Dearest Friends


For John and Abigail, now, it was as if the guns were stilled, the peace won and complete. Abigail had a husband again; the children, a father; the cup of happiness for them all was brimming over. John’s absences now were the old, familiar ones, riding the law circuit and back again in a few days’ time.

It was during one of these periods that, according to John’s instructions, Abigail opened an ominous and official-looking document—and sank into cold despair. She read it over and over, her heart chilling. John Adams had been named a commissioner to France.

Had he not sacrificed enough? Had not she? Passionately—in letters to James Lovell, who had written John urging him to accept the appointment, and to her friend Mercy Warren—she railed out against this “plot against him,” this scheme to rob her of all her earthly happiness. Her husband had been home for only a few weeks. His children needed “the joint force of his example and precepts.” Should she now “consent to be seperated from him whom my Heart esteems above all earthly things, and for an unlimited time”?

In her anguish she resolved to let John decide for himself, although she feared what his answer might be. They had already spent over half of their married life apart. Welling up in them both were all the “tender sentiments that years have encreased and matured.” When John was “in the Dumps,” which was frequently, he could write that he went “mourning in my Heart, all the Day long … for myself a Frock and Trowsers, an Hoe and Spade, would do for my Remaining Days.” But then there were moments when his friends called him “the Zeal-Pot,” when he gloried in his heart and head and hands and what he could do with them for his fellow men, and gloried too that the partner of all his joys and sorrows shared in his struggle to build their young country.

Abigail bowed her head. She knew what she must do. John must finish his work. She would throw no impediment in his way. John felt little hesitation. Although he, no less than Abigail, knew the cruelty of separation, his sense of duty, coupled to his ambition, resolved the dilemma for him. Letters urging him to accept were pouring in upon him. And he knew the truth of what Lovell had written him, that the Continental Congress must have “a man of inflexible Integrity on that Embassy.”

Later, perhaps, Abigail and the children might join him. But not now, not with British men-of-war prowling the Atlantic. The little twenty-four-gun frigate Boston might be sunk and all of them lost. But he would take one child, ten-year-old John Quincy. The boy needed his father; furthermore, he was old enough to profit from foreign travel.

Abigail tried to stifle her sorrows by work, by outfitting her men for the bitter six weeks’ winter crossing. Shirts must be made, and there was no cambric to be had. Ample supplies of tea, chocolate, apples, and cider must be packed aboard, and ink contrived from gunpowder for the longed-for letters. Would she ever hear from her dear ones? she wondered; there might be sea battles, storms. But she steeled herself, silenced all complaints. “None knew the struggle it has cost me,” she confessed afterward. Few human beings had “so valuable a treasure to resign.” She could not bear to go to Boston to watch that tiny ship move out into the gray bleakness of the Atlantic. She parted from young John and her “Best of Friends” at home, in the familiar surroundings where they had said farewell so many times before.

“Great necessities call out great virtues,” she wrote John Quincy afterward. Hers was sacrifice. She could not read the future. She could not know that she would later join her husband abroad, that she would shine at the French court, that she would become her country’s first Vice President’s lady and the second First Lady. Now she could only sit down at her desk, take out her pen, and once again write the words, “Dearest Friend.”