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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
The storm had driven the ship several hundred miles off course. But days of smooth sailing followed, and with the crew busy with repairs, Adams resumed lecturing the captain on order and improvements.
Tucker appears to have taken all that the insistent landsman had to say in remarkably good spirits and acted upon it as best he could, to Adams’s considerable satisfaction. “I am constantly giving hints to the captain concerning order, economy and regularity,” he wrote, “and he seems to be sensible of the necessity of them, and exerts himself to introduce them.” As great a nuisance as Adams may have been, he got results; the ship took on a new look.
Tucker, he wrote, “has cleared out between decks, ordered up the hammocks to be aired, and ordered up the sick, such as could bear it, upon deck for sweet air. This ship would have bred the plague or jail fever, if there had not been great exertions since the storm to wash, sweep, air and purify clothes, cots, cabins, hammocks and all other things, places and persons.”
Adams quite liked the salty, booming Tucker, and Tucker had come to appreciate Adams’s company. Indeed, in remarks made later before the Navy Board, he would pay Adams as high a compliment as he knew. “I did not say much to him at first, but damn and bugger my eyes, I found him after a while as sociable as any Marblehead man.”
CAPTAIN TUCKER SAID OF JOHN ADAMS, ”...DAMN AND BUGGER MY EYES, I FOUND HIM AFTER A WHILE AS SOCIABLE AS ANY MARBLEHEAD MAN.”
On February 28, Adams could happily record in his diary that with smooth seas and a fine breeze, the Boston had hardly any motion but forward. He was sleeping as soundly as in his bed at home.
The color of the ocean changed from blue to green as the Gulf Stream was left behind. “What is this Gulf Stream?” he pondered. “What is the course of it? From what point and to what point does it flow?” Flocks of gulls appeared astern, trailing the ship. “The wind is very fresh, and the ship sails at a great rate.”
One fine day followed another. Life on board settled into a routine. With the captain’s help, John Quincy had undertaken to learn the name of every sail and master the use of a mariner’s compass. Father and son both worked on their French, Adams reading a bilingual edition of Molière’s Amphitryon , one of several books he had brought from home.
He discussed medicine with the French surgeon Dr. Noël and encouraged the ship’s first lieutenant, William Barron, to talk about his career and all that he had seen of the world. Barron, a Virginian, impressed Adams as exactly the kind of officer “much wanted in our navy.”
One spectacular day, with all sails spread, the ship made an average of 10 knots. Yet whatever the romance of the sea might be, it eluded Adams. “We see nothing but sky, clouds, and sea and then seas, clouds, and sky.”
“Oh that we might make [a] prize today of an English vessel lately from London with all the newspapers and magazines on board,” he wrote another morning.
“Nothing very remarkable this day,” Captain Tucker wrote in his log. It had become a familiar entry. Once, after recording that the preceding 24 hours had both begun and ended with pleasant weather, he added, “Nothing more remarkable to my sorrow.”
But suddenly life picked up again. “We spied a sail and gave her chase,” a delighted Adams recorded. A ship hull down on the southeastern horizon was thought to be a British cruiser. Tucker ordered the Boston cleared for action. Seeing Adams on the quarterdeck, he quickly explained the situation and, with Adams in agreement on a decision to attack, respectfully suggested that Adams go below, as “hot work” was to ensue.
The ship was a heavily armed merchantman flying the British flag, and, in an hour or more, they had closed with each other. The Boston , coming up bow-on, fired one shot, the merchantman fired three, one ball splitting the Boston ’s mizzen yard directly over the head of John Adams who, as Tucker now saw, had taken a place in the heart of the action, musket in hand. When the Boston swung broadside, revealing for the first time her more formidable array of cannon, the British ship struck her colors.
It was a fine prize, the Martha , out of London and bound for British-held New York with a cargo valued at 70,000 pounds. The British captain and crew, prisoners now, were brought on board. Tucker assigned a picked crew to sail the prize to Boston, ordered a seven-gun salute, and proceeded on course. For Tucker especially, it was a moment of sweet triumph. The Martha , however, would soon be retaken by the British and delivered to Halifax.
Of the part Adams played in the action, Tucker was to speak warmly, and later confirm how, at the height of the fray, he had discovered Adams “among my marines accoutered as one of them and in the act of defense. I then went unto him and said, ‘My dear sir, how came you here,’ and with a smile he replied, ‘I ought to do my share of fighting.’ This was sufficient for me to judge of the bravery of my venerable and patriotic Adams...”