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.

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.

“The Sublimity of it, charms me!”: John Adams and the Boston Tea Party

By Amanda Norton, Adams Papers

In the fall of 1773, three ships carrying a cargo of tea from the British East India Company were on their way into Boston Harbor. Subject to the Tea Act of 1773, allowing the tea to be unloaded in Boston would have meant the acceptance of the principle of Parliamentary taxation, an idea that Bostonians had been fighting for a decade. After Governor Thomas Hutchinson and the ship owners refused to prevent the ships’ landing, the Sons of Liberty decided to take action, and 242 years ago on the night of December 16, a group of patriots wearing Native American dress snuck on board the three ships and dumped their cargo into the harbor.

The next day, budding patriot John Adams wrote to his friend James Warren enthusiastically about the audacious stroke: “The Dye is cast: The People have passed the River and cutt away the Bridge: last Night Three Cargoes of Tea, were emptied into the Harbour. This is the grandest, Event, which has ever yet happened Since, the Controversy, with Britain, opened!” He added, “The Sublimity of it, charms me!”

“The People should never rise, without doing something to be remembered—something notable And striking.” he noted in his diary. “This Destruction of the Tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important Consequences, and so lasting, that I cant but consider it as an Epocha in History.” “The Question is whether the Destruction of this Tea was necessary?” he queried. “I apprehend it was absolutely and indispensably so.”

In his letter to Warren, Adams looked ahead as to what would follow this momentous affair. “Threats, Phantoms, Bugbears, by the million, will be invented and propagated among the People upon this occasion. Individuals will be threatened with Suits and Prosecutions. Armies and Navies will be talked of—military Execution—Charters annull’d—Treason—Tryals in England and all that—But—these Terrors, are all but Imaginations. Yet if they should become Realities they had better be Suffered, than the great Principle, of Parliamentary Taxation given up.”

There were indeed serious consequences for the people of Boston in the form of the Coercive, or Intolerable, Acts levied by Parliament in retaliation. The harsh punishment backfired however. Colonists grew more unified in sentiment, and the calling of the First Continental Congress in 1774 was a pivotal step in the movement toward revolution and eventually, independence.

John Adams to James Warren, 17 December 1773, Warren-Adams Papers

 

“I can do nothing without you”: The 250th Anniversary of John and Abigail Adams

By Amanda A. Mathews, Adams Papers

This month we celebrate the 250th wedding anniversary of John and Abigail Adams. Their marriage endured through separations, long in distance and time, war, partisan politics, and family hardships. Their distance and struggle became our treasure, because it is through their incredible correspondence that we obtain such an intimate look inside their lives—lives that in so many ways, are not so alien to our own.

     

About a month before their 25 October 1764, wedding, John Adams wrote to Abigail Smith movingly describing how important she was to him:

Oh my dear Girl, I thank Heaven that another Fortnight will restore you to me—after so long a separation. My soul and Body have both been thrown into Disorder, by your Absence, and a Month of two more would make me the most insufferable Cynick, in the World. I see nothing but Faults, Follies, Frailties and Defects in any Body, lately. People have lost all their good Properties or I my Justice, or Discernment.

But you who have always softened and warmed my Heart, shall restore my Benevolence as well as my Health and Tranquility of mind. You shall polish and refine my sentiments of Life and Manners, banish all the unsocial and ill natured Particles in my Composition, and form me to that happy Temper, that can reconcile a quick Discernment with a perfect Candour.

Abigail was that and more for John. His counselor and confidant, the one that even at the age of 61 and President of the United States, he could “do nothing without,” Abigail, while managing his beloved farm and caring for family, provided him with local news and gossip, advice, and a sympathetic ear. Likewise, for Abigail, when faced with trials of her own, she looked forward to a reunion with her dearest friend, where “I come to place my head upon your Bosom and to receive and give that consolation which sympathetick hearts alone know how to communicate.”

When Abigail died on October 28, 1818, just days after their fifty-fourth wedding anniversary, a heartbroken John wrote to his son John Quincy Adams, “My consolations are more than I can number. The Separation cannot be So long as twenty Separations heretofore. The Pangs and the Anguish have not been So great as when you and I embarked for France in 1778. . . . Love to your Wife. May you never experience her Loss.”

If you would like to learn more about this great American love story, the Abigail Adams Historical Society in Weymouth, MA, is holding a multi-day celebration and conference including remarks from Sara Martin, the Series Editor of the Adams Family Correspondence series, on October 24–26, 2014. Click here for more information.

 

 

Images:  Abigail Adams. Pastel on paper by Benjamin Blyth, circa 1766. Artwork 01.026; John Adams. Pastel on paper by Benjamin Blyth, circa 1766. Artwork 01.027