Papers of John Adams, volume 3

Descriptive List of Illustrations


xv Introduction Introduction
John Adams in the Congress

During the months covered by these volumes, John Adams spent very little time in Braintree, for he was attending the sessions of the Second Continental Congress. When he did enjoy a respite from his labors in Philadelphia, he spent much of his time in Watertown as a member of the Massachusetts Council, or upper branch of the legislature, which also exercised executive powers in the absence of a royal governor. Away from home in Pennsylvania, Adams was eager for news of Boston and the province. Men like James Warren, Joseph Ward, and William Tudor were his eyes and ears in Massachusetts. He wanted to know about former law clerks, about the performance of generals, about the operations of the Massachusetts government, and about dozens of other matters. His thirst for information was unquenchable. But he also had things to tell concerning which he wanted advice. Although his constant complaint was that he was borne down by ever-expanding responsibilities—I have a minute when I need an hour, he protested—he managed to keep a surprising volume of correspondence flourishing. In a single day he sometimes wrote a half-dozen letters full of detail, none of them merely repetitive. If one considers that he had also begun to keep a letterbook, his labors command even more respect. He wrote to friends, political associates, generals and lesser officers, aspiring young lawyers, and colleagues absent from Philadelphia, soaking up information from everyone and pleading for more. Some sought him out first, perhaps to complain or beg, often to find that they had initiated a correspondence.

Beginning with the Battle of Bunker Hill, military affairs became a source of never-ending concern, partly because of his committee responsibilities, but probably even more because of his temperament. Adams was duty-ridden. If he was to be effective in the congress, he had to know who in the field was handling his allotted tasks and who was being overwhelmed by them. Thus he wanted to know about the tactics at Bunker Hill and the casualties on each side. Volume 3 contains five or six accounts of that bloody battle, with conflicting estimates of the killed and wounded. In addition, the two volumes include xviassessments of General Artemas Ward, who was responsible for Boston's defense after its evacuation, and of other officers like Richard Gridley, Henry Knox, David Wooster, Philip Schuyler, and men less well known to history. Adams was much concerned about the defense of his beloved Massachusetts and pleased when he could tell correspondents that expert riflemen were being sent northward to support the troops. Before long he was receiving reports of the obstreperousness of the riflemen, their refusal to obey orders, and the disruption they were causing. Adams took an interest not only in tactical and strategic matters but in the education of officers, compiling a list of authorities that should be read and that he felt should be added to Harvard's library. When officers were considered for promotion, his constant query was, How well were they educated? What were their erudition, presence, and family background? Were they men of reflection? After the British evacuated Boston, Adams wrote letter after letter urging proper measures for the security of the harbor and relaying plans for defense sent to him by Josiah Quincy Sr. The news that British naval vessels lingered on to prey upon American shipping wounded his pride. Correspondents kept him well informed of the bungling that preceded the warships' ultimate removal.

In this period one of the major issues had to do with soldiers' pay. In the opinion of southern officers and delegates to the congress, New England did not make a sufficient distinction between the pay of officers and men. Several of Adams' correspondents attributed to the essentially aristocratic temper of southern life the desire of southerners to reduce soldiers' pay. The letters are dotted with revealing comments on the distinctions between New England “equality” and southern emphasis on class distinctions. Adams shared the convictions of his correspondents, even to the point of believing that his ideas on government would never find acceptance among the southern colonies because his principles were too “popular” for them, although not popular enough for New England. He was, however, anxious to prevent such differences from becoming divisive. He felt that nothing could be done about soldiers' pay if raising it and reducing that of officers would jeopardize cooperation among the colonies. And when northern jealousy of alleged favoritism in promotions for southern officers flared up, he sought to mollify the aggrieved.

Adams' wish not to confront issues that would hinder united effort probably accounts for his apparent lack of interest in the slavery question. He received two anonymous letters urging abolition, one carefully reasoned and suggesting that freed blacks be established on land in xviiCanada, the other semi-literate but compelling in its simplicities. He also preserved an anti-slavery letter addressed to his colleague Thomas Cushing and a proposal sent to himself by Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant which would have let slaves win their freedom by serving in the army. Apart from telling Sergeant that South Carolina would vehemently oppose such a measure, Adams confined himself to asking generals how many blacks there were among New England troops. His concern arose from charges that northern forces had too many blacks and old men. Abigail's condemnation of slavery as inconsistent with the cause of liberty drew no recorded response from him. Indeed, Adams seems not to have seen the Revolutionary crisis as a time for social change. He and John Winthrop agreed that institutional alterations in 1776 would be like making repairs on a burning house.

What Adams wanted was the establishment of independent governments for each of the colonies. These could be a long step toward the independence that many of the members of the congress were so reluctant to accept.1 The kind of interim government, based on the charter, that Massachusetts had settled for, Adams saw as a politically acceptable rather than satisfactory arrangement. Thus he welcomed from James Warren, John Winthrop, Joseph Palmer, and others who had firsthand knowledge any information about the workings of the province government. Adams helped to settle the quarrel between the House and the Council over the right of the lower branch to participate in the choice of field officers, a constitutional issue that threatened the very functioning of a wartime government. He supported the claims of the House.

Once the congress had finally resolved to urge the formation of new governments, and Adams had written a stirring preamble to the resolve, he was eager for Massachusetts to proceed to elections for a governor. But he was dismayed when talk of a new constitution led some correspondents and newspaper writers to suggest extending the right to vote, reconstituting the legislature, and creating more probate courts and offices for the registering of deeds. To one of these would-be reformers, Adams explained at length why a property qualification for the franchise should be continued with encouragement for more widespread propertyholding and why women should not have the vote.2 A leveling spirit and changes proposed by ignorant amateurs could only do harm to the cause that still had to be fought for.


It is well known that, at the request of several colleagues, Adams sketched out a form of government that might be used as a model by colonies emerging into states. Actually he wrote four versions, only one being printed in his own day, of what came to be called Thoughts on Government.3 He kept pretty much to forms familiar to him, recognizing that regional differences would have to be taken into account by those drafting state constitutions. In this as in other matters, one could go no further than the people were ready to follow. Notwithstanding Adams' belief, widely shared by political thinkers of the time, that man had a great propensity for evil behavior, a kind of optimism characterizes his outline of government. He asserts that if the right form is established, one that separates the functions of government and allows the legislature, the executive, and the courts to check and balance each other, republicanism and the virtue upon which it must depend can be preserved and encouraged. Such optimism is not surprising, for when Adams wrote, he was devoting much of his energy to promoting independent governments. The congressional resolve on the subject came a month and a half after he composed Thoughts on Government.

When Adams wrote in private to Mercy Otis Warren, however, he sounded a different note.4 His earlier optimism gave way to pessimism about the future of republicanism in America. He assailed the “Spirit of Commerce” as a grave threat to domestic relations and a promoter of turbulence in government. Having penetrated even New England, this spirit was “incompatible with that purity of Heart, and Greatness of soul which is necessary for an happy Republic.” The immediate occasion for these thoughts may have been the opening of trade on 6 April, a measure long debated in the congress.

Adams' fears were not new, only newly aroused. In the fall of 1775 he had exchanged ideas with several correspondents on the wisdom of opening up trade. The discussion was conducted by both sides largely in strategic terms. Despite the obvious risks, would opening up trade help the American cause and strike a blow at Britain? Even though this was the determining question, Adams was obviously attracted by the stratagem of a complete embargo. He was convinced that self-sufficiency was possible if the people would give up luxuries and switch from export products like indigo and tobacco to those like flax and wool that could be consumed entirely in the domestic production of clothing and cloth. He equated trade with acquired tastes in xixdress, furniture, architecture, and the like. The sacrifice of luxuries would be giving up “Trifles in a contest of Liberty.”5 Although Adams recognized the economic impact on many that would result from cutting off all trade, he saw the problem largely in moral terms: “the Question is whether our People have Virtue enough to be mere Husbandmen, Mechaniks and Soldiers? That they have not Virtue enough to bear it always, I take for granted. How long then will their Virtue last? Till next Spring?”6 The italicized phrase is significant. Adams was not writing about the virtue of only a temporary sacrifice; for him, contentment with simple ways and work, the eschewing of all luxuries made possible by trade, was a key to virtue. The baleful influence of the “Spirit of Commerce” was a theme taken up by later generations of Adamses, some of whom were punished by their failure adequately to meet its demands.

However much Adams delighted in explicating the abstract principles underlying free governments, and however often he saluted the logic of events that was sweeping the colonies toward independence, he remained a consummate politician with a lively sense of the possible and a willingness to use his influence. To those who wrote from Massachusetts in the spring of 1776 asking impatiently why independence was not being declared, he acknowledged that “vast majorities” saw the need for the decisive step, but “patience, patience” was needed—and instructions from each of the colonies. Later he told Warren that “we cannot march faster than our Constituents will follow us.”7 He tried to placate not only the impatient but those angered by the release of the traitor Benjamin Church on parole. He had ideas about political strategy also. When it came time to think of choosing a governor for Massachusetts (Adams thought the decision was imminent), he cautioned against factionalism. He wanted his friends, who were among the leading politicians in the province, to caucus and to reach a consensus on the man who should have the job so that public disagreements would be avoided.

Adams did not hesitate to use his position to advance the career of others. With some justice, he would have described his recommendations to Washington and other commanders for preferment of friends and acquaintances and their sons and of former law clerks as ways of advancing the common cause. He knew a good man when he saw one, and the country needed good men. Given the situation that America xxfaced, Adams' use of influence can be seen as a service. An army was being built out of men unknown for the most part beyond their own communities. Commanders needed help in selecting officers, and delegates in the congress like Adams could provide information about candidates from their own areas. That is why Adams actively sought recommendations for preferment from correspondents he trusted, and why he was so impatient with the Massachusetts government for naming men to high rank without bothering to tell its delegation in the congress what qualifications the appointees had. Adams was not just a servant of a cause; he formed warm attachments, and, humanly enough, he wanted advancement of those for whom he felt affection and respect. It is to his credit that he was circumspect; he often replied that it would not be fitting for him to act through the congress, that he should not interfere with the chain of command. Moreover, he stood to gain nothing personally from the recommendations that he made. Adams was not unique, of course, in pressing consideration of the merits of men he knew something about, and he received at least as many requests for preferment as he made himself. One instance of his exercise of influence tells something about not only his attitudes but also the assumptions of his day. When it was learned that the elder son of former Governor Ward of Rhode Island had enlisted and his younger brother had obtained a commission, Adams successfully urged rectification of this unseemly situation. Charles Ward promptly became an ensign.

Besides his political acumen, Adams showed a capacity for and skill in committee work that placed him on several of the most important committees in this period. Besides serving as the president of the Board of War and Ordnance, he was directly responsible for producing two reports which were accepted by the congress with little alteration and whose influence was long lasting. As a member of the Naval Committee in the fall of 1775 he drafted rules for regulating the Continental Navy.8 Although the body of rules was largely a compilation from British regulations, Adams kept in mind the character and needs of Americans, adapting and rejecting with care, so that his work has remained the basis for the governance of the United States Navy down into our own time. He was also a member of the committee charged with drawing up a declaration of independence, but he contributed almost nothing to its language; rather, his energies were devoted to securing the passage of the resolution of indepen-xxidence on 1–2 July.9 Colleagues testified afterward that his efforts were critically important. Soon after the Declaration of Independence was adopted, Adams produced a draft of a plan of treaties for the committee assigned that responsibility. The plan laid down the principles that with few exceptions would guide American diplomatists up to World War II.10 Adams strongly favored treaties of commerce in preference to military alliances.

The picture of Adams that emerges in these two volumes is of a man punishing himself with committee work, yet somehow thriving on the demands made upon or readily assumed by him, despite his complaints of exhaustion and bad health and of the disgust he felt with some of his colleagues. It was an exciting, lively world Adams dwelt in, with its ups and downs of boredom and discouragement, achievement and triumph. He yearned for home and family, agonizing over his helplessness when friends wrote of Abigail's or the children's illnesses; yet he stuck it out month after month. When the Battle of Long Island loomed, he wrote to Warren: “I thought it would not be well to leave my Station here.... It will be necessary to have Some Persons here, who will not be Seized with an Ague fit, upon the Occasion.”11 He knew that he was at the center of great events. Vanity, however humble its guise, duty, and a sense of history kept him at his tasks.

Notes on Editorial Method

To the description of the editorial method set forth in the Papers of John Adams, 1:xxxi–xxxv, some additions need to be made. As promised there, we have begun to be more rigorous in our selection of documents. For the period covered in Volumes 3 and 4 (May 1775–28 Aug. 1776), we have omitted thirty-seven, all but two being letters. Most of those not printed repeat what is said in the letters included, or they are routine—letters of transmittal, thank-you notes, and the like. More than half of the documents not printed are referred to or, occasionally, quoted from, with their location indicated. The number of such omissions is certain to grow as the volume of materials increases.

Earlier volumes of The Adams Papers sought to make a distinction between endorsements and docketings on correspondence. The former were said normally to be written by the addressee “at or near the time xxiiof receipt”; the latter usually by other than the addressee at a later time, often for purposes of filing.12 The editors had so much difficulty trying to maintain this distinction that they abandoned it in favor of the single term “docketed.” It proved impossible in many instances to state with certainty whether on letters received John Adams noted the writer's name and the date at the time of receipt or weeks or months later. Only after long lapses of time, when his handwriting had changed, could a distinction be made. For addressees outside the Adams family, the task was in most instances virtually impossible. When the lapse of time is obvious, however, or when the handwriting is clearly not that of the addressee, such facts are noted.

One or two other routine procedures can be usefully mentioned. Cross references omit mention of the year in dates if it is the same as the document being annotated. The location of letters mentioned as received or sent is not given if the writer furnishes an exact date (“yours of the 6th ultimo”) and if such letters are included in these volumes. If the writer refers merely to “my last letter” or “your recent letter,” such references are clarified in a note. Documents dated on the same day are arranged as follows: letters by John Adams, alphabetically by recipient, followed by official communications that he wrote or contributed to; letters to Adams, alphabetically by sender, followed by communications addressed to him (and others) in his official capacity. After these categories come third-party letters and official documents (credentials to the congress, and so on).

By checking standard reference works, the editors have made a reasonable effort to identify the quotations that occasionally embellish the letters of Adams and his correspondents, although a number remain unidentified. All but the most obvious Latin phrases have been translated in the notes, with or without the source being named. In these two volumes there is only one document in French, but in subsequent volumes there will be many more. To satisfy both scholars and general readers, we have decided to follow each document that is in a foreign language with a translation, so labeled and set in smaller type.


The precise time of JA's firm commitment to independence is hard to pinpoint. See JA to James Warren, 6 June i.e. July 1775, first letter, note 6, and Robert J. Taylor, “John Adams: Legalist as Revolutionist,” MHS, Procs. , 89 [1977]:67–71.


To James Sullivan, 26 May 1776.


Ante 27 March–April 1776.


16 April 1776.


To James Warren, 20 Oct. 1775, first letter.


To James Warren, 19 Oct. 1775, third letter; italics supplied.


To James Warren, 22 April 1776; to Mercy Otis Warren, 16 April 1776; to James Warren, 18 May 1776.


JA's Service in the Congress, 13 Sept. – 9 Dec. 1775, No. VIII.


JA's Copy of the Declaration of Independence, [ante 28 June 1776].


Plan of Treaties, 12 June – 17 Sept. 1776.


To James Warren, 17 Aug. 1776.


Adams Family Correspondence , 1:xlvi, note 70.