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When John Adams set out with his little son on a perilous voyage early in 1778, he was full of misgivings. He had every right to be worried, but the journey turned out to be the adventure of his life—and a revelation of his essential character.
July/August 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 5
They crossed through gray twilight and blowing snow to a house by the shore, where sailors from the Boston were waiting, out of the bitter wind. It was the home of a distant cousin of Adams whose wife, afflicted by “hysterical complaints,” accosted Adams with a warning. He was embarking under bad signs. “The heavens frown, the clouds roll,... the waves of the sea roar upon the beach,” she declaimed. He was not enough of a Roman, Adams later said, to take this as an ill omen. But then, neither was he a New Englander of the kind bred to the sea, for all that he loved its proximity and bracing air. He had never in his life sailed on a ship. His one venture had been by small boat in boyhood, and then only to go fishing at nearby Cohasset Rocks.
Now he was embarking on a 3,000-mile voyage on the North Atlantic in its most treacherous season, the risks far greater than he knew. The difference between what he understood of the perils to be faced and what the captain understood was hardly less than the difference between his understanding and that of his small son. A hardened seaman like Captain Tucker knew what the Atlantic could deliver up in February: the chance of being hit by a northeaster and driven onto the shoals of Cape Cod, graveyard of ships; the sheer terror of winter storms at sea when freezing spray aloft could turn to ice so heavy as to cause a ship to capsize; navigation, never a simple matter, becoming difficult in the extreme from a violently pitching deck and with a horizon distorted by breaking seas, or, in the absence of sun and stars, quite impossible.
Adams was leaving his wife, children, friends, his home, his livelihood, everything he loved. He was risking his life plus his small son’s, risking capture, and who knew what horrors and indignities as a prisoner, all to begin a new job for which he felt ill suited, knowing nothing of European politics or diplomacy and unable to speak French, the language of diplomacy. He had never in his life laid eyes upon a king or queen, or the foreign minister of a great power, never set foot in a city of more than 30,000 people. At age 42, he was bound for an unimaginably distant world apart, with very little idea of what was in store and every cause to be extremely apprehensive.
But with his overriding sense of duty, his need to serve, his ambition, and as a patriot, fiercely committed to the fight for independence, he could not have done otherwise. There was never really a doubt about his going.
If Adams was untrained and inexperienced in diplomacy, so was every American. If unable to speak French, he could learn. Fearsome as the winter seas might be, he was not lacking in courage, and besides, the voyage would provide opportunity to appraise the Continental Navy at firsthand, a subject he believed of highest importance. And for all he may have strayed from the hidebound preachments of his forebears, Adams remained enough of a Puritan to believe anything worthy must carry a measure of pain.
“The wind was very high, and the sea very rough,” he would record in his diary, “but by means of a quantity of hay in the bottom of the boat, and good watch coats with which we were covered, we arrived on board the Boston about five o’clock, tolerably warm and dry.”
Continuing high winds and steep seas kept the ship at anchor in the roadstead another 36 hours. Then, once under way, on a morning with the temperature at 14 degrees, the Boston went only as far as Marblehead, where a sudden snowstorm blotted out all visibility, and two days passed before Captain Tucker could put to sea. The weather was no warmer but fair at last, and the wind out of the northwest, exactly what was needed to clear Cape Cod on a broad reach.
The date was Tuesday, February 17, 1778, and, as Adams had no way of knowing, it marked the beginning of what would become a singular odyssey, in which he would journey farther in all, both by sea and land, than any other leader of the American cause.
By those who knew, the Boston was judged a pretty ship. One of the smaller of 13 frigates commissioned by Congress, she had been built and launched at Newburyport in 1776. One hundred and fourteen feet on deck, and 514 tons, she had a theoretical complement of 200 men. As it was, there were 172 crowded on board, counting officers, crew, and 36 passengers, mostly French officers returning after service in the Continental Army. Of this French contingent, Adams took an immediate liking to an Army surgeon named Nicholas Noël, who spoke English and thought well enough of the young John Quincy to begin schooling him in French.