Miss Adams In Love

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On the dusty journey in late May, 1785, from Paris to Calais, where they would cross the Channel to Dover, John and Abigail Adams and their nineteen-year-old daughter took turns reading Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia . It was an interesting book, doubly interesting because it had just been presented to them by the author in Paris. Yet very likely their attention wandered. Virginia was far away, London was coming closer by the mile, and they were journeying toward a great adventure.

John Adams, a plump, florid man nearing fifty, was on his way to take up his post as the first American minister to England. When lie went to lake leave at Versailles, the Comte de Vergennes, Louis XVI’s foreign minister, said to him that it was a great thing to be the first American representative “to the country you sprung from. It is a mark!” Adams knew that he was well suited for the post, for he had been representing America in Europe since 1778, first at the court of France, then in the Netherlands, and most recently as one of the three American commissioners in France along with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. But he was disturbed as to the effect in London of his reputation as “the Father of the American Revolution.” When the British ambassador to France told Adams that he would be stared at a good deal, Adams replied that he trembled at the thought of going to London, because he was afraid the English would stare with evil eyes. The shock of the American Revolution was still deeply felt, the wound to British pride still raw. How would he be received by George III?

Abigail Adams, a lively, black-eyed, sharp-featured liitle woman of forty, was also dreading the presentation at court. It would be her first, because in France only lhe families of ambassadors, not ministers, had to appear. The British ambassador had informed Adams that his wife and daughter would have to be presented to Queen Charlotte; moreover, it was etiquette for everybody to wear new clothes for the occasion, and “very rich ones.” Luckily Abigail would be able Io turn for advice on court dress to an American friend long in London, Mrs. John Temple, the daughter of Governor Bowdoin of Massachusetts. Mrs. Temple, who lived on fashionable Grosvenor Square, might also be counted on to help with house-hunting. Mrs. Adams had been in London before; she had spent several weeks there on her arrival from America a year ago, before going on to Paris. She knew that it would not be easy to find as charming a house as the one the Adamses had had outside Paris at Auteuil, with its acres of formal gardens.

She would miss Auteuil, she would miss friends like the Marquise de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Most of all she would miss her seventeen-year-old son John Quincy. After seven years in Europe with his father, he had decided to go home and enter Harvard and had left Paris a fortnight ago for Lorient to board a French packet for America. Two younger sons had I)CCn left behind with an aunt when Mrs. Adams had sailed for Europe with her only daughter. How the family had shrunk!

Young Miss Adams had been named Abigail and was usually called Nabby in the family, but she often signed her letters “Amelia” and, apparently, liked to be called that. She had her father’s blue eyes, round face, and fair complexion, but in temperament she resembled neither parent. Quiet and withdrawn, she seldom revealed her feelings other than by a deep blush or a demure half-smile when she was amused. At the time we make her acquaintance, her pretty face, framed by reddish hair and shadowed by her travelling hood, was markedly grave and thoughtful.

Glancing at the girl who sat beside her in the jolting carriage, Mrs. Adams became deeply troubled, “trembling for the fate of a dear and only daughter.” For two years Amelia had been desperately and stubbornly in love with a young Bostonian who had come to the Adamses’ home town of Braintree to practice law. His name was Royall Tyler, and he liked to drive a span of fine black horses and wear a fashionable scarlet coat that suited his dark good looks. Everywhere he went, according to one of his numerous female admirers, “he spread joy and hilarity.” Abigail found him charming; but when she wrote her husband that their daughter was falling in love with him, Adams became alarmed. He had known the boy when he was a law student of Francis Dana’s and considered him frivolous and dissipated. It was vain for Abigail to protest that Tyler seemed to be settling down, that he had given up “his dancing, singing and playing” and was spending his evenings with the Adams ladies, reading aloud to them, revealing a fine taste in literature and his own considerable talent as a poet. “You will tell me that you do not want a poet,” Abigail wrote her husband, “but if there is a mind otherwise well furnished, you would have no objection to its being a mere amusement?” Nevertheless, John Adams insisted that the young people be separated, at least for a time, and Amelia was sent oft to Boston in the spring of 1783.

Though all connection between them was broken off, they never wavered during the long months of separation. Tyler stood the test well. He devoted himself to his law practice and the following December was able to buy one of the finest houses in Braintree. At last John Adams consented to an engagement, but insisted that Amelia accompany her mother when Abigail left to join him in Europe in June of 1784.