Dearest Friends


But their domestic dramas were being played out before a backdrop of oncoming war. John was often steeped in gloom; devious plots, he was convinced, were under way to injure him. The whole “execrable Project” of the Stamp Act, he genuinely believed, “was set on foot for my ruin, as well as that of America, in General, and of Great Britain.” When the Crown shut down the courts as punishment for the colonies’ resistance, he brooded on the end of liberty. Taxation without representation was illegal. Were the colonies a separate community, or part of the empire? If the latter, would not a majority of the empire itself fight against such taxes?

His spirits rose when Boston selected him, along with the fiery James Otis, to appear as its counsel before the Crown governor. And on a day when his two Abbys were bedded down with whooping cough, John burst into the house aglow with triumph—Parliament had repealed the Stamp Act! Yet even this he knew was but a temporary reprieve. The “Sons of Liberty” were brawling in Boston’s cobbled streets; inevitably, gunfire suddenly crackled between a mob and British regulars.

The well-advertised “massacre” was somewhat different from Paul Revere’s inflammatory engraving. On a bitter March night in 1770, a mob had taunted a group of regulars, some of them also hurling chunks of ice and wood. Tempers and musketry exploded, and five Americans died. Captain Thomas Preston and seven enlisted men were jailed.

The next morning one Crown lawyer after another refused to take their case. But not John Adams: his self-righteousness and his instinct for martyrdom, as well as for justice, stood by him. (See “The Boston Massacre” in the December, 1966, A MERICAN H ERITAGE .) His estimation that this was “as important a case as was ever tried in any court or country of the world” may have been an exaggeration, but every man was due a fair trial. Witnesses lied. Mobs pelted Adams with mud balls, crashed rocks through his windows. He stood firm. “Facts are stubborn things,” he told the court; they could not be altered.

Preston was acquitted; there was no proof that he had given any order to fire. Two of the “lobster-backs” were found guilty of manslaughter and were branded; the others went free. The law, said John Adams, “is deaf, deaf as an adder, to the clamors of the populace.”

Grudgingly, Boston conceded not only his talents but his courage. Shortly afterward he ran for the legislature, or General Court, winning 418 votes out of 536. His fellow townsmen chose him moderator of a mass protest meeting at Faneuil Hall. Then the thunderbolt exploded. John Adams was named to represent Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

He set out with high hopes. He had never left New England before, and he was looking forward to good company, good conversation, and to seeing something of the world. But as John moved onto a broader stage, Abigail retreated to a narrower one. She was back in Braintree on the bleak farm of her bridal days. Boston Harbor was bottled up; civil war threatened.

John’s letters from Philadelphia were necessarily and disappointingly “Tittle Tatle.” He was sworn to secrecy on the doings of the Continental Congress. Even so, he had urged Abigail to put his letters “up safe.” (She did.) “They may exhibit to our Posterity,” he wrote, “a kind of Picture of the Manners, Opinions and Principles of these Times of Perplexity, Danger and Distress.” News from home was more immediate—and disturbing. Drought was parching New England, and even his “poor Cows,” Abigail wrote in jest, addressed him a petition for his consideration.

He was home for Christmas and a few intense, close-packed weeks before galloping to Philadelphia again. Their separation would be for months this time. Both knew the storm was gathering. Never would Abigail feel more fervently the need of “a Friend who shares our misfortunes and afflictions.” The past October she had celebrated her tenth wedding anniversary—alone. She knew now that the pattern of her marriage was fixed—for years, perhaps; she would be alone weeks and months at a time. The children’s crises, their education, the household tragedies—all were hers to bear alone. Nor could he share the responsibility by mail. At the very least a letter took ten to twelve days in transit, sometimes as long as three weeks.

Abigail heard the thunder. Only it was not thunder; it was a fine clear June day in 1775. Suddenly she knew. With eight-year-old John Quincy, she rushed to the summit of nearby Penn’s Hill, which commanded a clear view of Boston Harbor and the slopes of Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill beyond. Huge coils of black smoke were swirling over Charlestown, and rowboats filled with crouching men were moving out across the harbor between Boston and Charlestown.

“Powder and artillery,” shouted John in Philadelphia, “are the most efficacious … conciliatory measures we can adopt.” Now, upon his motion, Congress voted to raise a Continental army and to name a commander in chief. John approached the man they had in mind, and a week later in Braintree Abigail looked up into the blue eyes of a very tall and travel-wearied man, described by her husband as “the modest and virtuous, the amiable, generous and brave George Washington Esqr.”

This was the one bright moment in a summer of incredible hardship. Since April, refugees had been pouring out of besieged Boston and into Braintree, filling every room of every house. Food had to be provided, meals cooked, bed linen and clothing washed, and comfort supplied. The Adams house was inundated; the children’s rooms became virtual dormitories.