Adams Family Correspondence, volume 4

John Thaxter to Abigail Adams 2d

Elbridge Gerry to Abigail Adams

John Boylston to John Adams, 31 August 1781 Boylston, John JA


John Boylston to John Adams, 31 August 1781 Boylston, John Adams, John
John Boylston to John Adams
Dear Sir August 31st. 1781

You may possibly wonder at my Silence in not writing you during so long a period and which might yet have continu'd from the danger which attends it did not the cruelty and injustice of this Govt. impel me to sollicit you and Doctor Franklin to use your utmost interest with the Court of Versailles to take the American Prisoners under its immediate Protection by insisting on a Cartel for exchanging them forthwith and liberating them from the vindictive Confinement many of them have suffer'd for three years past which has induc'd many (despairing of relief) to enter in the Navy and which is the ultimate motive of this treatment.1

There are at present in Forton jayl only, above 500 for whose particular situation I wish to refer you to the Revd. Thos. Wren at Portsmouth2 who merits the highest praise for his constant and unwearied attendance in distributing the charitable Contributions hitherto collected for their relief, and in which I have not been wholly useless, altho' am mortified to find it now grows very cold and languid which requires your utmost speedy exertions to prevent the consequences in their seduction thro want of proper necessaries.—I am here much vex'd to find those necessaries considerably abridg'd by the infamous Peculation of T. Diggs in having withheld several sums received from Doctor F——k——n, besides several other considerable Private Donations which I am inform'd the said D——gs has receiv'd for their relief.3 He is one of that description I had in veiw when I formerly wrote you my Sentiments4 that no other than persons of establish'd reputation and property should be any ways employ'd in the Affairs of America.—The severe treatment which many have suffer'd here for illicit Correspondence may apologize for the omission of Place and Signature hereto, but which you may supply from the recollection of my having formerly sent you the Arms of Boylston.5—I should be extreamly happy to hear of your success in the above application which will greatly adorn your Embassy and procure you much Merit. If you favour me with a Line in answer take good care it is under safe Conduct as my Letters are often open'd.

Ardently wishing you all health & prosperity, I am 201

RC (Adams Papers); docketed by CFA at head of text: “from Dr. Bancroft J. Boylston.”


John Boylston (1709–1795), son of the famous Dr. Zabdiel Boylston and first cousin of JA's mother. He had been a merchant in Boston and is depicted in JA's diary in the 1760's as a lively but somewhat affected conversationalist ( Diary and Autobiography , 1:293–294). By 1771 he had taken up residence in London, and he remained in England for the rest of his life, though with misgivings because (despite statements commonly made to the contrary, including notes in the present edition) he seems always to have been more of an American patriot than a loyalist at heart. His correspondence with the Smith family in Boston (MHi: Smith-Carter Papers) shows that he remained sympathetic with the American cause and that he continued his charitable activities in Massachusetts, through intermediaries, during and after the war. In the Franklin Papers are letters respecting his proposal in 1778 to take an oath and give security in order to return to America ( Cal. Franklin Papers, A.P.S. , 4:272, 274), but this did not occur. In a letter to JA, 28 June 1782 (below), Boylston heatedly denied he was in any sense a loyalist “Refugee,” having “ever been constantly and invariably attach'd to the cause and interest of my native Country.” In his reply of 5 July 1782 (also below), JA assured Boylston that “I have long known your Sentiments to be favourable to your native Country, as well as to Liberty in General.”

When JA and JQA came to England late in 1783, Boylston was established in prosperous retirement at Bath, where he entertained his relatives handsomely, as he again did JA and AA some years later (JA, Diary and Autobiography , 3:151; AA to Mary Smith Cranch, 20 Jan. 1787 [ MWA ]). As the present and later letters relate, Boylston was active in efforts to relieve the distresses of American seamen imprisoned in England. See further, Adams Genealogy.

On the whole subject of American seamen in British prisons during the war, particularly Forton Prison at Portsmouth and Mill Prison at Plymouth, their treatment, British policy relating thereto, and humanitarian efforts by both Americans and British, see the authoritative and well-documented articles by John K. Alexander, “'American Privateersmen in the Mill Prison during 1777–1782': An Evaluation,” Essex Inst., Hist. Colls. , 102:318–340 (Oct. 1966); and “Forton Prison during the American Revolution ...,” same, vol. 103:365–389 (Oct. 1967).

On JA's activities in behalf of captured American seamen in general, and of a number of Braintree men at Mill Prison in particular, see below, AA to JA, 9 Dec. 1781, and note 3 there.


Rev. Thomas Wren (1725–1787), a dissenting minister in Portsmouth who administered relief to Americans in Forton Prison and whose zeal in their behalf was said to be “prodigious.” According to John K. Alexander, Wren “mixed a little treason with his humanity” in helping escapees get out of England (Essex Inst., Hist. Colls. , 103:383 [Oct. 1967]). Franklin, with whom Wren corresponded, recommended that Congress officially thank “this good Man” and that he be given an honorary degree by “some of our Universities.” Congress did thank him, and the College of New Jersey awarded him a doctorate of divinity in 1783 (Franklin, Writings, ed. Smyth, 9:72, 124; JCC , 25:588, 619, 632). There is correspondence between JA and Wren in the Adams Papers; and in the Gentleman's Magazine for Nov. 1787 there is a long and eulogistic obituary (57:1026–1027).


Thomas Digges (1742–1821), a Marylander in England who had a very checkered career that has been traced in great detail by William Bell Clark in his article “In Defense of Thomas Digges,” PMHB , 77:381–438 (Oct. 1953). Although Digges has long been condemned as a double agent as well as an embezzler of funds raised to aid American prisoners in England, Clark has established that he was never in the pay of the British and that his embezzling was the last resort of a man in great difficulties and by no means on the grand scale that Franklin and others believed. Digges was a secret correspondent of JA under a 202great variety of pseudonyms.


Letter not found.


No earlier communication from John Boylston to JA has been found. There can be no certainty whether the Boylston arms which Boylston “formerly sent” was in the form of a seal or on paper. However, by 1782 JA did have in his possession a seal bearing the Boylston arms and perhaps a drawing or engraving as well. Following American recognition by the States General in April 1782, JA as minister plenipotentiary had occasion to frame a form of passport for issuance. He chose to imitate closely the one devised by Franklin in Passy in 1780, substituting for the coat of arms Franklin had used to give the document an official character, the coat of arms of the Boylston family (the woodblock of the coat of arms he had made is in MHi and is illustrated in Boston Athenaeum, Catalogue of JQA's Books , facing p. 136; the passport utilizing it is reproduced in the present volume). In November of the same year in affixing his signature to the Preliminary Treaty with Great Britain, JA used a seal in cornelian and gold of the Boylston arms, thenceforward known in the family as the Treaty Seal (the seal, now a part of the family memorabilia at the Adams National Historic Site, Quincy, was given by JA to JQA and by JQA in trust to CFA on the baptism of JQA2; the seal is illustrated in Catalogue of JQA's Books , facing p. 135).

AA had used a seal of the Boylston arms, presumably left in her care in Braintree, on the cover of her letter to JA aboard the Sensible, 14 Nov. 1779; see vol. 3:234, note. This tends to support HA2's assertion that the seal had come to JA from his mother, Susanna Boylston (Boston Athenaeum, Catalogue of JQA's Books , p. 136). However, it seems unlikely that AA would have sent the seal to JA in Europe in the interim, and no instances are presently known of JA's employment of a Boylston seal in Europe before the use in 1782 described above. One possible explanation is that the Boylston seal that JA affixed to the Preliminary Treaty may have been the “Boylston Arms” sent to him by John Boylston, who was unmarried and in 1781 over seventy years of age. There would then have been two seals of the Boylston arms in the possession of the Adams family, but only one remains.

Between 1783 and 1785, JA, in devising a seal to commemorate his signing of the treaties, adapted the Boylston seal by having the three roundels, earlier blank, replaced with roundels bearing respectively a lion, a fleur-de-lis, and a lion. Later Adamses incorporated the Boylston arms, as adapted, in a variety of ways in their seals and bookplates (Boston Athenaeum, Catalogue of JQA's Books , p. 136–148; see also JQA, Diary, 26 Oct. 1827, 3 Sept. 1836, 4 Nov. 1841; JQA to CFA, 28 Feb. 1831, 27 Oct. 1833 [ Adams Papers ]). When a bookplate for Ward Nicholas Boylston's benefactions to the Boston Medical Library was devised, the coat of arms used was in the form as adapted by JA.

In the Boylston arms the shield consists of six silver (white) crosses crosslet fitché, arranged 3, 2, 1, on a red field, above which, in chief, on a field of gold or yellow are three black roundels or pellets. The crest above shows a lion, passant guardant, holding in his dexter paw an angled cross crosslet fitché of the type on the shield (Charles K. Bolton, Bolton's American Armory, Boston, 1927, p. 1, 20.