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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
Adams showed an immediate interest in seeing everything about the ship and how it was run, and except for the tiny, snug cabin that he and Johnny shared, little met his approval. Nor, characteristically, had he the least hesitation about letting Tucker know.
There was too much informality, too little discipline, and a “detestable” use of profanity that should never be tolerated. The men were insufficiently practiced in use of the guns, and many hardly knew the ropes. Most disturbing was the same appalling indifference to sanitation that Adams knew from his friend Dr. Benjamin Rush to be the scourge of the Continental Army. Once, walking through potter’s field in Philadelphia the previous April, Adams had been overcome by the thought that more than 2,000 American soldiers had already been buried there, nearly all victims of smallpox and camp diseases. Dirty frying pans slayed more than swords, he had told Abigail. “Discipline, discipline is the great thing wanted.” There could be no cleanliness without discipline, and death from disease among seamen was, he knew, exceedingly high. (For every sailor in the British navy killed in action or who died of wounds in the era of the American Revolution, 17 died of disease.)
Meals on the Boston were wretched and served at the cook’s pleasure. The reek of burning sea coal and the stench of stagnant water belowdecks were dreadful and contributed to everyone’s misery when, after the first full day of “rolling and rocking” at sea, every passenger and half the crew became sea-sick.
Under ideal circumstances, a crossing to France could be accomplished in about three weeks. As it was, the voyage would take six weeks and four days—excellent time, given that eight to ten weeks was the usual run in winter, and quite remarkable considering all that happened.
In the first faint light of morning, their second day at sea, with wind and weather holding fair, from the masthead came a call of three ships bearing east on the northward horizon—three British frigates, as another hour would tell—that soon gave chase. After consultation with Adams, Captain Tucker determined to stand away from them. Two of the three ships eventually fell off, but one, the best sailor, kept in pursuit. “Sometimes we gained upon her, and sometimes she upon us,” Adams recorded. The chase went on all day and for two days following, when they crossed into the Gulf Stream and lost sight of the enemy ship.
“When the night approached, the wind died away,” Adams would write of the close of the third day, “and we were left rolling and pitching in a calm with our guns all out, our courses ... all drawn up, and every way prepared for battle; the officers and men appeared in good spirits, and Captain Tucker said his orders were to carry me to France ... he thought it his duty, therefore, to avoid fighting, especially with an unequal force, if he could, but if he could not avoid an engagement, he would give them something that should make them remember him.”
In the night, a sudden, violent storm struck with a blinding cannonade of thunder and lightning. The ship “shuddered ... darted from side to side ... all hands were called, and with much difficulty the guns were all got in and secured.... It was with the utmost difficulty that my little son and I could hold ourselves in bed with both our hands, and bracing ourselves against the boards, planks, and timbers with our feet.” There was a horrendous, terrifying crash as a bolt of lightning hit the main mast, very near the powder room. Twenty seamen were injured. One man, a hole burned in his shoulder, would die “raving mad.”
The storm raged on. “The sea being very cross and high, forced me to scud before the wind under my foresail,” recorded Captain Tucker. “Heavy gales and a dangerous sea running,” he wrote the next day; “one thing or another continually giving way on board.... Pray God protect us.. . .”
Adams wanted to keep a running account of all that was happening but found it impossible. He was so drenched, everything was so soaking wet, that pen and paper were useless. “No man could keep upon his legs, and nothing could be kept in its place,” he later wrote. “The wind blowing against the current [of the Gulf Stream], not directly, but in various angles, produced a tumbling sea, vast mountains,... sometimes dashing against each other... and not infrequently breaking on the ship, threatened to bury us all at once in the deep. The sails were all hauled down but a foresail... and we were left with bare poles entirely at the mercy of wind and water. The noises were such that we could not hear each other speak at any distance. The shrouds and every other rope in the ship exposed to the wind became a chord of very harsh music. Their vibrations produced a constant and a hideous howl....”
Later, in his autobiography Adams would confess to moments of severe regret that he had ever brought his son, but he wrote also of his extreme pride in the boy. His “behavior gave me a satisfaction that I cannot express. Fully sensible of our danger, he was constantly endeavoring to bear up under it with a manly courage and patience, very attentive to me, and his thoughts always running in a serious strain. In this he was not singular.... I believe there was not a soul on board who was wholly thoughtless of a Divinity.”
Appraising his own performance, Adams felt more than a little pleased, even some surprise, it would appear, that he had remained “perfectly calm.”