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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 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...”
Days later, approaching a French brig, Tucker ordered a signal shot fired. The gun blew to pieces, felling several sailors and shattering the leg of Lieutenant Barron, the officer Adams so admired. And it was Adams and Tucker who gripped young Barron in their arms as Dr. Noël amputated the limb. Barron died more than a week later, after “enduring the greatest pain,” according to the captain’s log, and was committed to the deep from the quarterdeck. “He was put into a chest,” wrote Adams, “and ten or twelve pounds of shot put in with him, and then nailed up. The fragment of the gun which destroyed him was lashed on the chest, and the whole launched overboard through one of the ports in the presence of all the ship’s crew. ...”
On March 24, in the Bay of Biscay, Adams could see by telescope the snowcapped mountains of Spain. At the week’s end, as the Boston at last entered the busy thoroughfare of Bordeaux, an Irish passenger from the Martha broke out a fiddle and played all afternoon as the sailors danced.
On Monday, March 30, with a French pilot aboard, the Boston moved up the Gironde, where the whole landscape struck Adams as extraordinarily beautiful. “Europe, thou great theater of arts, sciences, commerce, war, am I at last permitted to visit thy territories,” he wrote that night in his diary, allowing that the sight of France at last gave him a “pleasing melancholy.”
When the Boston anchored at Bordeaux, he and Dr. Noël were invited to dine on a French warship lying close by. It was Adams’s first exposure to French hospitality—in effect his first time in France—and he could not have been more pleased or impressed by the gentility of his hosts, the elegant cabin where the meal was served, the white stone plates, napkins, everything “as clean as in any gentleman’s house,” and food and wine, which, after the Boston, seemed heaven-sent.
His hosts spoke no English. But with the doctor serving as interpreter, Adams learned to his astonishment that as a consequence of the American triumph at Saratoga, France and the United States had already agreed to an alliance.
Thus, before he had even set foot on French soil, he found that the very purpose of his mission, to assist in negotiations for such an alliance, had been accomplished. The agreement, one of the most fateful in history, had been signed on February 6, 1778, which was before Adams had even left home.
It was shortly after daybreak the next morning, April 1, All Fools’ Day, when Adams, his son, and his servant took leave of Captain Tucker and were rowed ashore. The relief felt by Tucker, his mission accomplished, may be imagined.
Adams was to cross the Atlantic three more times, while John Quincy in years to come would sail often to and from Europe. But for neither was there ever to be an ocean voyage comparable to this, their first. Both would allude to it frequently —the novelty and high adventure, the savage storm, the battle at sea, the misery and terror and exhilaration of it all.
In a first letter from France to his “Hon[ore]d Mama,” the lines of his pen running up and down in waves, as though he were still on board ship, John Quincy would express what was felt deeply by both father and son: “I hope I shall never forget the goodness of God in preserving us through all the dangers we have been exposed to....”