- Historic Sites
The courtship and fifty-four-year marriage of John and Abigail Adams was, despite separation and war and tragedy, a moving and highly literate love feast between two
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
On a cool Massachusetts morning in April, 1764, a girl named Abigail Smith watched anxiously as a Negro servant held a bundle of letters in a fire tongs over a smouldering flame. “Did you never rob a Birds nest?” she wrote her correspondent. “Do you remember how the poor Bird would Hy round and round, fearful to come nigh, yet not know how to leave the place—just so they say I hover round Tom whilst he is smokeing my Letters.” For they were from her suitor, John Adams, now in the second week of quarantine for a self-imposed case of smallpox, and in the first of what would be a lifetime of separations from his lady love. How much longer would they be apart? Abigail wondered. “I dare not trust my self with the thought.” Meanwhile, the letters flowed back and forth between her home at Weymouth and Boston, where John’s were smoked upon leaving his house, thus disinfecting them, it was believed, against spread of the infection.
This fear of the smallpox which terrorized the eighteenth century has no modern analogy. Catching smallpox “in the natural way” left eighteen per cent of its victims dead, the rest mutilated. John described two men who were recovering: one, “no more like a Man than he is like an Hog or an Horse—swelled to three times his size, black as bacon, blind as a stone,” and another whose “face is torn all to Pieces, and is as rugged as Braintree Commons.” The recently discovered “new method” of inoculation, which John had submitted to, was the scientific marvel of the age. The death rate was cut drastically, to 0.9 per cent, and the course of “the clistempre” was light; there was little scarring.
How any rational person could hold out against this new system, John could not understand. Not that he considered inoculation a trivial matter. As he wrote Abigail: “A long and total Abstinence from every Thing in Nature that has any Taste, Two heavy Vomits, one heavy Cathartick, four and twenty Mercurial and Antimonial Pills, and Three Weeks close Confinement to an House, are, according to my Estimation of Things, no small matters.—However, who would not chearfully submit to them rather than pass his whole Life in continual Fears, in subjection, under Bondage.”
Resigning himself to a lengthy separation from his farm, his garden, his law business, and his girl, John and his brother, Abigail’s brother, and a group of friends, making up ten, had had themselves inoculated and retired to special quarters in Boston. “We took turns to be sick,” he wrote Abigail, “and to laugh. When my companion was sick I laughed at him, and when I was sick he laughed at me.” When they both were sick, the “good Humour deserted the Room.” They had had their “Vomits,” and the past night, he wrote Abigail, “We took the Pills you gave me.” Now, they were as happy as anyone waiting for the smallpox could expect to be.
For the nineteen-year-old “Miss Nabby,” the separation was almost too hard to bear. John was her “spark,” her first love, at a time when eligible suitors were by no means “as plenty as herrings.” But she was getting little sympathy with her tears and anxiety. For the twenty-nine-year-old John Adams was unwelcome in the home of Abigail Smith.
Who had ever heard of the Adamses? her mother demanded. The Smiths and their kinsmen, the Nortons and Quincys, had sat proudly among the ruling families of the Commonwealth since Puritan days. But Abigail’s beau, stocky and blunt-featured John Adams, was the son of a cobbler-farmer, and he resembled his ancestral generations of square-set yeomen. John had done well enough at Harvard, given his humble station in life. Hut Abigail’s mother bitterly rued the day that her older daughter Mary’s acknowledged and highly eligible suitor, Richard Cranch, had brought his college friend to call.
In the time-honored manner of mothers, Mrs. Smith undoubtedly wanted better for Abigail than she had enjoyed herself. Although she was of the wealthy and influential Quincy family of Boston, her husband, William, a good pastor and farmer, was never prosperous. The little brown cottage to which she had come as a bride, and where Abigail was born, was smaller than the Adams homestead and more humble, with its pine cupboards and bare summer beams and a high-backed settle where a courting couple could seek warmth together. Life had not been too easy for Mrs. Smith; she had had to spin and wind yarn and weave sheets. Abigail was frail and fond of books; she deserved a better life than John Adams could provide.
So Mrs. Smith appealed to her husband. Could he not find a suitable husband for their talented Abby, someone more in keeping with her breeding and station? Parson Smith said nothing. Harried by both his wife and his father-in-law, the doughty Colonel Quincy, there was little lie dared to say. Besides, Abigail knew what she wanted, and her father understood why. He had made it a point to talk to her young man. He liked him, liked his ideas, his views on life and love and friendship. It was too bad that he was a lawyer, of course. Law was generally believed to be a suspect if not dishonest profession. But better a good lawyer than a bad preacher. Personally, silently, Parson Smith decided that Abigail had made a good choice.