breakfast— At Market— Read or write untill 2. p.m. Dine— Read again untill Sunset— Walk an hour. Lounge away the time untill 10.”

Detail of diary entry of John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams’s diary entry summarizing July 1803.

That sounded doable. Keeping in mind that I have seven hours a day of mandated Adams time (How cool is that?!), I sketched out this daily schedule for myself.

5:00 a.m. — Wake and study the Bible
6:00 a.m. — Walk
7:30 a.m. — “Bathe”
8:00 a.m. — Read John Tillotson’s Sermons
9:00 a.m. — Work
2:00 p.m. — Lunch
3:00 p.m. — Work
5:00 p.m. — Read William Winterbotham’s View of the United States
7:00 p.m. — Walk
8:00 p.m. — Dinner and “lounge”
10:00 p.m. — Sleep

We know from an 1811 letter to his son George that John Quincy read the Bible cover-to-cover once a year, spending approximately an hour every morning in meditation. In July 1803 John Quincy also read John Tillotson’s Sermons to further nurture his spirit, so I did too.

The morning walk was easy enough to duplicate, but skinny dipping in the Charles is now frowned upon. Since JQA’s morning swim was as much about healthy circulation as it was about exercise, I substituted an ice cold shower. (If you can recall Janet Leigh’s shrieks in the Psycho shower scene, you have an idea of how that went.)

Adams also noted that he was reading William Winterbotham’s An Historical, Geographical, Commercial, and Philosophical View of the American United States, which is available to read online. Like JQA, I allowed Winterbotham to fill my evenings (and was as antsy as a Labrador to get out for my evening walk). Of course, one cannot imitate John Quincy Adams without meticulously keeping a diary, so I ended each day with pen in hand.

What was it like to be John Quincy Adams? Exhausting, if my experience is anything to go on. I wanted to weep every time I finished work and had to open Winterbotham. It took substantial willpower to step into a cold shower each morning. Even so, I would recommend the experiment to anyone.

Purposefully recreating his actions allowed me to understand Adams in a way I never had, and it reminded me of the best thing about John Quincy—his industry was always for others.

He pored over religious readings to keep his moral compass calibrated so that he could act justly throughout the day. He used exercise as a tool to help him focus. (I can’t convey the level of mental clarity after a long walk and cold shower. You’ll have to try it.) Once grounded and focused, he studied his country so that he could serve it effectively.

As I lived the life of 36-year-old Senator Adams, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the advice a ten-year-old JQA received from his mother: “Improve your understanding for acquiring usefull knowledge and virtue, such as will render you an ornament to society, an Honour to your Country, and a Blessing to your parents.” No wonder Abigail was so proud.

Uniting the States

by Sara Georgini, Series Editor, The Papers of John Adams

The Papers of John Adams, Volume 20, spans a formative era in the development of our federal government, stretching from June 1789 to February 1791. We used 301 documents to tell the legislative story of the first federal Congress, foregrounding John Adams’s creation of the office of the vice presidency amid the nation’s struggle to implement the new U.S. Constitution. With outliers North Carolina and Rhode Island repeatedly delaying ratification of the Constitution, Congress battled through three busy sessions of debates. Meeting for the first time in New York City’s half-built Federal Hall, congressmen tussled over how to collect revenue and where to locate the national capital. They spent weeks filling posts, and setting up the key departments of state, treasury, and war. John Adams’ ever-candid comments reveal firsthand the challenges of that inaugural Congress.

Equally perplexing—and challenging—to John Adams was the scope of his new federal role. The U.S. Constitution said little about what a vice president’s powers were, and so Adams was largely left alone to interpret the charge. Here’s what we learn in his letters: From his earliest days in office, Adams etched out clear boundaries for the vice president’s powers. He forwarded a flood of patronage requests to George Washington. Adams focused his energy on presiding over the Senate, where he broke several major ties amid rising partisan conflict. Overall, Adams found his Senate duties “Somewhat severe—sitting just in the same place, so many hours of every day.” Though he could be petulant about the daily grind of politics, Adams was optimistic about the “National Spirit” of his colleagues, who were constructing the tripartite federal government that he had long envisioned. Whether or not the union would hold, as regional interests repeatedly impeded congressional action, remained Adams’ chief concern. As he told one friend, “There is every Evidence of good Intentions on all sides but there are too many Symptoms of old Colonial Habits: and too few, of great national Views.”

View up Wall Street by Archibald Robertson
Archibald Robertson, “View up Wall Street with City Hall (Federal Hall) and Trinity Church, New York City,” ca. 1798

Volume 20 places John Adams and his family in New York City, and, by the book’s end, in Philadelphia. After a decade in Europe and a few months of semi-retirement in rural Quincy, Adams acculturated to new habits. His trusted circle of regular correspondents changed. For example, in Volume 20, the Adams-Jefferson correspondence recedes. We see more exchanges with Dr. Benjamin Rush, Henry Marchant, John Trumbull, and with the vice president’s son, John Quincy. Busy compiling his Discourses on Davila in the spring of 1790, John Adams renewed old friendships on the page and reflected on his law career. I want to emphasize here that every Adams Papers volume is foundational. We are especially grateful to the editors of the Legal Papers, who have helped us to identify Adams’ allusions, reflections, and rivals at the bar.

Time for a sneak peek! One of the more remarkable letters that we published in Volume 20 is Benjamin Franklin’s last letter, of February 9th, 1790, to his fellow revolutionary and former colleague. For longtime readers of the Adams Papers and fans of American history, this letter is a fascinating bookend to a fractious friendship. Franklin enclosed a 5 February 1790 letter from James Pemberton, a well-known Philadelphia Quaker and antislavery activist, as well as a 3 February 1790 petition from the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. The Society asked Congress for the abolition of slavery and an end to the slave trade. While Adams never replied to Franklin, the vice president did heed the request and laid the petition before the Senate. Despite heated debate, no substantial action was taken by Congress regarding what Adams called “the Quaker petition.”

April 1790 skit by John Adams
John Adams, “Dialogues of the Dead,” ca. 22 April 1790, Adams Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society

But John Adams did pause to reflect on the passing of Benjamin Franklin. Just as his Discourses on Davila began to appear in the American press, Adams’s writing took a more fanciful turn. Following Franklin’s death, Adams memorialized the milestone in a playful skit, titled “Dialogues of the Dead.” We do not see a lot of “creative writing” in John Adams’s papers, so this is a unique treat. Adams’s scene stars a cast of characters in conversation [Charlemagne, James Otis, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Frederick II (the Great)] as they await Franklin’s arrival in the afterlife.

Though it seemed like a quirky choice for the author of serious works like the Defence of the Constitutions, Adams’ sardonic salute showed his Harvard-trained classical roots. In content and style, Adams emulated the Syrian satirist Lucian of Samosata’s Dialogues of the Dead. Adams riffed on Franklin’s science experiments and took a few jabs at his statesmanship. He observed that Franklin “told some very pretty moral Tales from the head—and Some very immoral ones from the heart.” For such a breezy and colorful bit of writing, Adams certainly worked hard to get it right; the manuscript bears plenty of his edits and deletions. We are proud that John Adams’s previously unpublished “Dialogues of the Dead,” along with a previously unpublished draft for a 33rd essay intended for his Discourses on Davila, will both appear in Volume 20.

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the Packard Humanities Institute. The Florence Gould Foundation and a number of private donors also contribute critical support. All Adams Papers volumes are published by Harvard University Press.

“How are your nice Feelings affected by the Times?”

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

The news is scary. In the midst of global pandemic, an economic crisis, and nightly images of police brutality, we keep hearing the same question over and over: What do I tell my children?

This is not a new question. Every time John Adams sat at his writing desk in Philadelphia, quill in hand, he contemplated what to say to his “little flock.” He knew they had the violence of war on their doorstep, and the smallpox virus was creeping ever closer. “My Anxiety about you and the Children, as well as our Country, has been extreme,” he confided to Abigail on 24 July 1775.

John recognized that his children were exceptionally lucky to have a mother like Abigail to explain, care, and console, but he was still their father. In his letter to Abigail of 2 June 1775, John wrote, “My Dear Nabby, and Johnny and Charley & Tommy are never out of my Thoughts.”

letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 2 June 1775.

Adams encouraged his children to communicate with him, telling them he longed “to share with your Mamma the Pleasures of your Conversation.” Sometimes he invited the children to lead the conversation and tell him what they were experiencing. On 17 March 1777, he asked his son Charles, “What Subject do your Thoughts run upon these Times. You are a thoughtfull Child you know, always meditating upon some deep Thing or other. Your Sensibility is exquisite too. Pray how are your nice Feelings affected by the Times?”

John also reminded his children that God was watching over them, and that they could trust Abigail to keep them safe. “I hope you and your Sister and Brothers will take proper Notice of these great Events, and remember under whose wise and kind Providence they are all conducted. Not a Sparrow falls, nor a Hair is lost, but by the Direction of infinite Wisdom. Much less are Cities conquered and evacuated,” he wrote to John Quincy on 18 April 1776. For the baby, Tommy, John simply wrote, “Be always dutifull and obedient to your Mamma.”

John Adams encouraged conviction and virtue in his elder children, writing John Quincy what books to pull out of the family library to prepare for a life of public service and responsible citizenship. “Public Virtues,” he wrote to Abigail on 29 Oct. 1775, “and political Qualities therefore should be incessantly cherished in our Children.” For Tommy, who was too young to understand what was happening, John focused on love and play. “Tell Tom, I would give a Guinea to have him climb upon my shoulder, and another to chase him into his Jail.”

Letter from John Adams
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 29 Oct. 1775

John Adams, like every parent, had many anxieties and aspirations for his children. He urged Abigail to “elevate the Minds of our Children and exalt their Courage; to accelerate and animate their Industry & activity— to excite in them an habitual Contempt of Meanness, abhorrence of Injustice and Inhumanity, and an ambition to excell in every Capacity, Faculty, and Virtue.”

To his daughter, Nabby, Adams provided his most succinct advice for navigating tumultuous times: “To be good, and to do good, is all We have to do.”

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the Packard Humanities Institute. The Florence Gould Foundation and a number of private donors also contribute critical support. All Adams Papers volumes are published by Harvard University Press.

Living in an Epidemic: What Did Abigail Do?

by Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

Abigail Adams knew what to do. Whether her correspondent was nursing a broken heart or a broken arm, Abigail had the cure. She penned thousands of letters throughout her life offering advice on matters spiritual, botanical, financial, medical, and political.

But what would Abigail Adams do in the midst of a pandemic? Fortunately, with the trove of letters Abigail left us from the 1776 smallpox epidemic, the question is not “What would Abigail do?” but rather “What did Abigail do?”

First, Abigail kept herself informed and was proactive. Abigail had already lived through a smallpox epidemic in 1764 and knew the importance of staying ahead of the disease. On 17 June 1776, she wrote to John that inoculation was beginning. “Dr. Bulfinch has petitiond the General Court for leave to open a Hospital some where, and it will be granted him. I shall with all the children be one of the first class you may depend upon it.”

Letter written by Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams to John Adams, 29 July 1776

Second, Abigail heeded the advice of medical professionals. Doctors encouraged patients to remain in peak physical form to fight the disease. “We are ordered all the Air we can get,” Abigail wrote on 29 July. “[We] abstain from Spirit, Salt and fats, fruit we Eat, all we can get, and those who like vegetables unseasond may Eat them, but that is not I.” In the same letter, Abigail lamented that their isolation was extended several weeks by the doctor’s uncertainty that the inoculation took with each child, but she trusted his judgment. “This doubtfull Buisness is very dissagreable as it will detain us much longer, but there are several instances now of persons who thought they had had it, and were recoverd, and lived away freely, and now are plentifully dealt by.”

Third, Abigail sought solace when the stress got to be too much. This solace mainly came in the form of candid letters to her husband. “This Suspence is painfull,” she wrote on 30 July. “Tis a pestilence that walketh in Darkness.” She was homesick and stir-crazy and longed “for the sweet air of Braintree.” On 1 August, she acknowledged that “I forget one day what I wrote the day before. This small pox is a great confuser of the mind, I am really put to it to spell the commonest words.”

Letter written by John Adams
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 10 Aug. 1776

John empathized, writing on 23 July, “You will find several dull Hours, and the Children will fatigue you.” On 10 August, he wrote, “This Suspence and Uncertainty must be very irksome to you. But Patience and Perseverance, will overcome this, as well as all other Difficulties. Dont think of Time, nor Expence.”

Abigail kept herself informed, was proactive, and monitored her physical and mental health. But above all, Abigail wrote. During the two months that Abigail and the children were isolated with smallpox, Abigail wrote more than 15 letters to John detailing their experience. “I believe you will be tired of hearing of small pox,” Abigail wrote to John on 29 July. She filled page after page with information not only about herself, but about their neighbors, their servants, and what information she received from the outside world.

Because of Abigail, we can feel and know what it was like to live through the smallpox epidemic in 1776. The MHS invites you to bear witness to history the same way Abigail did. Tell us about your experience living through the COVID-19 pandemic. Historians of the future will thank you. Someday someone might even write a blog post about you.

From Diplomacy to “Defence”

by Sara Georgini, Series Editor, The Papers of John Adams

For John Adams, the end of the American Revolution ushered in a difficult peace. This saga plays out in the 301 documents that compose Volume 18 of The Papers of John Adams, now available in our free Adams Papers Digital Editions, chronicling his public life from December 1785 to January 1787. His tenure as the first American minister to Britain from 1785 to 1788, which he seized on as his dream job—and a post that Adams heavily lobbied for in congressional circles—felt fruitless by late December 1785. After months of court presentations and dinner-table diplomacy, Adams could not persuade the British ministry to settle prewar debts, restore lost property, or normalize commercial relations. His face-to-face encounters with the British ministry ground to “a full stop.” With trademark candor, Adams reported home that King George III was too “obstinate” and possessed an “habitual Contempt of Patriots and Patriotism,” while the new prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, “oscillated like a Pendulum” on key questions of foreign policy. Adams projected that Anglo-American relations would continue suffering in a state of “contemptuous silence” and neglect.

John Adams by Copley
John Adams, by John Singelton Copley, 1783, Harvard Art Museums

The British newspapers made it worse. Editors printed a series of attacks and misrepresentations of both American news and John Adams that his wife Abigail denounced as “false…false as Hell.” A turning point came in February 1786. The British rejected Adams’s memorial requesting their evacuation of posts on the American frontier. Adams, left to uphold a treaty that he never found satisfactory, saw that he was mired in a system that stonewalled American interests. This type of diplomatic toil, Adams wrote to friends back in New England, was akin to “making brick without straw.” By January 1787, Adams had resigned his commissions, ready to return home after a decade’s worth of service. What, then, did he really accomplish in Europe?

Volume 18 of The Papers of John Adams tells us a new story. For, between 1778 and 1788, as he moved from The Hague to Auteuil and from London to New York, John Adams formed an extraordinary and little-known record of cultural diplomacy. First, he recruited allies and funds to the American cause. Then Adams urged them to amplify the history and culture of the new nation. Europe’s “Men of Letters…who are possessed of the best Hearts and most virtuous Principles, are anxious to assist Us in the great Work We have to do,” he wrote to the Scottish educator George Chapman in 1785. Entrusted with dual commissions to manage Dutch loans and craft commercial agreements with the nations of Europe and North Africa, Adams stuck to congressional instructions. He worked on negotiations related to Anglo-American economic relations, as well as proposed treaties with Morocco (successful) and Portugal (not). We used annotation and illustrations to narrate his work, including an image of a rare, Arabic-language manuscript in the Adams Papers.

Sidi Haj Taher Ben Abdelhack Fennish to the American Commissioners
Sidi Haj Taher Ben Abdelhack Fennish to the American Commissioners, [28 June 1786]
Diplomacy, for Adams, was personal and political in scope. He sought to repair Anglo-American relations, one person at a time. He hired an old loyalist friend in exile, John Jeffries, to serve as the family doctor and care for his first grandson. And as he labored over his seminal, three-volume schematic of tripartite federalism, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, Adams wrote letters of introduction for New England merchants. Though he did not bend the congressional instructions that prevented him from giving legal advice, Adams used his post to nurture national needs. He leaned heavily into promoting American whale oil, mainly to aid his debt-ridden friends in New England, then weathering Shays’ Rebellion. Adams was beset by transatlantic tides of paperwork: loyalist pleas and immigration inquiries flooded his desk. Still, he regularly made room for more correspondents and contacts. Not always patiently, the American minister sat for a small army of artists including John Singleton Copley. An advocate of the growing American Republic of Letters, Adams built bridges of correspondence between learned and scientific societies. Thanks to his work, Harvard scholars shared their finds with London’s Royal Society and with French surgeons. American students traded star sightings and observations with the Palatine Academy of Science in Mannheim. Firmly, Adams tugged Europeans’ attention toward the “first fruits” of independent America.

Literature and religion were intellectual pursuits that Adams enjoyed dabbling in. History was his passion. Three years’ posting to London planted Adams in scenery that he had only read about. On his days off, Adams tore through England’s landmarks. He made quick tours of the countryside with Abigail or Thomas Jefferson in tow. He relished seeing the cottage where Shakespeare metered his sonnets, and he breathed in the lush green estates of landed gentry. Ever a fitful diarist, John Adams recorded the sites with Whiggish approval of the country seats’ symmetrical topiary, classical statuary, and working farms. In his letters home, John focused on historic sites. He explored key episodes of the English Civil War through visits to the battle sites of Edgehill and Worcester. Adams, ever forthright and opinionated, was more of a tourist than a diplomat on such trips. At the latter venue, Adams felt “provoked” to remind the local residents that “this is holy Ground, much holier than that on which your Churches stand.”

Title page of Defence
John Adams, Defence, Title Page

There was more to John Adams’ life than diplomacy. Volume 18 reveals the fiftysomething minister in a moment of change. He witnessed the marriage of his daughter, Abigail 2d, to William Stephens Smith; promoted the ordination of American Episcopal bishops; and made his final tours of Europe. During his time in London, he also drafted the first volume of his Defence. With his mission at a standstill, he had ample time to devote to the task. Adams’ opening salvo pieced together or silently quoted from historical examples, mainly drawn from case studies of Italian republics, to show that balanced government prevented civil war. Adams argued that America needed such a structure in order to sustain the hard-won republic. To learn more about his blueprint for the nation, you can start reading Volume 18 of The Papers of John Adams here.

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the Packard Humanities Institute. The Florence Gould Foundation and a number of private donors also contribute critical support. All Adams Papers volumes are published by Harvard University Press.