Adams Family Correspondence, volume 7

Descriptive List of Illustrations


xix image Introduction Introduction

Continuing the saga of the Adams family, volume 7 of the Adams Family Correspondence covers the period between January 1786 and February 1787, during which time John, Abigail, and their daughter Abigail 2d (Nabby) resided in London, while John Quincy, Charles, and Thomas Boylston pursued studies at Harvard College in Massachusetts. The ongoing separation of the family was becoming increasingly difficult for all of them but led to a particularly rich correspondence revealing the Adamses' perspectives on both intimate family matters and major national and world events. In nearly 200 letters sent back and forth over a mere fourteen months, the Adamses discussed births and deaths, marriages and schooling, literature and theater, the intricacies of international politics in Europe and the complexities of domestic life in Braintree—whatever was on the mind of various immediate and extended family members.

As in previous volumes, Abigail Adams remains the central figure in this set of correspondence. Nearly three-quarters of the letters are either to or from Abigail—68 from her and another 67 to her. A substantial portion of those were between Abigail and her sisters, Mary Smith Cranch and Elizabeth Smith Shaw, to whom she conveyed her most intimate and unguarded thoughts, believing, as she wrote to her son, that “never was there a stronger affection than that which binds in a threefold cord your Mamma and her dear sisters. Heaven preserve us to each other for many Years to come.”1 The sisters, having shared experiences as wives and mothers, could write to one another in ways they could not to children or spouses. During this period when John and Abigail were only rarely separated and consequently not writing letters to one another, the relationships among the three sisters provide the central core of the family correspondence.

Abigail maintained copious communications with numerous other friends and family beyond her sisters, a labor she sometimes found burdensome: “I dare not reckon the Number I have to write; least I should feel discouraged in the attempt.” Although maintain-xxing such a large correspondence was time consuming, she still took care to revise her letters substantially in both content and style, as extant drafts demonstrate. Abigail even used her insomnia to advantage in pursuing such an active letter-writing life: two nights after her daughter's wedding, unable to sleep, she sat up at “four oclock morg” to write her sister news of the event.2

But Abigail is by no means the only family correspondent represented in these pages. Abigail 2d and John Quincy continued to write their “journal-letters” to one another, adding paragraphs day by day in diary fashion as they chronicled their activities in London and Cambridge, respectively. John Adams also participated in the family correspondence, of course, but his public letter-writing, along with work on his three-volume A Defence of the Constitutions toward the end of 1786, distracted him from family matters and significantly reduced the total number of letters he wrote to the family in this period. Still, he managed to find time to write occasionally to his children, to his brother-in-law Richard Cranch, to Abigail's uncle Cotton Tufts, and, of course, to Abigail during the brief periods when travel separated them.

The Adamses in London

Since 1785, John, Abigail, and Abigail 2d had lived in London while John served as the United States' minister plenipotentiary to Great Britain. At the same time, John, along with Thomas Jefferson, had been commissioned to negotiate commercial treaties for the United States with a number of different countries, including Portugal, Prussia, and the Barbary States, not to mention Britain itself. The job of negotiating a commercial treaty with the British was thankless. John received little support from the moribund Continental Congress and had few indications that any progress was likely, particularly given the United States' own reluctance to live up to the terms of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolution. America's failure to pay its debts and respond to loyalist land claims as required by the peace treaty gave Britain ample opportunity to refuse to negotiate until the United States addressed such issues. Furthermore, lingering resentments in the wake of Britain's defeat made John's position uncomfortable in London society. Abigail noted in one letter home that “the Laws of Nations require civility xxitowards Publick Ministers. This we receive, but our Country is vilifye'd by every hireling scribler.” She went on to describe the snubbing John received from the Royal Academy, which refused to invite him to their annual dinner, contrary to the custom of inviting all foreign ministers. Worse yet, in the wake of Margaret Nicholson's attempted stabbing of George III, Abigail 2d reported to her brother that “it has been observed in the Papers, that Mr Adams left the Kingdom for the Netherlands the very day after the attempt was made up on his Majestys Life. These people are below contempt.”3

Beyond such obvious slights, both Abigail and her daughter found London society superficial and tiring. The endless cycle of visiting and the evening parties of card games and meaningless conversation—an almost ritualized routine—bored them. Even visits with royalty failed to interest them. Describing their attendance at the celebration of the queen's birthday, Abigail 2d mocked her meeting with George III, commenting that she and Abigail “at last got into the room, and situated ourselvs, so that the King spoke to us very soon. He has askd me one question for these three Months—(do you get out much this weather) instructive, improving, indeed.” Apart from the danger of being “squeezed to death between the post of the door, and half a dozen great Hoops” from ladies' dresses at these social affairs, Nabby found little about them entertaining. The insipid quality of such activities, combined with the social snubs, left Abigail to lament, “Do not laugh at us my dear sister, may you never know what it is to be in the midst of the World, and yet feel alone. Here are we four, and no more. Do you know that company is widely different from Society?”4

Still, despite the professional difficulties and the personal distaste for London society, the Adamses made the most of their time in Great Britain, continuing to enjoy the London theater; attending parties and dinners, particularly with other expatriate Americans; and visiting many of Britain's famed estates. They particularly favored travel and used the opportunities caused by lulls in diplomatic activity to see more of Great Britain, both together and separately. In April, John went off with Thomas Jefferson, who was visiting from Paris, to tour English gardens. John's departure marked a milestone for the couple: as Abigail wrote to her sister, “This is the first Tour he has made since I first came abroad, during which time we have lived longer unseperated, than we have ever done before xxiisince we were married.”5 Other trips included visits to Windsor Castle and to Thomas Brand Hollis' estate, The Hyde, in Essex.

In August, Abigail and John ventured even further abroad. John had to travel to The Hague to sign the Prussian-American Treaty, and Abigail decided to accompany him. This was Abigail's first and only trip to the Netherlands, the scene of some of John's greatest diplomatic successes. Abigail, as always, had much to say about the entire nation, from its “singular appearance” and bad roads to the monotony of its countryside: “There is a silence and a dead calm which attends travelling through this Country, the objects which present themselves are meadows, Trees, and Canals, Canals Trees, and meadows, such a want of my dear variety, that I really believe an English Robber would have animated me.” But she also found much to admire, including clean cities and the “politeness and attention” of its people, which she believed exceeded that of all the other places she had visited. Moreover, Abigail used the opportunity of her visit to comment on the United States' relative neglect of its relationship with the Dutch, a particular affront to Abigail given John's central role in creating that friendship.6

Besides travel, one major family event did much to break the Adamses' routine in London and dominate the family's correspondence for a time: Nabby's marriage to William Stephens Smith in June. The first child to marry, Abigail 2d had met Smith the previous summer when he became secretary to her father upon their move to London. While Smith apparently quickly developed an affection for Nabby, she was still formally engaged to Royall Tyler at the time. At Abigail's urging, Smith left for Prussia in the summer of 1785 to give Nabby an opportunity to resolve the situation with Tyler, whom she subsequently dismissed because of what the family perceived as his ongoing neglect of Nabby and their relationship. When Smith returned to London in late 1785, the relationship with Nabby blossomed and they became formally engaged.7

Despite Abigail 2d's dismissal of Royall Tyler, he remained an important and frequent topic in family letters, especially since he continued to board at the home of Mary and Richard Cranch in Braintree. The lingering insult of his alleged mistreatment of Nabby, xxiiicombined with the widespread rumors of his fathering an illegitimate child with Elizabeth Hunt Palmer, made him the source of numerous attacks, especially from Mary Cranch, who had always opposed his relationship with Nabby. Even as Cranch claimed to be indifferent to Tyler and glad to have the family rid of him, she continued to write about him at great length, attacking both his unfaithfulness to Nabby and his overall character.8

Abigail too criticized Tyler, though she clearly felt more ambivalence about him than Mary Cranch did, generally condemning his behavior but not necessarily his whole character. She wrote to Charles Storer (another would-be suitor of Nabby's) about Tyler: “I wish the Gentleman well. He has good qualities, indeed he has, but he ever was his own Enemy.” Abigail was more concerned with Nabby's character and with assuring her family that Nabby had acted with the utmost propriety in becoming engaged again so quickly after her dismissal of Tyler. Relieved by John Quincy's indication that Nabby's “conduct meets the approbation of her Friends” back in Massachusetts, Abigail turned her focus to praising Nabby's new beau, who she believed “possesst all those qualifications necessary to make a faithfull and agreeable companion.”9

Abigail found her daughter's marriage a mixed blessing: She was pleased with Nabby's choice for a husband, describing him as “a Gentleman esteemed by all who know him, and equally beloved by his Friends and acquaintance,” but distressed by the Smiths' decision to move out of Grosvenor Square and set up house on their own. Lonely in a foreign country, with few intimate friends, Abigail found it hard to be separated from her only daughter, even if by only a few blocks. She noted that “tho they dine with us every day, it feels very Lonesome I assure you.” John too struggled with this transition; as Abigail reported, “The morning after they went to housekeeping Mr Adams went into his Libriary after Breakfast, and I into my chamber where I usually spend my forenoons. Mr A commonly takes his daily walk about one oclock, but by eleven he came into my room with his Hat and cane, 'and a Well I have been to See them: what said I could not you stay till your usual Hour, no I could xxivnot he replied, I wanted to go before Breakfast.'”10 Equally distressing to Abigail and John was the prospect of a more distant, permanent separation when both the Adamses and the Smiths returned to the United States. In all likelihood, the Smiths would go back to William's home state of New York, while John and Abigail planned to return to their native Massachusetts.

Abigail 2d herself is relatively silent on her engagement, hinting at it only obliquely in letters to her brother, though the crucial letter in which she announced her engagement to John Quincy has apparently been lost. Always more circumspect than her mother in writing about herself, Nabby characteristically gives only brief comments on her new status, though she does describe herself as “perfectly Contented.” By fall, Nabby was pregnant with the Adamses' first grandchild, born in early April 1787, and Abigail was deeply engrossed in preparations for the event. She informed her sister that “we have advised col Smith to give up his House and return here again, as it will be vastly inconvenient to me to have her out of the family, no sister no cousin no Aunt who could be at all with her.”11 Her regret that her sisters and nieces were unavailable to help with preparations speaks to the communal nature of childbirth at the time and further highlights the isolation and lack of close female companionship Abigail felt in London.

By early 1787, the Adamses spoke frequently of returning to the United States within the year. The lengthy silences from the Continental Congress had grated for many months, and in January, John sent formal notice to that body of his intentions to come home. At the same time, Abigail openly speculated to her sisters about the timing of her return.12 After three years in Europe, whatever excitement or novelty she had found from travel abroad had clearly ended. She had been given ample opportunity to compare Europe and America—a subject she took to heart and frequently dwelled on in her letters—and she found Europe wanting. Abigail longed for home, even as she dreaded a possible separation from daughter Nabby, especially with the birth of her first grandchild impending. What would make that separation bearable for John and Abigail, however, was their reunion with John Quincy, Charles, and Thomas Boylston.

The Adamses in Massachusetts

Back in Massachusetts, the three Adams sons focused on their education. John Quincy had returned from Europe in May 1785, enduring his own separation from his parents and sister in order that he might attend Harvard. While his years of travel in Europe—including a stint as secretary to Francis Dana, then U.S. minister plenipotentiary in Russia—had amply prepared him for college, John Quincy still felt compelled to devote considerable energy to studying for his entrance examinations to his father's alma mater. Harvard required examination on a set list of books; any other knowledge was irrelevant for admission, so John Quincy threw himself into mastering the appropriate material. His aunt Elizabeth Shaw, with whom he stayed during this period, noted that he would allow nothing “but Sickness or Death to impede his Course” of study. He routinely stayed up until one in the morning working, causing Shaw to worry that he might damage his health from excessive reading. Fortunately, he passed his examinations without incident in March 1786, moved to Cambridge, and began his Harvard career, joining his brother Charles, who was already attending the school.13

Once accepted at Harvard, John Quincy found the school something of a disappointment. His busy schedule included a mix of lectures by professors and recitations to tutors by the students in an array of traditional liberal arts subjects, interspersed with studying and preparation for the next round of classes. The “sameness” of his routine frustrated him: “like a horse in a mill, I am going continually the same round.” He also complained about the quality of his professors, many of whom he deemed pompous, ignorant, or both. Even the president of the college, Joseph Willard, did not emerge unscathed from John Quincy's sharp pen: “The reputation of the President is that of a man of great learning, without partiality in favor of any scholars in particular . . . but he has very little knowledge of mankind, and is consequently exceedingly stiff and pedantic, and has made himself ridiculous at times.” Many of the tutors, usually young bachelors and themselves recent graduates from Harvard, had the difficult task of teaching material they had learned only recently. Nonetheless, despite his misgivings and complaints, John Quincy found that “all in all, I am strongly confirmed, in your Opin-xxviion, that this University is upon a much better plan, than any I have seen in Europe.”14

As in previous volumes of the Family Correspondence, the two younger Adams sons play only a limited role. No extant letters from either Charles or Thomas Boylston exist for this period, though references in Abigail's and John's letters clearly indicate that they were writing to their parents in London, at least occasionally. The editors can only speculate as to why those letters have been lost, when the family preserved most other correspondence from these years. It seems unlikely that Abigail or John would have separated Charles' and Thomas' letters from the others they kept; the letters of the two younger brothers were more likely lost or destroyed later on, perhaps by Charles Francis Adams in his work editing the family papers in the nineteenth century, or even by John himself after his falling-out with his son Charles in the 1790s.

Furthermore, only five letters to either Charles or Thomas for this time frame still exist, all printed below. Here, the possibility of accidental loss is more plausible; neither Thomas nor Charles seems to have held on to his correspondence with the same care as their older brother or parents. Given the lengthy period of separation between parents and children, it is also likely that John and Abigail simply continued to view their two youngest children as just that—children—and consequently were less inclined to confide in them or write to them in the great detail they did to their eldest son and to Abigail's sisters and other adult relatives.

Charles and Thomas do appear somewhat more frequently as the subject of correspondence, particularly in letters from Abigail's sisters, with whom both brothers stayed on various occasions. Elizabeth Shaw and her husband Rev. John Shaw had served as surrogate parents to Thomas since before Abigail's departure for Europe and spoke of him with great warmth and affection, encouraging Abigail and John to feel the same. John Shaw was also Thomas' tutor, preparing him for the admissions examinations, which Thomas successfully completed in the summer of 1786, thus joining his two elder brothers at Harvard. Likewise, the Cranches played host to all three Adams brothers during the various university vacations. Mary Cranch wrote feelingly of her joy at their presence in her home, even if it was only for short periods of time: “I long for their vacancys to commence as much, and I believe more than they do. We xxviihave a bustling time tis true and have work enough to do to repair the damages of their late session and prepare them for the next, but the chearfulness they infuse is a full compensation for all that is done for them.” Between arranging their housing at school and sewing their clothes during the vacations, worrying over their health and chiding them to better behavior, the Cranches and Shaws saw to it that all of the Adams brothers were well cared for within a loving extended family.15

Unrest in America

While the Adams brothers worked relatively peacefully toward their degrees at Harvard, events elsewhere in America were causing considerable turmoil—especially in western Massachusetts, where Shays' Rebellion became the most important event of this time period. A rural protest movement that began as early as 1784 but gained significant momentum by the fall of 1786, Shays' Rebellion was a response by farmers in western Massachusetts to the problem of growing debt. A combination of severe economic depression and sharp increases in taxes by the state of Massachusetts had caused financial difficulties for these people, and the state's General Court only exacerbated the situation by demanding that all taxes be paid in hard currency. Among the demands of those participating in the revolt were lower taxes, paper money, an end to debt foreclosures, court reforms, and lower salaries for public officials in order to reduce state expenses. While it began as a peaceful movement, its failure to achieve any of its goals through petitions and legal means eventually led to armed attempts to prevent courts from sitting. Gov. James Bowdoin responded by sending an army under Gen. Benjamin Lincoln to defend the courts and suppress the rebellion. The army successfully crushed the insurgency in late January 1787.16

The Adamses were no supporters of the rebellion and followed the unfolding events with a mix of fear and disgust. Interestingly, of all the Adamses, Abigail reacted the most strongly to Shays' Rebel-xxviiilion. She had little patience with a “lawless Banditti” who would oppose Massachusetts' government, arguing that the changes they suggested would “create themselves a Tyrant e'er long.” A loyal wife, she reacted furiously to any challenge to the state constitution her husband had so carefully crafted just a few years before. She blamed the increase of debt in Massachusetts and throughout the United States on too much love of luxury, a fundamental misunderstanding on her part of the very real economic difficulties the rebelling farmers faced but a belief not inconsistent with her overarching concern for excessive American debt. Having lived in Britain, Abigail wrote, “I have very different Ideas of the wealth of my Countrymen, to what I had when I left it. Much of that wealth has proved falacious and their debts exceed their property. Economy and industery may retrive their affairs. I know that the Country is capable of great exertions but in order to this, they must curtail their Ideas of Luxery and refinement.” She even debated this subject with no less a figure than Thomas Jefferson, who held a much more sanguine view of events: “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. . . . I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the Atmosphere.” In the end, Abigail remained unswayed by Jefferson's perspective and strongly endorsed a military solution to the rebellion; as the volume closes, she waited impatiently for word from Massachusetts that the danger had passed.17

In the end, Shays' Rebellion had little immediate impact on the well-being of the Adams family. The insurgents never reached Cambridge, despite fears they might try to prevent the sitting of the court there, and after their military rout, the rebellion petered out as a force in Massachusetts. But it became symbolic of wider problems with the American political system. Abigail, on the frontlines of diplomatic efforts in Europe, foresaw the increasing danger of a weak central government for the United States. “Do the united States wish to become the Scorn of Europe and the laughing Stock of Nations,” she asked, “by withholding from Congress those powers which would enable them to act in concert, and give vigor and strength to their proceedings.”18 She saw firsthand how the ineffectiveness of the Continental Congress limited John's ability to fulfill xxixhis commissions and experienced routinely the difficulties caused by Congress' lack of money and clarity of policy. Her views, of course, were also underscored by her interpretation of Shays' Rebellion. If the United States had had a more coherent economic plan that discouraged excessive consumption, she felt, such a rebellion would never have occurred in the first place. She was not alone. A consensus was slowly emerging on the need for reform of the government in order to insure its ultimate stability and the United States' ability to compete on the world stage. This set the stage for the Constitutional Convention that was due to open in Philadelphia in just a few months' time.

Notes on Editorial Method

The editors of Adams Family Correspondence are guided by the editorial principles outlined in the “Notes on Editorial Method” sections of volumes 1 (p. xli–xlviii), 3 (p. xxxvii–xlii), and 5 (p. lviii–lxiii). A few policy changes have been implemented, however, since the publication of volumes 5 and 6.

The most substantial change is one of form. Beginning with the present volume, Adams Family Correspondence volumes will no longer be published in pairs. This and each future volume will be an independent entity containing an introduction, a guide to editorial apparatus, a list of omitted documents, a chronology, and an index. The editors believe that readers will find fully complemented volumes easier to use.

The editors continue to select letters for the Adams Family Correspondence that explore the thought, reveal the character, and narrate the action of the Adamses in their domestic life. Letters written to and from John and Abigail Adams and their children on domestic matters are generally included. The principle exceptions are letters written to and from John on public matters, even if the correspondents are members of the Adamses' extended family. Those letters are reserved for publication in Series III, Papers of John Adams, and are not included in the List of Omitted Documents.

Letters exchanged between relatives outside of the immediate family (including the spouses of John and Abigail's children) are printed here only if they contribute unusual insight into the domestic lives of the Adams family. Such letters are omitted silently. The List of Omitted Documents in each volume includes only letters written to and from John and Abigail and their children on domestic xxxmatters that have been omitted because they are routine or repetitive.

The editors continue to rely whenever possible on the recipient's copies of letters as the most reliable source of the texts that actually passed from writer to reader. When recipient's copies are not available, letterbook copies, drafts, transcripts, or published collections are used. Descriptive notes list all forms of each letter considered in collation and describe how each was used in the preparation of the published text.

In some instances, the editors have been fortunate enough to have access both to recipient's copies and to drafts of individual letters. When this has occurred, the two versions have been compared for significant differences in style and content, which are noted in the annotation. More minor differences of style, such as subtle rewording or changes to capitalization, spelling, or punctuation, are not noted. Archival location information for both versions is always provided for readers who wish to examine more closely the differences between them.

Finally, to incorporate a slightly more literal rendering of the text, the following adjustments in editorial policy have been made:

Capitalization of proper names and geographical terms follows that in the manuscript.

Abbreviations and contractions are preserved as found throughout the document unless confusion or misunderstanding may result. The ampersand (&) is retained in the form of &c. (for etc.), in the names of firms, and in polite closings; elsewhere it is rendered as and.

Punctuation following all abbreviations and contractions is rendered as in the manuscript.

Volume 7 of the Adams Family Correspondence contains 189 printed letters and 20 omitted letters chronicling the lives of the Adamses. This material, however, does not stand in isolation. It should be read in conjunction with the comments of John Adams in his Diary and Autobiography, 3:181–203, and with the Diary of John Quincy Adams, 1:381–415 and 2:1–167, which provides particularly vivid discussion of the months John Quincy spent with the Shaws and his school life at Harvard. Future volumes of the Papers of John Adams will also supplement the family correspondence of this period by documenting John Adams' public writings, which highlight his work on various treaty negotiations and his ongoing service as U.S. minister plenipotentiary to Great Britain.


AA to JQA, 16 Feb. 1786, below.


AA to Lucy Cranch, 20 July 1786; AA to Mary Smith Cranch, 13 June 1786, both below.


AA to Charles Storer, 22 May 1786; AA2 to JQA, 27 July 1786, both below.


AA2 to JQA, 9 Feb. 1786 ; AA to Mary Smith Cranch, 4 July 1786, both below.


AA to Mary Smith Cranch, 6 April 1786, below.


For AA's descriptions of the Netherlands, see her letters to AA2 of 11 , 15, and 23 Aug. 1786, and to Mary Smith Cranch of 12 Sept. 1786, all below.


For an extended discussion of the relationship between AA2 and Royall Tyler, see vol. 5:xxiv–xxv, xxxviii–xxxix.


Nearly all of Mary Smith Cranch's letters to AA contain some reference to Tyler with varying degrees of vitriol. See, for example, those of 9 Feb. 1786, 22 March 1786, 21 May 1786, and 2 July 1786, all below. For the charge of an affair between Tyler and Elizabeth Hunt Palmer, see Mary Smith Cranch to AA, 24 Sept. 1786, and 8 and 9 Oct. 1786, all below.


AA to Charles Storer, 22 May 1786; AA to JQA, 16 Feb. 1786, both below. For an extended discussion of the development of AA2's relationship with WSS from her mother's perspective, see AA to Mary Smith Cranch, 13 June 1786, below.


AA to Mary Smith Cranch, 13 June 1786 and 4 July 1786, both below.


AA2 to Elizabeth Cranch, 18 July 1786; AA to Mary Smith Cranch, 20 Jan. 1787, both below.


JA wrote to Congress on 24 Jan. 1787 (PCC, No. 84, VI, f. 392-395); see AA to Mary Smith Cranch, 25 Feb. 1787, below.


Elizabeth Smith Shaw to AA, 2 Jan. 1786; Mary Smith Cranch to AA, 9 Feb. 1786; and JQA to AA2, 15 March 1786, all below.


JQA to AA2, 1 April 1786; JQA to AA2, 15 March 1786; and JQA to JA, 2 April 1786, all below. See also JQA to AA2, 25 April 1786 and 18 May 1786, both below.


Mary Smith Cranch to AA, 21 May 1786, below. For examples of Elizabeth Shaw's and Mary Cranch's attitudes toward CA and TBA, see, for instance, Shaw to AA, 18 March 1786 and 23 July 1786, and Cranch to AA, 9 Feb. 1786 and 14 July 1786, all below.


Numerous book-length histories of Shays' Rebellion have been written over the years, beginning with George Richards Minot, The History of the Insurrections, in Massachusetts, in the Year MDCCLXXXVI, and the Rebellion Consequent Thereon, Worcester, Mass., 1788 (rpt. N.Y., 1971). For more recent analysis of the rebellion, see David P. Szatmary, Shays' Rebellion: The Making of an Agrarian of an Insurrection, Amherst, Mass., 1980, and Leonard L. Richards, Shays's Rebellion: The American Revolution's Final Battle, Phila., 2002


AA to Mary Smith Cranch, 25 Feb. 1787; AA to JQA, 22 Nov. 1786; AA to Mary Smith Cranch, 21 May 1786; AA to Thomas Jefferson, 29 Jan. 1787; Thomas Jefferson to AA, 22 Feb. 1787, all below.


AA to JQA, 20 March 1786, below.