October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
The courtship and fifty-four-year marriage of John and Abigail Adams was, despite separation and war and tragedy, a moving and highly literate love feast between two
On a cool Massachusetts morning in April, 1764, a girl named Abigail Smith watched anxiously as a Negro servant held a bundle of letters in a fire tongs over a smouldering flame. “Did you never rob a Birds nest?” she wrote her correspondent. “Do you remember how the poor Bird would Hy round and round, fearful to come nigh, yet not know how to leave the place—just so they say I hover round Tom whilst he is smokeing my Letters.” For they were from her suitor, John Adams, now in the second week of quarantine for a self-imposed case of smallpox, and in the first of what would be a lifetime of separations from his lady love. How much longer would they be apart? Abigail wondered. “I dare not trust my self with the thought.” Meanwhile, the letters flowed back and forth between her home at Weymouth and Boston, where John’s were smoked upon leaving his house, thus disinfecting them, it was believed, against spread of the infection.
This fear of the smallpox which terrorized the eighteenth century has no modern analogy. Catching smallpox “in the natural way” left eighteen per cent of its victims dead, the rest mutilated. John described two men who were recovering: one, “no more like a Man than he is like an Hog or an Horse—swelled to three times his size, black as bacon, blind as a stone,” and another whose “face is torn all to Pieces, and is as rugged as Braintree Commons.” The recently discovered “new method” of inoculation, which John had submitted to, was the scientific marvel of the age. The death rate was cut drastically, to 0.9 per cent, and the course of “the clistempre” was light; there was little scarring.
How any rational person could hold out against this new system, John could not understand. Not that he considered inoculation a trivial matter. As he wrote Abigail: “A long and total Abstinence from every Thing in Nature that has any Taste, Two heavy Vomits, one heavy Cathartick, four and twenty Mercurial and Antimonial Pills, and Three Weeks close Confinement to an House, are, according to my Estimation of Things, no small matters.—However, who would not chearfully submit to them rather than pass his whole Life in continual Fears, in subjection, under Bondage.”
Resigning himself to a lengthy separation from his farm, his garden, his law business, and his girl, John and his brother, Abigail’s brother, and a group of friends, making up ten, had had themselves inoculated and retired to special quarters in Boston. “We took turns to be sick,” he wrote Abigail, “and to laugh. When my companion was sick I laughed at him, and when I was sick he laughed at me.” When they both were sick, the “good Humour deserted the Room.” They had had their “Vomits,” and the past night, he wrote Abigail, “We took the Pills you gave me.” Now, they were as happy as anyone waiting for the smallpox could expect to be.
For the nineteen-year-old “Miss Nabby,” the separation was almost too hard to bear. John was her “spark,” her first love, at a time when eligible suitors were by no means “as plenty as herrings.” But she was getting little sympathy with her tears and anxiety. For the twenty-nine-year-old John Adams was unwelcome in the home of Abigail Smith.
Who had ever heard of the Adamses? her mother demanded. The Smiths and their kinsmen, the Nortons and Quincys, had sat proudly among the ruling families of the Commonwealth since Puritan days. But Abigail’s beau, stocky and blunt-featured John Adams, was the son of a cobbler-farmer, and he resembled his ancestral generations of square-set yeomen. John had done well enough at Harvard, given his humble station in life. Hut Abigail’s mother bitterly rued the day that her older daughter Mary’s acknowledged and highly eligible suitor, Richard Cranch, had brought his college friend to call.
In the time-honored manner of mothers, Mrs. Smith undoubtedly wanted better for Abigail than she had enjoyed herself. Although she was of the wealthy and influential Quincy family of Boston, her husband, William, a good pastor and farmer, was never prosperous. The little brown cottage to which she had come as a bride, and where Abigail was born, was smaller than the Adams homestead and more humble, with its pine cupboards and bare summer beams and a high-backed settle where a courting couple could seek warmth together. Life had not been too easy for Mrs. Smith; she had had to spin and wind yarn and weave sheets. Abigail was frail and fond of books; she deserved a better life than John Adams could provide.
So Mrs. Smith appealed to her husband. Could he not find a suitable husband for their talented Abby, someone more in keeping with her breeding and station? Parson Smith said nothing. Harried by both his wife and his father-in-law, the doughty Colonel Quincy, there was little lie dared to say. Besides, Abigail knew what she wanted, and her father understood why. He had made it a point to talk to her young man. He liked him, liked his ideas, his views on life and love and friendship. It was too bad that he was a lawyer, of course. Law was generally believed to be a suspect if not dishonest profession. But better a good lawyer than a bad preacher. Personally, silently, Parson Smith decided that Abigail had made a good choice.
Abigail agreed. For she recognized in her outwardly cold and stolid fiancé “a Heart equally warm with my own, and full as susceptible of the Tendcrest impressions. …” She further believed that they were “cast in the same mould,” his of a harder mettle, perhaps, since she had been unable to discover “whether they have both an eaquil quantity of Steel.” Both were passionate Puritans. Suffering, Abigail was convinced, was God’s punishment for sins such as slavcholding. And John, although he had formally renounced the Calvinist creed, was still in the grip of its theology. “He that violates the law in any one instance is guilty of all,” he wrote, foreshadowing his later inability to appreciate the virtues of Alexander Hamilton.
Victims of snobbery, both also practiced it. John disliked most people and could not even bear the smell of the children he once taught in a country school. But “Love sweeiens Life,” he admitted; “I begin to find that an increasing Affection for a certain Lady, (you know who my Dear) quickens my Affections for every Body Else, that does not deserve my Hatred.” And although Abigail once squelched a British peer with the assertion that “In our country … merit, not title, gives a man pre-eminence,” she coidd write scathingly about her younger sister Betsy’s choice of a small-town clergyman as a source of “mortification,” so inferior was he in every way to John. (John favored the match.)
On occasion, however, John was able to convert this besetting New England sin of criticalness into loving advantage. In one letter early in their courtship, John called for kisses due from “Miss Adorable,” for he had “given two or three Millions at least, when one has been received, and of Consequence the Account between us is immensely in favour of yours”; then later he chided his “Diana” upon her need “to conquer your Appetites and Passions.” While still immured with the smallpox, he entertained himself at her request by enumerating a charming tongue-in-cheek “Catalogue of your Faults, Imperfections, Defects, or whatever you please to call them”: You attend to cards, “that noble and elegant Diversion … with a very uncourtly, and indifferent, Air”; your country upbringing has apparently encouraged an innate modesty “that enkindles Blushes forsooth at every Violation of Decency, in Company, and lays a most insupportable Constraint on the freedom of Behavior”; you neither sing nor play a musical instrument; you are what “is commonly called Parrot-toed,” and are ruining your health by “sitting with the Leggs across”; worst of all, your head hangs “like a Bulrush.” “This Fault,” he solemnly intoned, “is the Effect and Consequence of another, still more inexcusable in a Lady. I mean an Habit of Reading, Writing and Thinking. But both the Cause and the Effect ought to be repented and amended as soon as possible.”
Abigail was more than equal to her lover’s jesting compliment. “I thank you for your Catalogue, but must confess I was so hardned as to read over most of my Faults with as much pleasure, as an other person would have read their perfections. And Lysander must excuse me if I still persist in some of them, at least till I am convinced that an alteration would contribute to his happiness.” He would not have to complain twice about her singing, “nor should you have had occasion for it now, if I had not a voice harsh as the screech of a peacock.” She would lift her head, not with any hopes of appearing beautiful, but “to appear agreeable in the Eyes of Lysander.” She would also refrain from sitting incorrectly, though she hardly considered it unhealthy and, she retorted, “you know I think that a gentleman has no business to concern himself about the Leggs of a Lady.” The direction of her toes, she added tartly, “can be cured only by a Dancing School.”
The golden light of autumn was shimmering through Massachusetts, and maple leaves blazed red against the white clapboard walls of the Old First Church in Weymouth on October 25, 1764, when Abigail Smith and John Adams became man and wife. Roguishly, her father read the text for the marriage sermon: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil.”
They settled down in a stark saltbox house in Braintree to the normal domestic life of any young couple. John’s world was a forty-mile law circuit; Abigail churned and baked and spun before the great brick cavern of the kitchen fireplace. Almost from the first, she was knitting baby clothes. Their daughter Abigail was born the following July 14, and three sons arrived within the next seven years; a second daughter died in 1770. “But what shall we do with this young Fry?” John mused in 1767. “In a little while Johnny [John Quincy] must go to Colledge, and Nabby must have fine Cloaths, aye … and there must be dancing Schools and Boarding Schools … and they wil better not have been born you know than not have polite Educations.”
Success he was winning, far beyond the expectations of Abigail’s family, although not of Abigail herself. His Essay on Canon and Feudal Law , more remarkable as propaganda than as history, with its summary of the rights of a colony that might split away, was even published in England and talked about there. Forty Massachusetts towns adopted his instructions on the hated Stamp Act. He was so prosperous that they were able to leave the farm and move into a stately white house on Cambridge’s Brattle Square.
But their domestic dramas were being played out before a backdrop of oncoming war. John was often steeped in gloom; devious plots, he was convinced, were under way to injure him. The whole “execrable Project” of the Stamp Act, he genuinely believed, “was set on foot for my ruin, as well as that of America, in General, and of Great Britain.” When the Crown shut down the courts as punishment for the colonies’ resistance, he brooded on the end of liberty. Taxation without representation was illegal. Were the colonies a separate community, or part of the empire? If the latter, would not a majority of the empire itself fight against such taxes?
His spirits rose when Boston selected him, along with the fiery James Otis, to appear as its counsel before the Crown governor. And on a day when his two Abbys were bedded down with whooping cough, John burst into the house aglow with triumph—Parliament had repealed the Stamp Act! Yet even this he knew was but a temporary reprieve. The “Sons of Liberty” were brawling in Boston’s cobbled streets; inevitably, gunfire suddenly crackled between a mob and British regulars.
The well-advertised “massacre” was somewhat different from Paul Revere’s inflammatory engraving. On a bitter March night in 1770, a mob had taunted a group of regulars, some of them also hurling chunks of ice and wood. Tempers and musketry exploded, and five Americans died. Captain Thomas Preston and seven enlisted men were jailed.
The next morning one Crown lawyer after another refused to take their case. But not John Adams: his self-righteousness and his instinct for martyrdom, as well as for justice, stood by him. (See “The Boston Massacre” in the December, 1966, A MERICAN H ERITAGE .) His estimation that this was “as important a case as was ever tried in any court or country of the world” may have been an exaggeration, but every man was due a fair trial. Witnesses lied. Mobs pelted Adams with mud balls, crashed rocks through his windows. He stood firm. “Facts are stubborn things,” he told the court; they could not be altered.
Preston was acquitted; there was no proof that he had given any order to fire. Two of the “lobster-backs” were found guilty of manslaughter and were branded; the others went free. The law, said John Adams, “is deaf, deaf as an adder, to the clamors of the populace.”
Grudgingly, Boston conceded not only his talents but his courage. Shortly afterward he ran for the legislature, or General Court, winning 418 votes out of 536. His fellow townsmen chose him moderator of a mass protest meeting at Faneuil Hall. Then the thunderbolt exploded. John Adams was named to represent Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
He set out with high hopes. He had never left New England before, and he was looking forward to good company, good conversation, and to seeing something of the world. But as John moved onto a broader stage, Abigail retreated to a narrower one. She was back in Braintree on the bleak farm of her bridal days. Boston Harbor was bottled up; civil war threatened.
John’s letters from Philadelphia were necessarily and disappointingly “Tittle Tatle.” He was sworn to secrecy on the doings of the Continental Congress. Even so, he had urged Abigail to put his letters “up safe.” (She did.) “They may exhibit to our Posterity,” he wrote, “a kind of Picture of the Manners, Opinions and Principles of these Times of Perplexity, Danger and Distress.” News from home was more immediate—and disturbing. Drought was parching New England, and even his “poor Cows,” Abigail wrote in jest, addressed him a petition for his consideration.
He was home for Christmas and a few intense, close-packed weeks before galloping to Philadelphia again. Their separation would be for months this time. Both knew the storm was gathering. Never would Abigail feel more fervently the need of “a Friend who shares our misfortunes and afflictions.” The past October she had celebrated her tenth wedding anniversary—alone. She knew now that the pattern of her marriage was fixed—for years, perhaps; she would be alone weeks and months at a time. The children’s crises, their education, the household tragedies—all were hers to bear alone. Nor could he share the responsibility by mail. At the very least a letter took ten to twelve days in transit, sometimes as long as three weeks.
Abigail heard the thunder. Only it was not thunder; it was a fine clear June day in 1775. Suddenly she knew. With eight-year-old John Quincy, she rushed to the summit of nearby Penn’s Hill, which commanded a clear view of Boston Harbor and the slopes of Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill beyond. Huge coils of black smoke were swirling over Charlestown, and rowboats filled with crouching men were moving out across the harbor between Boston and Charlestown.
“Powder and artillery,” shouted John in Philadelphia, “are the most efficacious … conciliatory measures we can adopt.” Now, upon his motion, Congress voted to raise a Continental army and to name a commander in chief. John approached the man they had in mind, and a week later in Braintree Abigail looked up into the blue eyes of a very tall and travel-wearied man, described by her husband as “the modest and virtuous, the amiable, generous and brave George Washington Esqr.”
This was the one bright moment in a summer of incredible hardship. Since April, refugees had been pouring out of besieged Boston and into Braintree, filling every room of every house. Food had to be provided, meals cooked, bed linen and clothing washed, and comfort supplied. The Adams house was inundated; the children’s rooms became virtual dormitories.
By late summer, an inevitable dysentery epidemic swept the area. Abigail nursed her husband’s brother Elihu, who lay in racking agony until he died. Next, a serving man fell ill; then Abigail herself, lightly; then the youngest boy, Tommy; then two young serving girls, Susy and Patty. Almost hourly the coffins moved to the churchyard; some families lost three, four, or five children. Patty lay dying for five weeks, “the most shocking object my eyes ever beheld,” Abigail confessed. The little girl, who had been a member of the household for four years, literally wasted away and would let no one but Abigail near her. Simultaneously, Abigail had to nurse her mother. She buried them both within ten October days, sustained mainly by her faith and the survival of her children.
Abigail was living from letter to letter during those hard days. A lapse of some weeks after Washington’s visit brought an outburst: “I want some sentimental Effusions of the Heart”; then her aching heart was eased when five letters arrived all at once. “My best Friend,” John told her, “… all the Friendship I have for others is far unequal to that which warms my heart for you.” He only wished that he could write “more than once” every day, but he was still bound to secrecy and working eighteen hours a day.
John’s Christmas homecoming was muted this year. So many familiar faces were gone. His usually somber cast of mind was burdened with the sorrow of knowing that the break with Britain was nearing at last. In January Washington raised the flag of “the United Colonies” or “the Grand Union.” But the war itself went badly. The British fleet still prowled the coast. The Army camps were rife with disease. Grimly, John surveyed a potter’s field, a “Congregation of the dead.” The smallpox, he knew, took ten of Washington’s men for every one that perished by the sword.
In Braintree the night quiet of March 2, 1776, was mutilated with cannonading. Footsteps sounded; the men of Braintree were marching out. All night the firing continued, rocking the house. Two nights later, in a nocturnal maneuver that astonished the British, Washington moved 3,000 well-equipped men to the heights of Dorchester above Boston. Then came incredible news: the British were pulling out.
With peace restored to Boston, nine-year-old Johnny became a post rider between the city and Braintree; smiling slyly, he would hand his mother first one and then another and another of the hoped-for letters. Now she and the children were in more danger from the smallpox than from the British. “Will you come and have the small Pox here?” John wrote suddenly to Abigail. “Let me please myself with the Thought.” Abigail would not; she had made a drastic decision. Smallpox was still ravaging the army. Terrified men were having themselves secretly inoculated, then were passing the disease on in its hideous “natural” form through the exchange of paper currency, which eventually got back to the civilians. Abigail would take no further chances. On July 12 she and the children slipped secretly into Boston, taking with them a cow, a load of hay, some bedding, an old nurse, and a nursemaid who had had “the distempre.” Once arrived, they moved into a Beacon Hill mansion fronting a fruit orchard, lent to them by John Hancock. And there Abigail had herself and all the children inoculated.
John heard the news from others before her July 13 explanation arrived. “I suspect, that you intended to have run slyly, through the small Pox with the family, without letting me know it,” he protested, “and then have sent me an Account that you were all well. This might be a kind Intention, and if the design had succeeded, would have made me very joyous. But the secret is out, and I am left to conjecture.” He longed to be with his family. But he could not leave. After the heady achievement of the Declaration of Independence, Congress had bogged down in a significant discussion over the proposed Articles of Confederation: the question was whether each colony should vote as one, or in proportion to its numbers.
“I hang upon Tenterhooks,” John wrote on July 27. “Fifteen days since, you were all inocculated, and I have not yet learned how you have fared. But I will suppose you all better and out of Danger. Why should I torture myself when I cant relieve you?”
Abigail came through her own brief but severe siege only to find that her plan for an incarceration of only a month or so was a vain hope. For the children, all inoculated at the same time, were taking the disease successively or not at all, thus leaving the laggards open to infection “in the natural way.” Frenziedly, she had them inoculated again and again; the process was seemingly no longer the simple matter that it had been during John’s mild session twelve years before.
Wearily, she longed for the campaign to be over. By late August, Nabby was studded at last with “6 or 7 hundred boils,” each the size of a pea; she could not stand or sit. A few days later the doctor said that she was doing well, but “tis hard to make her think so.” Charles was inoculated three times, then sank into a stupor. He had taken smallpox “in the natural way.”
The children’s convalescence dragged on. August was all but over. Abigail found a quiet spot and sat down with her pen: Boston August 29 1776 Dearest Friend
I have spent the 3 days past almost intirely with you. The weather has been stormy, I have had little company, and I have amused my self in my closet reading over the Letters I have received from you since I have been here.
I have possession of my Aunts chamber in which you know is a very conveniant pretty closet with a window which looks into her flower Garden. In this closet are a number of Book Shelves, which are but poorly furnished, however I have a pretty little desk or cabinet here where I write all my Letters and keep my papers unmollested by any one. I do not covet my Neighbours Goods, but I should like to be the owner of such conveniances. I always had a fancy for a closet with a window which I could more peculiarly call my own.
Here I say I have amused myself in reading and thinking of my absent Friend, sometimes with a mixture of paine, sometimes with pleasure, sometimes anticipating a joyfull and happy meeting, whilst my Heart would bound and palpitate with the pleasing Idea, and with the purest affection I have held you to my Bosom till my whole Soul has dissolved in Tenderness and my pen fallen from my Hand.
How often do I reflect with pleasure that I hold in possession a Heart Eaqually warm with my own, and full as Susceptable of the Tenderest impressions, and Who even now whilst he is reading here, feels all I discribe.
Forgive this Revere, this Delusion, and since I am debared real, suffer me, to enjoy, and indulge In Ideal pleasures—and tell me they are not inconsistant with the stern virtue of a senator and a Patriot.
I must leave my pen to recover myself and write in an other strain. I feel anxious for a post day, and am full as solicitious for two Letters a week and as uneasy if I do not get them, as I used to be when I got but one in a month or 5 weeks. Thus do I presume upon indulgance, and this is Humane Nature, and brings to my mind a sentiment of one of your correspondents viz. “That Man is the only animal who is hungery with His Belly full.” …
I am sorry to find from your last as well as from some others of your Letters that you feel so dissatisfied with the office [chief justice of the superior court of Massachusetts] to which you are chosen. Tho in your acceptance of it, I know you was actuated by the purest motives, and I know of no person here so well qualified to discharge the important Duties of it, Yet I will not urge you to it. In accepting of it you must be excluded from all other employments. There never will be a Salery addequate to the importance of the office or to support you and your family from penury. If you possess a fortune I would urge you to it, in spight of all the flears and gibes of minds who themselves are incapable of acting a distintrested part, and have no conception that others can.
I have never heard any Speaches about it, nor did I know that such insinuations had been Thrown out.
Pure and disintrested Virtue must ever be its own reward. Mankind are too selfish and too depraved to discover the pure Gold from the baser mettle.
I wish for peace and tranquility. All my desires and all my ambition is to be Esteemed and Loved by my Partner, to join with him in the Education and instruction of our Little ones, to set under our own vines in Peace, Liberty and Safety.
Adieu my Dearest Friend, soon, soon return to your most affectionate Portia
Four days later she awoke to “a Beautifull Morning. I see it with joy, and I hope thankfullness. I came here with all my treasure of children, have passed thro one of the most terible Diseases to which humane Nature is subject, and not one of us is wanting.” How much more beautiful it would be if John were home. She had reason now to believe that Congress would soon complete its business. New delays arose. “I have been here, untill I am stupified. If I set down to write even to you, I am at a Loss what to write,” John reported on the seventh of October. When he could not write, he confessed, he felt more pain than did Abigail when she waited and heard nothing, but he simply did not have time. On October 11, he abruptly announced: “… I am coming to make my Apology in Person.”
Two months and nine days they shared together. Then John rode off into the northern January cold of 1777 to return to Philadelphia. “When I reflect,” he wrote en route from Baltimore, “upon the Prospect before me of so long an Absence from all that I hold dear in this World, I mean all that contributes to my private personal Happiness, it makes me melancholly. When I think on your Circumstances I am more so, and yet I rejoice at them in spight of all this Melancholly.—God almightys Providence protect and bless you and yours and mine.” Abigail was pregnant.
Never had John Adams so longed to be at home. He sent tender messages and letters to the children, reminding young John that “a Taste for Literature and a Turn for Business, united in the same Person, never fails to make a great Man. A Taste for Literature, includes the Love of Science and the fine Arts. A turn for Business, comprehends Industry and Application as well as a faculty of conversing with Men. …”
Now it was John’s turn to wait anxiously for letters. Abigail was weary, but her health was only one of her pressing concerns. There was no molasses, no mutton, no pork or lamb. There was no sugar, no coffee, no tea. There was almost no flour. In Boston the bakers doled out a loaf of bread a day to large families, and in June women raided a city storehouse for flour. “A Dollor now is not eaquel to what one Quarter was two years ago. …” Abigail thereupon resolved to buy no more clothes, even if the family became like Eve and Adam; nor would she pay black-market prices for meat. She paid with her health instead. She felt well enough, but was pale as “a whited wall.” John Quincy told her: “Mar, I never saw any body grow so fat as you do.” By June she was really ill, and, as if sensing her condition, her husband was looking forward to midJuly with more anxiety than he could describe. “You will have Patience with me,” he begged, for this time away would be the last. Now he was going to “bid farewell to great Affairs. I have a Right to spend the Remainder of my days in small ones.” But the loss of her company and “that of my dear Babes for so long a Time. I consider as a Loss of so much solid Happiness.”
It was now July. Abigail could not sleep. Two weeks more to wait for the baby. Six months more to wait for John’s return. “Do you sigh for Home?” she had written. “And would you willingly share with me what I have to pass through?”
His “answer” crossed her query in transit: Philadelphia July 10. 1777. Thursday
My Mind is again Anxious, and my Heart in Pain for my dearest Friend. …
Three Times have I felt the most distressing Sympathy with my Partner, without being able to afford her any Kind of Solace, or Assistance.
When the Family was sick of the Dissentery, and so many of our Friends died of it.
When you all had the small Pox.
And now I think I feel as anxious as ever.—Oh that I could be near, to say a few kind Words, or shew a few Kind Looks, or do a few kind Actions. Oh that I could take from my dearest, a share of her Distress, or relieve her of the whole.
Before this shall rea[c]h you I hope you will be happy in the Embraces of a Daughter, as fair, and good, and wise, and virtuous as the Mother, or if it is a son 1 hope it will still resemble the Mother in Person, Mind and Heart.
It was as if he had sensed the tragedy. For a week Abigail had been severely ill. On the night of July 8 she was taken with “a shaking fit,” which left her almost certain “that a life was lost.” The next evening she received a letter from John to “My dearest Friend.”
Those three words meant more to her than any other part of the letter except the close of it. “I wanted the personal and tender soothings of my dearest Friend, that [renjderd it so valuable to me at this time.” The next day she went into labor, and it was her fears, not John’s hopes, that were realized. Both had had their hearts set on another daughter. But the “fine looking” little girl never opened her eyes. Twelve-year-old Nabby cried for hours.
John received Abigail’s and the doctor’s letters about the twenty-eighth of July. Never in his life had he been so moved, and devoutly he gave thanks to God for sparing the one dearest to him in all the world. Yet he sorrowed bitterly for the lost baby. “Is it not unaccountable, that one should feel so strong an Affection for an Infant, that one has never seen, nor shall see? Yet I must confess to you, the Loss of this sweet little Girl, has most tenderly and sensibly affected me.”
Abigail’s health and spirits bounded back with their customary elasticity. She looked forward eagerly to her husband’s homecoming; the sight of his clothes in the closet “raisefd] a mixture both of pleasure and pain in my Bosome.” But she found comfort in the blooming of the farm. “Heaven has blessed us with fine crops,” she wrote. There was more hay than last year and two hundred bushels of corn. They would have “fat Beat and pork enough,” and enough cloth for homespun to clothe the servants and children. There would be “butter and cheesse enough.” The fruit was poor, but there was plenty of garden “sause” (vegetables).
In Philadelphia, John was reaping a different kind of harvest. The tide of war had finally begun to turn for the colonial cause. Recruits were swelling the depleted ranks, and although the approach of Sir William Howe had forced Congress to flee Philadelphia, John was optimistic about the final outcome. There was militia enough—if it would stand and not run away. The people were calling for blood; Washington was “getting into the Humour of fighting.” At Germantown, as at Brandywine, the Continentals had withdrawn in an orderly manner after a brief, abortive attack. But for a few moments they had fought like veterans. Then came wonderful news, “a Capitulation of Burgoine and his whole Army.” Shortly afterward, John could write: “Howe is compleatly in our Power.”
Three years had elapsed since John Adams had “stepped into the Coach … to go to Philadelphia in Quest of Adventures.” Adventures he had had, in plenty. But he had had enough. He was going home, going back to Abigail, who after thumbing through “a feast of Letters” had ended a recent letter: “Good Night Friend of my Heart, companion of my youth —Husband and Lover—Angles watch thy Repose.”
Delay after delay halted his return. Not until November 14, 1777, could he write from Easton, Pennsylvania: “Here I am.—I am bound home.—I suppose it will take me 14 days, perhaps 18 or 20, to reach Home.”
For John and Abigail, now, it was as if the guns were stilled, the peace won and complete. Abigail had a husband again; the children, a father; the cup of happiness for them all was brimming over. John’s absences now were the old, familiar ones, riding the law circuit and back again in a few days’ time.
It was during one of these periods that, according to John’s instructions, Abigail opened an ominous and official-looking document—and sank into cold despair. She read it over and over, her heart chilling. John Adams had been named a commissioner to France.
Had he not sacrificed enough? Had not she? Passionately—in letters to James Lovell, who had written John urging him to accept the appointment, and to her friend Mercy Warren—she railed out against this “plot against him,” this scheme to rob her of all her earthly happiness. Her husband had been home for only a few weeks. His children needed “the joint force of his example and precepts.” Should she now “consent to be seperated from him whom my Heart esteems above all earthly things, and for an unlimited time”?
In her anguish she resolved to let John decide for himself, although she feared what his answer might be. They had already spent over half of their married life apart. Welling up in them both were all the “tender sentiments that years have encreased and matured.” When John was “in the Dumps,” which was frequently, he could write that he went “mourning in my Heart, all the Day long … for myself a Frock and Trowsers, an Hoe and Spade, would do for my Remaining Days.” But then there were moments when his friends called him “the Zeal-Pot,” when he gloried in his heart and head and hands and what he could do with them for his fellow men, and gloried too that the partner of all his joys and sorrows shared in his struggle to build their young country.
Abigail bowed her head. She knew what she must do. John must finish his work. She would throw no impediment in his way. John felt little hesitation. Although he, no less than Abigail, knew the cruelty of separation, his sense of duty, coupled to his ambition, resolved the dilemma for him. Letters urging him to accept were pouring in upon him. And he knew the truth of what Lovell had written him, that the Continental Congress must have “a man of inflexible Integrity on that Embassy.”
Later, perhaps, Abigail and the children might join him. But not now, not with British men-of-war prowling the Atlantic. The little twenty-four-gun frigate Boston might be sunk and all of them lost. But he would take one child, ten-year-old John Quincy. The boy needed his father; furthermore, he was old enough to profit from foreign travel.
Abigail tried to stifle her sorrows by work, by outfitting her men for the bitter six weeks’ winter crossing. Shirts must be made, and there was no cambric to be had. Ample supplies of tea, chocolate, apples, and cider must be packed aboard, and ink contrived from gunpowder for the longed-for letters. Would she ever hear from her dear ones? she wondered; there might be sea battles, storms. But she steeled herself, silenced all complaints. “None knew the struggle it has cost me,” she confessed afterward. Few human beings had “so valuable a treasure to resign.” She could not bear to go to Boston to watch that tiny ship move out into the gray bleakness of the Atlantic. She parted from young John and her “Best of Friends” at home, in the familiar surroundings where they had said farewell so many times before.
“Great necessities call out great virtues,” she wrote John Quincy afterward. Hers was sacrifice. She could not read the future. She could not know that she would later join her husband abroad, that she would shine at the French court, that she would become her country’s first Vice President’s lady and the second First Lady. Now she could only sit down at her desk, take out her pen, and once again write the words, “Dearest Friend.”