Adams Family Correspondence, volume 3

Introduction Introduction
A Private View of Early American Diplomacy

These volumes begin with John Adams and his son John Quincy aboard the Continental frigate Boston en route from Massachusetts Bay to Bordeaux in France; they end four and a half years later with Adams about to sign on behalf of the United States a treaty of friendship and commerce with the Dutch Republic, and with his son in St. Petersburg at the court of the Empress of All the Russias. Father and son had meanwhile again crossed and recrossed the Atlantic after only a little more than a year's sojourn in France, and on their return had brought back with them nine-year-old Charles Adams on what proved a harrowing voyage, followed by a wintry passage through and over the Pyrenees from the northwest tip of Spain on their way to Paris. Apart from little local visits, Mrs. Adams, her daughter Abigail, and the youngest boy, Thomas Boylston, remained during this whole time in their farm cottage at the foot of Penn's Hill in Braintree. The family was reunited there for only a few months in the summer and fall of 1779.

“I shall assume the Signature of Penelope,” Abigail Adams wrote her husband in the spring of 1782, “for my dear Ulysses has already been a wanderer from me near half the term of years that, that Hero was encountering Neptune, Calipso, the Circes and Syrens.”1 And the worst of it was that she had no way of divining when these wanderings might terminate. On the other hand, she had one consolation denied to Penelope, that of writing and receiving letters. Although, as we shall see, the transatlantic passage of letters by sailing vessels, especially in wartime, was extremely irregular, correspondence made separation tolerable for the Adamses, and it has furnished both for historians and for later readers a highly rewarding personal record.

In Paris, as successor to Silas Deane in the joint American Commission to the French court, John Adams, the son of a Braintree xxiifarmer, sensed that for him a great difficulty, possibly his greatest, would be resisting the worldly pleasures that this capital of European art and social life flaunted. “The Delights of France are innumerable,” he reported to Mrs. Adams over and over again in varying language; and “stern and hauty Republican” as he prided himself on being, he strongly felt their allurements. But since, like his Puritan forebears, he suspected “that the more Elegance, the less Virtue in all Times and Countries,”2 he drew himself back and remembered always—almost always—that he had long since committed himself and his country to “the Choice of Hercules.” In 1776 he had in fact suggested a design from this, his favorite classical fable, as a theme for the Great Seal of the United States.3 After visiting the royal gardens, the great collections of natural history, precious stones, and rare books, and the famous palaces in and about Paris, Adams recurred to Hercules and his choice when writing his wife in 1780:

There is every Thing here that can inform the Understanding, or refine the Taste, and indeed one would think that could purify the Heart. Yet it must be remembered there is every thing here too, which can seduce, betray, deceive, deprave, corrupt and debauch it. Hercules marches here in full View of the Steeps of Virtue on one hand, and the flowery Paths of Pleasure on the other—and there are few who make the Choice of Hercules.4

So by inherited instinct (though not without experiencing counter-instincts), by observation, and by firmly reasoning with himself, Adams concluded that the vaunted arts and the charmed society of Europe were not for America—not yet anyway. All this lay back of his pronouncement, lately become famous, that he must study “Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy” and other useful arts and sciences, “in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture,” and the rest of the fine and decorative arts.5

It was not a Puritanical rejection or an iconoclastic attitude toward the fine arts that led Adams to make such judgments (and he occasionally made still more sweeping ones),6 but what we would today call a sense of priorities. The point is reinforced by the skepticism he showed toward scientific research conducted for its own sake. In the xxiii1780's Europe hummed with new discoveries and newly activated international collaboration in science. Adams did not discount these developments; on the contrary, during his short stay at home in 1779 he broached the plan that led to the immediate founding of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. But in one of the most captivating letters in the present volumes, he put first things first in his characteristic way. From The Hague he reported to his wife a visit he had paid to a learned Dutch naturalist, one Lyonnet, who over the course of many years had assembled the largest collection of caterpillars known to exist, and had illustrated and written them up in a quarto volume dealing not only with their anatomy and such but their “Laws, Government, Manners and Customs.” “I dont know,” Adams added, “whether he teaches the manner of destroying them, and Saving the Apple tree,” and then concluded: “I doubt not the Book is worth studying. All Nature is so.— But I have too much to do, to study Man and his mischievous Designs upon Apple Trees and other Things, ever to be very intimate with Mr. Lionet . . . or his Book.”7

As these passages suggest, Adams' uppermost priority on arriving in Paris in April 1778 was to bring some vigor and order into the proceedings of his badly mismatched colleagues in the American Commission in France, Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee. The story of his efforts is more fully set forth in Adams' Diary and Autobiography than it is in the Family Correspondence, for with spies ubiquitous in Paris (one of them, Edward Bancroft, seems to have had the run of Franklin's house in Passy) and with transatlantic letters subject to seizure and publication as well as loss, Adams only occasionally reported confidential political news in his private letters. During his first diplomatic tour, 1778–1779, his feelings about Franklin, whom he considered at best casual and at worst lazy about business matters, were reserved for his diary. But his “public” letterbooks and the monumental files of his dispatches to Congress, written over his own name or as penman for the Commission, attest his industry in attending to American interests in Europe. He was also “studying French like a school Boy” and buying books on every aspect of European diplomacy and the law of nations, but “fervently” wishing as early as the summer of 1778 that he could “exchange the Elegances and Magnificence of Europe for the Simplicity of Pens Hill.”8

It did not take him long to conclude that even his relentless efforts would not set things to rights between the passive Dr. Franklin and xxivthe paranoid Dr. Lee, and he recommended that the Commission be dissolved. When he learned that his advice had been taken, and that Franklin was to be sole minister, he was, as so often before and afterward in such circumstances, torn by conflicting feelings of relief and frustration. He was nominally free to retreat to Penn's Hill, but because Congress could not make up its collective mind about the best further use it could make of him, he received neither a recall nor orders to proceed elsewhere. To Adams this could appear only as indifference or even contemptuous neglect, and any relief he may have felt at first soon turned to mortification. “The Scaffold is cutt away, and I am left kicking and sprawling in the Mire, I think.”9 “As they have no Business for me in Europe I must contrive to get some for myself at home.”10 But even in this he was frustrated, for after proceeding to Nantes in mid-March to take passage in an American vessel, he had word from the French court that he was to wait for the honor of traveling with the Chevalier de La Luzerne, the new minister to Congress, in a French warship. This honor cost him three mortal months of waiting, and John Adams when forced into idleness tended to conjure up all sorts of dark and self-tormenting reasons for the unhappiness it induced.

The real reason for his frustration, apart from La Luzerne's dilatoriness, was that Congress, irreparably split by the Deane-Lee feud, remained deadlocked for many months over new arrangements for its infant foreign service. Adams' name, with Franklin's, Lee's, and John Jay's, to mention no others, was in the forefront of the recurrent debates over foreign policy throughout 1779, but until a settlement was reached, no one could or would tell him what was going on. At home early in August, after submitting his accounts and writing President Jay a letter that he supposed would be his final testament on America's role among the nations, he plunged into the engrossing and congenial task of drafting a constitution for his native state.11 His draft was in progress when he was notified that he had been elected, at the end of September, sole minister to negotiate treaties of peace and commerce with Great Britain. These important events are not documented in the Family Correspondence (which suffers an unfortunate but unavoidable gap from August to November 1779) xxvexcept by occasional retrospective allusions. But a long editorial note in the present volume outlines their background and significance in relation to the family story.12 The reasons for Adams' prompt and unhesitating acceptance of the new mission, following so closely his discouraging experience and (as he viewed it) his less than grateful treatment by Congress during his first European mission, lay deep in his character and training. Brought up “to believe that the highest duty entailed the greatest labor and privation while offering few chances of success against many of failure” (to quote the editors' own conclusion), Adams found this new challenge irresistible. No formula can sum up a man, but “the struggles, frustrations, bruising quarrels, justified and unjustified boasts, self-dedication, and occasional triumphs of his diplomatic career furnish a paradigm of the Puritan ethic in action.”13 Viewed in this light, the record as here set forth is also suggestive in interpreting the characters and public careers of John Adams' son, John Quincy, and of his grandson, Charles Francis. All three Adams statesmen, whose careers spanned almost a century of American diplomacy, were thorough individualists and differed radically in outward manners and inner dispositions. But their willingness to grasp the nettle of hard and unrewarding duty was an unmistakable genetic trait.

The struggles and privations of John Adams' second mission to Europe, or rather his series of overlapping missions, began on shipboard in November 1779, for the Sensible sprang a dangerous leak and put in at El Ferrol, which Adams estimated was “between three and four hundred Leagues” from Paris. The journey of the motley party by muleback across northern Spain is fully and colorfully related in Adams' Diary and Autobiography , though some further details are added in the Family Correspondence by Adams and his companions. These troubles were nothing, however, compared with those awaiting the peace minister in Paris, or rather Versailles. Vergennes, the foreign minister, was currently conducting delicate and farflung diplomatic maneuvers that he did not wish to have disturbed by an energetic Yankee who seemed never to tire of writing letters full of frank and argumentative advice. Before many months had passed, Vergennes told Adams in language little disguised by diplomatic niceties that he wished to hear nothing further from him, and, addressing the more accommodating Franklin, requested him to submit to Congress xxvia great packet of Adams-Vergennes exchanges with the transparent purpose of having Adams reprimanded. In a letter that later became notorious, Franklin did so, and relations between the two Americans were thereafter never more than coolly correct at best.14

Estopped at Paris and unwilling to be idle, Adams departed at the end of July on a mission that was wholly his own idea. To experienced observers it seemed quixotic enough and therefore characteristic of the independent-minded man from Massachusetts, but it was to win him his greatest success as a diplomat and ultimately to save the financial credit of the United States in Europe—a vital factor in the winning of the American Revolution. With Vergennes' very grudging approval and Franklin's expressed disapproval, Adams set out on “a fishing expedition” to Amsterdam. He knew that America had some political sympathizers in the Netherlands and also that Dutch merchants and capitalists could sniff profits at a great distance. He would reconnoiter and see what could be done to inform himself about the Netherlanders and them about the United States. Starting out, he supposed he would be gone from Paris only a few weeks or months at most. He did not even inform Abigail of his move, with the boys, until after he had been in Amsterdam for a month, and then only in a casual, laconic way.15 But his Dutch mission, undertaken thus tentatively, was to extend, with prolonged interruptions of course, for no less than eight years, that is until he sailed home for good in 1788; and the strongest personal and official ties he was to make abroad for himself and his country were in and with the Dutch Republic. It began as a venture in what was later, and always pejoratively, to be called “militia diplomacy,” although Adams himself furnished the basis for the phrase. In a letter written after a year and a half of unremitting and intrepid labor that brought him close to his first objective—Dutch recognition of American independence—he told Secretary Livingston (whose questioning of Adams' conduct was probably stimulated by the French minister in Philadelphia): “Your Veterans in Diplomaticks and in Affairs of State consider Us as a kind of Militia, and hold Us, perhaps, as is natural, in some degree of Contempt; but wise Men know that Militia sometimes gain Victories over regular Troops, even by departing from the Rules.”16 Later in 1782, xxviihaving negotiated a loan of five million guilders to the United States by a syndicate of Amsterdam bankers, and being on the verge of signing a treaty of amity and commerce between the two powers, he told Francis Dana that if he had asked and accepted the advice of Vergennes and his minions (among whom he certainly included Franklin, Livingston, and not a few members of the Continental Congress),

I should have been forbidden to stir, and should have been here sprawling with hands and feet in the air, pegged, like Ariel, in a rifted Oak; this Republic would at this moment have been seperately at peace, and American Independence would never have been acknowledged by any Power in Europe, except France, untill England should have done it.17

A great part of the material in the present volumes documents Adams' laborious step-by-step progress toward this culmination. It is a story not even yet told in the detail it deserves, because the sources for Adams' prodigious activity as publicist and propagandist for the American cause in the Netherlands during the years 1780–1782 have not yet been finely combed. Adams did not exaggerate in claiming that his successes in the Netherlands were his own. “A Child was never more weary of a Whistle, than I am of Embassies,” he wrote his wife after the States General had voted to recognize him as minister plenipotentiary from the United States and he had been received “in awfull Pomp” by the Prince of Orange, the most “Anglomane” of all Dutchmen, at the Huis ten Bosch:

The Embassy here however has done great Things. . . . It has not only prevailed with a Minister or an absolute Court to fall in with the national Prejudice: but without Money, without Friends, and in Opposition to mean Intrigue it has carried its Cause, by the still small Voice of Reason, and Perswasion, tryumphantly against the uninterrupted Opposition of Family Connections, Court Influence, and Aristocratical Despotism.18

Adams revealingly elaborated on this a little later in writing a close friend:

When I go to Heaven, I shall look down over the Battlements, with pleasure, upon the Stripes and Stars, wantoning in the Wind, at the Hague.—There is another Triumph in the Case sweeter than that over xxviiiEnemies. You know my meaning. It is the triumph of stubborn Independence—Independence of Friends and Foes.19

The final phrase would serve well as a motto for Adams' conduct as a servant of his country.

The Family in Wartime

“If I had realized before you left me that intercourse between us would have been so hazardous,” Abigail Adams wrote her husband eight months after he first sailed for Europe, “I fear my magnanimity would have faill'd me.”20 Truly neither of the partners had sensed what a toll the ocean, enemy cruisers, and careless messengers would take of the letters they wrote each other, and what unbelievable delays would sometimes prolong the transit of those that did get through. It was five months before Mrs. Adams heard of her husband and son's safe arrival, and even then the news did not come directly from them. (In the meantime she had heard, however, that Franklin had been the victim of an assassination attempt, a rumor as persistent as it was false.) The near-perfect rapport between husband and wife came closer to breaking down over the question of whether he was writing her as often and as fully as he should have than over any other during their long separations. The issue was raised, by no means for the first time, in a letter from Abigail at the beginning of 1779 with the tart observation that she had surely

been the most unfortunate person in the world, to loose every Letter you have wrote since your absence, and to receive Only a few lines at various times wrote in the greatest haste, containing only the state of your Health, perhaps making mention of your Son and Servant and then concluding abruptly yours.

I determine very soon to coppy and adopt the very concise method of my Friend.21

Two days later, after “the publick packet” from France arrived at Boston with nothing from him for her, Abigail wrote again in so reproachful a tone that Adams tore up his first three attempts to answer and then (or later) destroyed her letter too because it made him so unhappy. Next day he managed to write an answer he could send:


You should consider, it is a different Thing to have five hundred Correspondents and but one. It is a different Thing to be under an Absolute Restraint and under none. It would be an easy Thing for me to ruin you and your Children by an indiscreet Letter—and what is more it would be easy, to throw our Country into Convulsions.—For Gods sake never reproach me again with writing Scrips scraps. Your Wounds are too deep.22

After this rebuke the issue was to lie dormant rather than wholly disappear, but the record shows that Abigail deserved the sobriquet Penelope she bestowed on herself. In 1780 she was to learn first from others, not from her husband, that he had left Paris for Amsterdam and taken the boys with him. There were intervals of from six months to nearly a year during which she received no letters from any members of her distant family. From early in 1781, letters from all of them, and from Adams' secretary, John Thaxter, were evidently saved up for conveyance by “Commodore” Alexander Gillon in the well-armed South Carolina, which was supposed to sail at any moment from the Texel. But when Gillon finally sailed in August he undertook an adventure of his own, circumnavigated the British Isles, put into Spain for repairs and provisions, sailed again but headed for Havana, took part in the Spanish capture of the Bahamas in May, and did not reach a port in the United States until June 1782. Little Charles Adams was a passenger on the first leg of this remarkable cruise, and for months neither of his parents knew where he was or whether he was alive or dead. He brought no letters for his mother when he arrived at Beverly in January 1782, in the ship Cicero from Bilbao, because another of Gillon's passengers, Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, carried these and continued aboard the South Carolina to Havana. There he transshipped, was captured, threw his letters overboard, and was carried into New York.

This was an extreme case of bad luck, but Abigail's letters mention many others almost as painful. To the Adamses' general and Abigail's particular bad luck must be added John Adams' culpability. There were periods during both his missions when he wrote with furious frequency and voluminousness to Congress reporting on affairs in Europe, daily, sometimes three and four times a day, and copying diplomatic and political documents of enormous length to enclose with his comments. These dispatches appear with very few exceptions to have gotten through, though sometimes only after long delays and suffering the interception of one or another of the multiple copies sent. xxx(For example, the news of Adams' recognition as minister by the Netherlands government in April 1782, though promptly reported by Adams, did not reach Congress from his own hand until mid-September, and, as Secretary Livingston justly pointed out, this momentous event could not be considered official until then.23) But over extended periods Adams simply seems to have written no letters at all to his wife or to members of his family or community circle back home. During his uncertainty about how the Anglo-Dutch war crisis would turn out in the winter of 1780–1781, for instance, there is no evidence that he wrote Abigail between mid-December and mid-March. This is the period during which he was getting his sons placed in the University of Leyden after their bad experience in an Amsterdam school (of which more is said below). The second of these letters, that of 11 March, is indeed a mere “scrip”; and there are none at all to such familiar correspondents as Richard Cranch, the elder Isaac Smith, Cotton Tufts, or the Warrens. All of this points to Adams' disinclination to write home when he was inwardly troubled and had no good news to report. He did not really pick up the threads of his domestic correspondence until after his diplomatic breakthrough at The Hague. This was more or less concurrent with the overthrow of North's government, which gave at least some hope for the beginning of peace negotiations. His letters to Braintree and Boston in the summer and fall of 1782 take on a new frequency, chattiness, and cheerfulness.

Abigail may not have had “five hundred Correspondents,” but she had a good many more than one, and her letters to them furnish almost perpetual delight. She hardly knew how to write a commonplace sentence, and she never wrote a dull letter of any length, because her feelings were always animated and close to the surface, her intelligence razor-sharp, and her style all her own—except when she allowed herself to rise (sink would be a better word) to the pseudo-elegance of Mercy Warren's mistakenly admired classical style.

Complaints about want of news recurred (as we have seen), and so did occasional cries of anguished loneliness. But in her own way Abigail exemplified the Puritan ethic with a fidelity equal to her husband's:

When my Imagination sits you down upon the Gallick Shore, a Land to which Americans are now bound to transfer their affections, . . . I an-xxxiticipate the pleasure you must feel, and tho so many leagues distant share in the joy in finding the great Interest of our Country so generously espoused, and nobly aided by so powerfull a Monarck. . . .

Tho I have been calld to sacrifice to my Country, I can glory in my Sacrifice, and derive pleasure from intimate Connextion with one who is esteemed worthy of the important Trust devolved upon him.24

She was to claim in fact that “Patriotism in the female Sex” is a more “disinterested” virtue than among men:

Excluded from honours and from offices, we cannot attach ourselves to the State or Goverment from having held a place of Eminence. Even in the freest countrys our property is subject to the controul and disposal of our partners, to whom the Laws have given a sovereign Authority. Deprived of a voice in Legislation, obliged to submit to those Laws which are imposed upon us, is it not sufficient to make us indifferent to the publick Welfare? Yet all History and every age exhibit Instances of patriotic virtue in the female Sex, which considering our Situation equals the most Heroick of yours.25

As always when touching on the inequality of the sexes, Abigail allowed the cutting edge of her thought to show, but she was never militant. She found compensation in being entrusted with a man's responsibilities and discharging them with distinction. Wartime scarcities, inflation, and taxes during the continent-wide financial crisis and military stalemate of 1780–1781 were almost too much for even her resourcefulness. That fall she gave a list of prices current that included beef at $8 a pound, cheese at $10, butter at $12, and sheep's wool at no less than $30.26 About the same time she reported that her tenants were refusing to pay their annual rent because it was out of their power: formerly two cows would pay it, but now it would take ten. In addition, after Congress' devaluation of its paper money at the ratio of forty to one—a measure that was a major irritant in the quarrel between her husband and Vergennes—heavy new assessments were laid on, state by state and town by town, to furnish pay and provisions for the dwindling and discontented Continental army. Mrs. Adams struggled hard to meet her substantial part of the Braintree quota, all the harder because there was talk both inside and outside Congress of giving General Washington dictatorial powers to seize the needed funds and supplies. The prospect of subordinating civil xxxiito military authority she pronounced “a most dangerous step, fraught with Evils of many kinds.”27 John Adams must have been prouder than ever of his wife when he read this forthright judgment.

There is much scattered evidence in these volumes to show that Adams rendered material help to his wife by sending her small consignments of European goods, which enabled her to keep her household expenses down and sometimes to obtain hard money when there was no other way to do so. The “presents” of this kind he sent, beginning with his first contact with the Bilbao firm of Gardoqui & Sons in January 1780, and Abigail's lists of desiderata sent in return for French or Dutch merchants to ship, are not without interest for historians of business and of manners; and the saga of certain chests of goods ordered from James Moylan at Lorient runs bewilderingly, and at length comically, through a year and a half of letters among numerous correspondents in these volumes. Although a few priced invoices survive and have been included with the letters, and although Abigail sometimes mentions how much she got for this or that item, the evidence is too fragmentary to tell how well she fared, as a businesswoman, with her imports.

A revealingly feminine, or maybe simply human, note is sounded in other letters Abigail exchanged with her husband in the spring of 1780. There had been discussion of her accompanying him and the two boys on the second voyage, but the idea was given up “because you say a Lady cannot help being an odious creature at sea”—an observation she later proved to her own satisfaction, if the expression may be allowed—“and I will not wish myself in any situation that should make me so to you.”28 Before leaving, it appears that Adams had offered her a sort of placebo. She alluded to it mysteriously as a certain “article . . . for which you gave me Liberty to draw upon you for payment.”29 It was, in fact, “a genteel Chaise,” which the best carriagemaker in Boston had been ordered to build for her.30 Abigail evidently supposed a minister plenipotentiary's wife was entitled to this amenity, but at $300 her husband pronounced the “Machine . . . horribly dear.”31 Another indulgence was of a very different order. As if earnestly rather than merely fancifully desirous of finding a rustic retreat in which she and her husband could take refuge from public cares when he finally came home, Abigail was captivated by xxxiiithe idea of buying a tract of wild land in Vermont. In this she was following a fashion that swept several states during the last years of the war, when it appeared that the United States would become a viable confederation and Vermont would become a part of it. Her acquisition of more than three hundred acres of undeveloped land, traced in these letters, turned out to be her single serious mistake as manager of the family's affairs. Interestingly, it was her one move of the kind that John Adams disapproved from across the Atlantic. “Dont meddle any more with Vermont,” he told her, after she had already committed her carefully gathered funds to make the purchase. And to a friend he somewhat explosively remarked: “God willing, I wont go to Vermont. I must be within the Scent of the sea.” The comment is irresistible that he also had to be within the scent of politics.32

So far as they affected her husband, politics were quite as vital an interest to Abigail as they were to John Adams, “For myself I have little ambition or pride—for my Husband I freely own I have much,” she wrote James Lovell after learning that Congress had revoked Adams' powers as sole minister for peace with Great Britain.33When he is wounded I blead.”34 Her correspondence on the critical subject of foreign affairs, notably Franco-American relations and the personal animosities they engendered, runs throughout these volumes and is a moving revelation of the strength and depth of her feelings. Fortunately her grandson Charles Francis Adams preserved these letters, some of them incomplete and otherwise imperfect drafts written at white heat, along with at least some of the replies from such friends as Lovell and Gerry, but the family editor did not publish them, for Abigail's treatment of Franklin and his French ringmasters—as she believed them to be—was too strong for his stomach. The story cannot and need not be summarized here, but those interested in it will find a good starting point in Alice Lee Shippen's letter addressed to Mrs. Samuel Adams in Boston, 17 June 1781, mistakenly delivered to Mrs. John Adams in Braintree, and can then follow its sequels for almost a year. More Catholic than the Pope, Abigail may never have quite understood why her husband did not then and there resign when xxxivyoked with “a selfish avaritious designing deceitfull Villan”35 under “orders dishonorary to their country.”36

For some readers a startling revelation in these volumes will be the streak of flirtatiousness—the word is not quite adequate or just, and the quality is hard to define—that runs perceptibly through Abigail Adams' homilies on morals and her denunciations of Chesterfieldianism in all its manifestations. (New Englanders of the period were as fascinated by the real-life gallantries of the fourth Earl of Chesterfield as they were by the fictionalized ones of Richardson's Lovelace.) Her correspondence with, among others, young John Thaxter is marked not only by the immemorial feminine preoccupation with matchmaking and all its accompaniments but by a notable susceptibility to flattery. From the hopelessly innocent Thaxter she was in no danger. But in another relationship, though it was purely epistolary, she did run considerable risks. In equal favor as a literary figure with Richardson, Thomson, and Goldsmith in the later decades of the 18th century was Laurence Sterne. Everyone who could read seems to have read Sterne's Tristram Shandy, his Sentimental Journey, and his published sermons and letters; and not a few writers, in America as well as in England, imitated his turns of style and sentiment, made up of quirks and innuendoes, often sexual in character. Abigail had one avid correspondent, James Lovell, a former Boston schoolmaster and a perennial Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress, who was an addict of Shandean suggestiveness. Tiresome as it may seem to present-day readers, proof that Abigail enjoyed Lovell's queer sort of gallantry is her acceptance with only mock protests of a constant flow of letters from him in this vein. But in the winter of 1780–1781 things took a different turn. British patrols along the Hudson captured some of Lovell's letters directed to Boston, including one addressed to Abigail Adams. That letter was not published by the tory papers (perhaps it was too “enigmatical” even for them), but others of his letters were printed; yet he kept right on writing as if he were Yorick and she Eliza.37 This led to Abigail's giving Lovell several scoldings, but she did not entirely shut off his fanciful endearments as long as they continued to correspond. On reflection, it is surprising that C. F. Adams, who destroyed by far the greater part of the letters his grandmother received (except those from members of her family), did not xxxvdestroy these. His sense of obligation to history must have been too strong, for these exchanges provide a more intimate record of feelings about the Adams-Franklin tensions and contentions—though of course from only one point of view—than anything else we possess.

It is proper to end this summary account of the family, during nearly five years of wartime stress, with the children. As we have said elsewhere, one of the striking values of the family's literary legacy over four generations is that the children helped create it. From the amount of wholesome advice on morals, behavior, and studies given them by their parents and by each other, one might suppose that the daughter and three sons of John and Abigail Adams had little chance to become anything but little stuffed paragons of the Puritan ethic. In some measure this happened. Writing the younger Abigail from El Ferrol in Spain, her father talked a little of the landscape, the opera, and other novelties and amenities, but then turned to a favorite theme:

Gold is very little more prescious for being burnished. . . . I dont mean by this . . . to suggest, that the Arts and Accomplishments which are merely ornamental, should be wholly avoided or neglected especially by your Sex: but that they ought to be slighted when in Comparison or Competition, with those which are useful and essential particularly those that contribute the most to qualify Women to act their Parts well in the Relations of Life, those of Daughter, Sister, Wife, Mother, Friend.38

In one of his last letters to her in the correspondence now published, Adams made the point again. He had sent her a present, and now she was asking for another, but “I should have been happier if you had asked me for Bell's British Poets. There is more elegance and beauty, more sparkling lustre to my eyes, in one of those volumes, than in all the diamonds which I ever saw about the Princess of Orange, or the Queen of France, in all their birth-day splendour.” And much more to the same effect.39

Young Abigail's response was to grow up a very reserved young woman, with universally attested beauty but, as her letters show, mediocre intellectual gifts. These volumes leave her on the point of being almost but not quite swept off her feet (with surprisingly energetic help from her mama) by a dashing young lawyer and wit, Royall Tyler, who had recently come to Braintree and caused a great stir there. In these volumes she makes but a pallid figure, as she was to xxxviremain, though misfortunes were to endow her later life with true pathos.

Passing over Charles and Thomas, too young at this stage to have left any letters and hence any clear impressions of their characters (though Charles seems to have charmed everyone who encountered him as a nine- or ten-year-old in Europe), we come to John Quincy, an unusual case of personality development if there ever was one. Not yet eleven when he first crossed the ocean with his father in 1778, not yet thirteen when he went again, what can we make of a lad who, on a short vacation from school, sat down to write his little brothers at home that they ought to learn French and, to encourage them, sent them a list in five folio pages of grammars, dictionaries, and treatises on the history, prosody, orthography, and rhetoric of the French language, some in multiple quarto and folio volumes?40 Astonishing, even though what he was doing was simply copying off the titlepages of the formidable collection of books his father had assembled within a few months for his own intensive study of the French language.

To this son John Adams, whenever he could seize a moment from his country's business, thought it necessary to furnish warnings against wasting time, and his mother seconded this advice at every opportunity.41 Adams oversaw John Quincy's studies in the utmost detail (not forgetting the important matter of disciplining himself always to write a legible hand), as shown by several touching exchanges while his sons were at M. Pechigny's “Ecole de Mathématiques” in Passy early in 1780.42 In Amsterdam later that year Adams, doing what seemed best, made the mistake of placing the boys in an academy (“the Latin School on the Singel”) governed by the strictest Dutch rules for study and conduct. Classes were conducted in Dutch, and Rector Verheyk, clearly a martinet, penalized John Quincy for his language deficiency by keeping him back among the most elementary pupils. John Quincy then did a (for him) unheard-of thing: he showed his temper and revolted. According to Verheyk, Master John's “disobedience” and “impertinence,” in which he tried to get Charles to join him, were insufferable and likely to corrupt the school as a whole. John Adams took his son's part unqualifiedly and instantly withdrew both boys from the school.43 Some of the most engaging xxxviicorrespondence in these volumes then follows, relative to the enrollment, studies, and diversions of the Adams boys in the famous University of Leyden. Their experience there, particularly John Quincy's (despite the fact that among other academic obligations he attended Professor Pestel's lectures in jurisprudence delivered in Latin), was immeasurably happier and more profitable than at Amsterdam. Paternal advice continued to flow quite as freely. Even in assenting to John Quincy's request to buy a pair of skates, Minister Adams indulged in a short homily. “Skaiting is a fine Art. It is not simple Velocity or Agility that constitutes the Perfection of it but Grace.” So on the whole he could recommend it, along with dancing and riding, as a means of improving both one's health and

Elegance of bodily Motion. . . . Do not conclude from this, that I advise you to spend much of your Time or Thoughts upon these Exercises or Diversions. In Truth I care very little about any of them. They should never be taken but as Exercise and Relaxation of Business and study.

Every Thing in Life should be done with Reflection, and Judgment, even the most insignificant Amusements. They should all be arranged in subordination, to the great Plan of Happiness, and Utility.44

Thus, barely turned fourteen, John Quincy Adams was prepared to set off for St. Petersburg in the role of companion, clerk, and French interpreter to Francis Dana in July 1781. From Amsterdam and The Hague his father continued to advise him about his reading, and from Braintree his mother and sister to adjure him to preserve his purity of morals; but a retrospective judgment suggests that their efforts were at the very least gratuitous. The events of the American Revolution, in which he and his family were so inextricably bound up, conspired to make John Quincy Adams a man before he had finished boyhood.

Notes on Editorial Method and the Status of the Edition as a Whole

The rationale for presenting the family correspondence of the Adamses in a single sequence of 130 years was set forth in the Introduction to the first volume of this series (The Adams Papers, Series II: Adams Family Correspondence , 1963, 1:xix–xxv). An account of the principal sources and their previous use and partial xxxviiipublication followed (p. xxv–xli), together with an explanation of the editors' criteria of selection, textual method, and annotation policy (p. xli–xlviii).45

These policies and practices, not restated here, have proved workable and have been continued in the present volumes except for some extensions and refinements necessitated by problems not earlier encountered or foreseen.

In the matter of selection of letters for inclusion, we have on the one hand been more rigorous in excluding routine and duplicative letters, particularly those of John Thaxter (though some readers may still think him overrepresented), who as John Adams' private secretary and companion to the Adams boys in Europe is often informative on matters that others do not mention or develop but who is commonly a long-winded and seldom an exciting correspondent. On the other hand, we have slightly enlarged our definition of what a “family letter” is by including letters, written and received by no matter whom, that deal wholly or significantly with the Adamses' domestic concerns, most commonly, in the present volumes, with the boys' schooling. Thus letters between John Adams and the masters of the Passy and Amsterdam schools where John Quincy and Charles were enrolled, are printed, and so are the letters of Benjamin Waterhouse, who made the first arrangements for the boys' admission to the University of Leyden and kept a kindly eye on them thereafter. (Such letters as survive between Waterhouse and John Quincy Adams, however, are reserved for Series III, Part 2: The Papers of John Quincy Adams.) A number of highly informative letters from sundry parties bearing on the wanderings of little Charles on his long voyage home in 1781–1782 have also qualified for inclusion.

In volumes 3 and 4 we have made two departures from the plan of volumes 1 and 2. First, since each pair of volumes does indeed form a unit, with a single index, we have consolidated in volume 3 the entire editorial apparatus for both volumes. (The Contents and Descriptive List of Illustrations remain divided between the two.) Second, we have added a Chronology for all four published volumes, 1761–1782, preceding the Index in volume 4. It was originally thought that chronologies in the Family Correspondence would so largely duplicate those in the other series of The Adams Papers as to be of little utility. But although there will be much duplication, it will xxxixbe useful to see how family events, for example the journeys of the various members, relate to their official acts and to current public events. The wide dispersion of the family that begins in volume 3 and was to continue through several generations is a phenomenon that only a tabular view can bring out. Hereafter, a Chronology will appear at the end of each pair of volumes of Adams Family Correspondence published and indexed together.

For the first time in the family letters (and occasionally in material quoted in the annotation), readers will encounter words, phrases, or longer passages written in a numerical code in the originals. These have been decoded in the texts as printed and enclosed between double verticals (. . .). An explanation of the code used and a summary history of it are furnished in an appendix to volume 4: The Lovell Cipher and Its Derivatives.

For the first time, too, beginning with John Quincy's arrival in St. Petersburg in 1781, the problem of dealing with the eleven-day difference between old-style and new-style dates arises. Commonly, Westerners writing from Russia used double dates; in such cases the editors have given both (see John Quincy Adams to James Thaxter, St. Petersburg, 8/19 September 1781), but have followed the later or new-style date for placement of the letter. When only one date appears and it is indicated or establishable as old style, the new-style date has been editorially inserted and of course followed (see John Quincy Adams to John Adams, St. Petersburg, 21 August / 1 September 1781).

The order in which letters written on the same date are printed is primarily alphabetical according to the writers' names, and thereunder (when a single writer wrote several letters on the same day) alphabetical according to their recipients' names. Exceptions are made to avoid having an answer appear ahead of the letter it answers. When more than one letter was written to the same recipient on the same date, the editors have used such evidence as could be found to place them in the order they were written, but this is sometimes guesswork.

The letters of children and of semiliterate writers are, in stated cases, exempted from the minimal regularization of punctuation, capitalization, and the like, set forth as textual policy throughout The Adams Papers. Thus John Quincy Adams' letters are given in “literal style” through the year 1778 (but not thereafter). The younger Abigail's first letter, to Elizabeth Cranch, 1 January 1779, is also given literally (but her later letters are not).

Finally, mention should be made of several devices now systemat-xlically employed in this series, to save space or for other reasons that may be more arbitrary. References and cross-references in the notes to letters and other documents give only day and month and omit the year if the dates referred to fall within the year of the letter being annotated. Where ambiguity might arise from references to a number of letters and documents falling in more than one year, the pertinent years are of course specified. Cross-references to letters in earlier volumes of Adams Family Correspondence include the volume number in which they appear, as well as their dates, but only exceptionally the page or pages. In editorial references to texts properly definable as “family letters” but omitted in this series, locations are by date and repository (most often “Adams Papers”), with citation of a text printed elsewhere if one is known. References to family letters later in date than these volumes run (after September 1782) take the same form but imply no determination whether or not they will be included in or omitted from the work as it progresses.

It has been a long interval since the first two volumes of Adams Family Correspondence issued from the press—too long an interval. But it is proper to point out, unapologetically, that the Belknap Press edition of The Adams Papers is not and never could be a single set of books. It is, rather, by necessity and intent, a collection of editorial units or “editions” documenting the public and private lives of four generations of American men and women, some of whom became famous but others of whom were ordinary enough. In the over-all plan of the Belknap Edition we have designated these “editions” as Series, some of which are subdivided into Parts, and a number of the Parts will run to a good many volumes each (e.g. John Quincy Adams' diary). The plan has been set forth in as concise a form as possible in a note at the beginning of the Introduction to Series II46 and has been reinforced by the half-title of each published volume and sundry printed prospectuses. A primary purpose of that note was to urge scholars using The Adams Papers not to cite the over-all work (which for obvious reasons cannot employ a single serial numbering for all its volumes), but the precise title of the particular series and/or part (e.g. Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, 4 vols., 1961). If this is not done, all is confusion. Another purpose was to set library-cataloguers straight on the pattern of independent units within the large framework. In both purposes the editors have achieved only limited success. The point seems worth repeating.


Since the appearance of volumes 1 and 2 of Adams Family Correspondence , the following ten other volumes of The Adams Papers have been published:

Diary of Charles Francis Adams, vols. 1–2, edited by Aïda DiPace Donald and David Donald, 1964; vols. 3–4, edited by Marc Friedlaender and L. H. Butterfield, 1968

Legal Papers of John Adams, edited by L. Kinvin Wroth and Hiller B. Zobel, 3 vols., 1965

The Earliest Diary of John Adams, edited by L. H. Butterfield, Wendell D. Garrett, and Marc Friedlaender, 1966

Portraits of John and Abigail Adams, by Andrew Oliver, 196747

Portraits of John Quincy Adams and His Wife, by Andrew Oliver, 1970

In a very forward state are volumes 5 and 6 of Charles Francis Adams' Diary; and about to go into editorial preparation is the first volume of the Papers of John Adams, which will include his general (i.e. non-family) correspondence, state papers, and miscellaneous writings, that is to say, all his papers deserving annotated letterpress publication exclusive of those that have appeared or will appear in his Diary, Legal Papers, and the Family Correspondence. The decision to proceed with John Adams' Papers before launching the greatest of all the Adams diaries, that of John Quincy Adams, which can only be characterized as a mastodon, was a hard one, but was determined by the approaching bicentennial anniversaries of the major events of the American Revolution, in so many of which John Adams was a principal actor.

Work on several ancillary Adams projects, essential to the scholarship of the edition as a whole, proceeds, but only as time permits or unavoidable confrontation occurs, rather than systematically or intensively. The pertinent Adams materials located and reproduced (or in some cases only earmarked for reproduction) in the two great federal repositories in Washington, the Library of Congress and the National Archives, and in certain foreign archival establishments, including those of Czarist Russia during J. Q. Adams' mission there (1809–1814) and in the Public Record Office during J. Q. Adams' and his son C. F. Adams' respective missions to London (1815–1817, 1861–1868)—the accumulation of these materials in or ready for our xliihands is so enormous (they run to five figures) that the processing of them has had to be in large part deferred altogether. Nor, under the pressure of daily editorial routines, have we been able to do more than amplify and refine our working materials for either the Adams Genealogy (a biographical register of the Adams Presidential line and its connections by blood and marriage) or the Adams Bibliography. We consider both of these undertakings of such intrinsic scholarly value and so essential to readers and users of The Adams Papers that we stand pledged to perfect and publish the first and would very much like to do the same for the other. A union checklist of the Adamses' books collected over four lifetimes is a still more formidable task that awaits attention but may or may not become a reality. We refuse to think of these projects as visionary, but meanwhile our minds and hands are fully occupied and our other resources are equally taxed.


10 April 1782, vol. 4, below.


12 April 1778, below.


See above, vol. 2:ix–x, 96–98, and illustration following p. 102.


Letter of April–May 1780, below.


To Abigail Adams, post 12 May 1780, below.


See Foreword by the editor in chief to Andrew Oliver, Portraits of John and Abigail Adams, Cambridge, 1967, p. xv–xvi.


25 July 1782, vol. 4, below.


To Abigail Adams, 26 July 1778, below.


To the same, 28 February 1779, below.


To the same, 20 February 1779, below.


On these matters see the editorial note on James Lovell to Abigail Adams, 9 August 1779, below, p. 220–222, 226–228; Adams to John Jay, 4 August 1779, printed in Adams, Works, ed. C. F. Adams, Boston, 1850–1856, 7:99–110, and elsewhere.


Pages 228–233, below.


The editors acknowledge their indebtedness in this interpretation to Edmund S. Morgan's highly illuminating article, “The Puritan Ethic and the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d series, 24:3–43 (January 1967).


Franklin to Congress, 9 August 1780, in Franklin, Writings, ed. A. H. Smyth, New York and London, 1905–1907, 8:126–128. On the quarrel between Adams and Vergennes at large, and Franklin's involvement in it, see the editorial note under John Thaxter to Abigail Adams, 7 August 1780, p. 390–395, below.


4 September 1780, below.


21 February 1782, National Archives: Record Group 360, Papers of the Continental Congress, No. 84, IV, printed in The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, ed. Francis Wharton, Washington, 1889, 5:196; and elsewhere.


29 September 1782, Massachusetts Historical Society: Dana Papers.


14 May 1782, vol. 4, below.


To Francis Dana, 17 September 1782, Massachusetts Historical Society: Dana Papers.


29 September 1778, below.


2 January 1779, below.


19, 20 February 1779, below.


See John Adams to Abigail Adams, 17 September 1782, vol. 4, below; Robert R. Livingston to John Adams, 15–18 September 1782, in Papers of John Adams, vol. 13, and Diplomatic Correspondence, ed. Wharton, 5:728.


To Adams, 18 May 1778, below.


To the same, 17 June 1782, vol. 4, below.


To the same, 15 October 1780, vol. 4, below.


To the same, 13 November 1780, vol. 4, below; see note 10 there.


To the same, 10 December 1779, below.


To the same, 15 April 1780, below.


Richard Cranch to John Adams, 26 April 1780, below.


To Abigail Adams, 17 June 1780, below.


Many letters deal with the notion and consummation of the Vermont purchase; the main editorial note and references on the subject are at Abigail Adams to John Adams, 25 April 1782, vol. 4, below. John Adams told his wife not to “meddle . . . with Vermont” in his letter of 12 October 1782 (Adams Papers); and his explosive remark is in a letter to James Warren, 17 June 1782, Boston Public Library.


12 September 1781, vol. 4, below.


To the same, 30 June 1781, vol. 4, below.


From the letter cited in the preceding note.


To James Lovell, 20 July – 6 August 1781, vol. 4, below.


Documentation of this incident begins with Abigail Adams' letter to Lovell, 3 January 1781, is continued in Lovell to Abigail Adams, 8 January 1781, and in exchanges that follow over six months or more, all in vol. 4, below.


12 December 1779, below.


26 September 1782, vol. 4, below.


J. Q. Adams to Charles and Thomas Boylston Adams, 3 October 1779 1778 , below.


For example, Adams to J. Q. Adams, 1 2 March 1780, below.


J. Q. Adams to John Adams, 16, 21 March 1780; Adams to J. Q. Adams, 17, 22 March 1780, all below. The son's letters are reproduced in facsimile as illustrations in this volume.


See John Adams to Abigail Adams, 25 September 1780, below; Adams to Verheyk, 18 October 1780, and the exchange between Adams and Verheyk, 10 November 1780, all in vol. 4, below.


28 December 1780, vol. 4, below.


For a more detailed statement of the treatment of texts throughout The Adams Papers, see the Introduction to the Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, 1961, 1:lv–lix.


Vol. 1:xix, above.


This and the following volume comprise a new unit in The Adams Papers, namely Series IV: Portraits, thought of but not planned when the enterprise began.