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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
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....”
Years later, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Adams would describe the voyage on the Boston as symbolic of his whole life. The raging seas he had passed through, he seemed to be saying, were like the times they lived in, and he was at the mercy of the times no less than the seas. Possibly he saw, too, in the presence of John Quincy, how directly his determination to dare such seas affected his family and how much, with his devotion to the cause of America, he had put at risk beyond his own life. Besides, as he may also have seen, the voyage had demonstrated how better suited he was for action than for smooth sailing with little to do.