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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
Now it was John’s turn to wait anxiously for letters. Abigail was weary, but her health was only one of her pressing concerns. There was no molasses, no mutton, no pork or lamb. There was no sugar, no coffee, no tea. There was almost no flour. In Boston the bakers doled out a loaf of bread a day to large families, and in June women raided a city storehouse for flour. “A Dollor now is not eaquel to what one Quarter was two years ago. …” Abigail thereupon resolved to buy no more clothes, even if the family became like Eve and Adam; nor would she pay black-market prices for meat. She paid with her health instead. She felt well enough, but was pale as “a whited wall.” John Quincy told her: “Mar, I never saw any body grow so fat as you do.” By June she was really ill, and, as if sensing her condition, her husband was looking forward to midJuly with more anxiety than he could describe. “You will have Patience with me,” he begged, for this time away would be the last. Now he was going to “bid farewell to great Affairs. I have a Right to spend the Remainder of my days in small ones.” But the loss of her company and “that of my dear Babes for so long a Time. I consider as a Loss of so much solid Happiness.”
It was now July. Abigail could not sleep. Two weeks more to wait for the baby. Six months more to wait for John’s return. “Do you sigh for Home?” she had written. “And would you willingly share with me what I have to pass through?”
His “answer” crossed her query in transit: Philadelphia July 10. 1777. Thursday
My Mind is again Anxious, and my Heart in Pain for my dearest Friend. …
Three Times have I felt the most distressing Sympathy with my Partner, without being able to afford her any Kind of Solace, or Assistance.
When the Family was sick of the Dissentery, and so many of our Friends died of it.
When you all had the small Pox.
And now I think I feel as anxious as ever.—Oh that I could be near, to say a few kind Words, or shew a few Kind Looks, or do a few kind Actions. Oh that I could take from my dearest, a share of her Distress, or relieve her of the whole.
Before this shall rea[c]h you I hope you will be happy in the Embraces of a Daughter, as fair, and good, and wise, and virtuous as the Mother, or if it is a son 1 hope it will still resemble the Mother in Person, Mind and Heart.
It was as if he had sensed the tragedy. For a week Abigail had been severely ill. On the night of July 8 she was taken with “a shaking fit,” which left her almost certain “that a life was lost.” The next evening she received a letter from John to “My dearest Friend.”
Those three words meant more to her than any other part of the letter except the close of it. “I wanted the personal and tender soothings of my dearest Friend, that [renjderd it so valuable to me at this time.” The next day she went into labor, and it was her fears, not John’s hopes, that were realized. Both had had their hearts set on another daughter. But the “fine looking” little girl never opened her eyes. Twelve-year-old Nabby cried for hours.
John received Abigail’s and the doctor’s letters about the twenty-eighth of July. Never in his life had he been so moved, and devoutly he gave thanks to God for sparing the one dearest to him in all the world. Yet he sorrowed bitterly for the lost baby. “Is it not unaccountable, that one should feel so strong an Affection for an Infant, that one has never seen, nor shall see? Yet I must confess to you, the Loss of this sweet little Girl, has most tenderly and sensibly affected me.”
Abigail’s health and spirits bounded back with their customary elasticity. She looked forward eagerly to her husband’s homecoming; the sight of his clothes in the closet “raisefd] a mixture both of pleasure and pain in my Bosome.” But she found comfort in the blooming of the farm. “Heaven has blessed us with fine crops,” she wrote. There was more hay than last year and two hundred bushels of corn. They would have “fat Beat and pork enough,” and enough cloth for homespun to clothe the servants and children. There would be “butter and cheesse enough.” The fruit was poor, but there was plenty of garden “sause” (vegetables).
In Philadelphia, John was reaping a different kind of harvest. The tide of war had finally begun to turn for the colonial cause. Recruits were swelling the depleted ranks, and although the approach of Sir William Howe had forced Congress to flee Philadelphia, John was optimistic about the final outcome. There was militia enough—if it would stand and not run away. The people were calling for blood; Washington was “getting into the Humour of fighting.” At Germantown, as at Brandywine, the Continentals had withdrawn in an orderly manner after a brief, abortive attack. But for a few moments they had fought like veterans. Then came wonderful news, “a Capitulation of Burgoine and his whole Army.” Shortly afterward, John could write: “Howe is compleatly in our Power.”
Three years had elapsed since John Adams had “stepped into the Coach … to go to Philadelphia in Quest of Adventures.” Adventures he had had, in plenty. But he had had enough. He was going home, going back to Abigail, who after thumbing through “a feast of Letters” had ended a recent letter: “Good Night Friend of my Heart, companion of my youth —Husband and Lover—Angles watch thy Repose.”
Delay after delay halted his return. Not until November 14, 1777, could he write from Easton, Pennsylvania: “Here I am.—I am bound home.—I suppose it will take me 14 days, perhaps 18 or 20, to reach Home.”