Winter Crossing


JOHN ADAMS REACHED HIS HOME IN BRAINTREE, MASSA- chusetts, by horseback in the last days of November 1777 and for two weeks did little but relish the comforts of his own fireside. He was home to stay, by preference and of necessity, he said: “It was my intention to decline the next election, and return to my practise at the bar. I had been four years in Congress, left my accounts in a very loose condition. My debtors were failing, the paper money was depreciating. I was daily losing the fruits of seventeen years’ industry. My family was living on my past acquisitions which were very moderate.... My children were growing up without my care in their education, and all my emoluments as a member of Congress for four years had not been sufficient to pay a laboring man on my farm....” But, on November 28, Congress named Adams a commissioner to work with Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee in negotiating a French alliance.

A packet of letters and Adams’s official commission to the Court of France reached Braintree in mid-December, at about the time Washington’s army was on the march west from Philadelphia to take up winter quarters at Valley Forge. Adams was away at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, representing a client in what was to be his last appearance ever in court as a private attorney. Thinking the packet must be urgent business, Abigail opened it and was stunned by what she read. Furious, she wrote straight away to James Lovell, the most active member of the Committee for Foreign Affairs, demanding to know how he could “contrive to rob me of all my happiness.” The thought of John braving the North Atlantic in winter, and the very real possibility of his capture at sea, horrified her. No one put to sea from Boston in winter if it could possibly be avoided, even in peacetime.

News of his appointment had already reached Adams in New Hampshire. Thus, the day he dismounted from his horse at Braintree, December 22, he and Abigail knew they had reached one of the turning points of their lives. What was said between them, neither divulged. But the decision, difficult as it was, Adams made at once. There was no hesitation, no playing out the ordeal of deciding. If nothing else, he was decisive. They both were. Within twenty-four hours he had written his letter of acceptance. The question of whether Abigail should accompany him was discussed, and for a few days, it appeared she might go, great as her fear was of crossing the water. It was the risk of capture by the enemy that weighed heaviest in the balance. But also, the expense of living in Paris was bound to be more than they could afford, and clearly things at home would fall to ruin without her.


She would remain at home, but 10-year-old Johnny, the second-oldest of his surviving children and the eldest son, was to go with his father, as the boy ardently wished. It was the chance of a lifetime for him, an experience of inestimable value, Abigail recognized, her “thousand fears” notwithstanding. Assuredly, he would encounter temptation, she wrote, but to exclude him from temptation would be to exclude him from the world in which he was to live.

They were to sail on the new 24-gun frigate Boston , under the command of Capt. Samuel Tucker of Marblehead. For weeks there was much scurrying to get ready, much ado over packing and estimating the food and supplies to be sent on board for Adams, his son, John Quincy, and a Braintree man named Joseph Stephens, who would be going as Adams’s servant. The completed list included such immediate necessities for Adams as ink, paper, account books, 25 quill pens, a dozen clay pipes, tobacco, and a pocket-sized pistol; but also, two hogs, two “fat sheep,” six dozen chickens, five bushels of corn, fourteen dozen eggs, a keg of rum, a barrel of Madeira, four dozen bottles of port wine, tea, chocolate, brown sugar, mustard, pepper, a box of wafers, a bag of Indian meal, and a barrel of apples.


In view of the number of spies in and about Boston and the certainty of British cruisers in New England waters, departure was to be managed with all possible secrecy. Adams was not to go aboard at Boston. He would be picked up near dark, at a rendezvous on the shore of Quincy Bay known as Hough’s Neck. As little as possible was to be said of the plan. Adams would leave pressing legal matters unattended and without explanation to his clients. Numbers of friends, even members of the family, never knew of his appointment to France until after he had gone.

On a blustery morning in February, the Boston dropped anchor off Nantasket Roads, a few miles northeast of Hough’s Neck. But with snow squalls and winds gathering to gale force, it was not until two days later that a barge was lowered.

Abigail did not go down to the shore to see her husband and son depart. The goodbyes were said at home.