April 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 3
The most important and impressive collection of family letters in this country is that of the Adams family. Extending from ij6i, when John Adams began courting Abigail Smith, almost to the end of the nineteenth century, it offers a view unparalleled in scope and depth of the ideas, actions, and feelings of an illustrious American family. Part of the huge undertaking called The Adams Papers , published under the editorship of Lyman H. Butterfield by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, the Adams Family Correspondence is expected to amount to some twenty-four large volumes. Volumes 3 and 4, covering the years ijj882, have just been issued—a most interesting period that found Abigail weathering the Revolution at home in Braintree, Massachusetts, and John abroad, in France and Holland, as an indefatigable advocate for the fledgling republic. They suffered the usual heartaches of a loving couple separated by oceans and wars—doubt, fear, jealousy, irritation—intensified by the fact that any letter between them, if it escaped capture by the British, was sure to take many weeks in transit. Here is one exchange, published with permission of the Harvard University Press, that gives a particularly poignant insight into the human quality of these famous personages. It begins with an apparent attempt by Abigail to stir her husband to more ardent correspondence through jealousy—for the French fleet under the Comte d’Estaing had been m Boston Harbor for several weeks. Her sophisticated pose soon collapses, however, and she gives herself to passionate reproaches. Neither of her gambits, as it turned out, produced quite the desired result in testy John. (Except for the last paragraph his letter was transcribed by his amanuensis, young John Quincy Adams.)
[ Braintree , 25 October 1778]
The Morning after I received your very short Letter I determined to have devoted the day in writing to my Friend but I had only just Breakfasted when I had a visit from Monsieur Rivers an officer on board the Langudock who speaks English well, the Captain of the Zara and 6 or 8 other officers from on Board an other ship. The first Gentlemen dined with me and spent the day so that I had no opportunity of writing that day. The Gentlemen officers have made me several visits and I have dined twice on board at very Elegant entertainments. Count dEstaing has been exceeding polite to me. Soon after he arrived here I received a Message from him requesting that I would meet him at Col. Quincy’s as it was inconvenient leaving his ship for any long time. I waited upon him and was very politely received. Upon parting he requested that the family would accompany me on board his Ship and dine with him the next thursday with any Friends we chose to bring and his Barge should come for us. We went according to the invitation and were sumptuously entertaind with every delicacy that this country produces and the addition of every foreign article that could render our feast Splendid. Musick and dancing for the young folks closed the day.
The temperance of these Gentlemen, the peaceable quiet disposition both of officers and men joined to many other virtues which they have exibeted during their continuance with us, is sufficent to make Europeans and Americans too blush at their own degeneracy of manners. Not one officer has been seen the least disguised with Liquour since their arrival. Most that I have seen appear to be gentlemen of family and Education. I have been the more desirous to take notice of them as I cannot help saying that they have been neglected in the town of Boston. Generals Heath and Hancock have done their part, but very few if any private families have any acquaintance with them.
Perhaps I feel more anxious to have them distinguished on account of the near and dear connextion I have among them. It would gratify me much if I had it in my power to entertain every officer in the Fleet.
In the very few lines I have received from you not the least mention is made that you have ever received a line from me. I have not been so parsimonious as my Friend, perhaps I am not so prudent but I cannot take my pen with my Heart overflowing and not give utterance to some of the abundance which is in it. Could you after a thousand fears and anxieties, long expectation and painfull suspences be satisfied with my telling you that I was well, that I wished you were with me, that my daughter sent her duty, that I had orderd some articles for you which I hoped would arrive &c. &c.—By Heaven if you could you have changed Hearts with some frozen Laplander or made a voyage to a region that has chilld every Drop of your Blood.—But I will restrain a pen already I fear too rash, nor shall it tell you how much I have sufferd from this appearance of——inattention.
The articles sent by Capt. Tucker have arrived safe and will be of great service to me. Our Money is very little better than blank paper, it takes 40 dollors to purchase a Barrel of cider, 50 pounds Lawfull for a 100 of Sugar and 50 dollors for a hundred of flower, 4 dollors per day for a Labourer and find [board] him which will amount to 4 more. You will find by Bills drawn before the date of this that I had taken the method which I was happy in finding you had directed me to. I shall draw for the rest as I find my situation requires. No article that can be named foreign or domestick but what costs more than double in hard money what it once sold for. In one Letter I have given you an account of our Local Situation, and of every thing I thought you might wish to know. 4 or 5 sheets of paper wrote to you by the last Mail were distroyd when she was taken. Duplicates are my Aversion tho I believe I should set a value upon them if I was to receive them from a certain Friend, a Friend who never was deficient, in testifying his regard and affection to his
Passy Decr. 18 1778
This Moment I had, what shall I say? the Pleasure or the pain of your Letter of 25 of Octr. As a Letter from my dearest Freind it gave me a pleasure that it would be in vain to attempt to describe: but the Complaints in it gave me more pain than I can express—this is the third Letter I have reed, in this complaining style, the former two I have not answer’d.—I had Endeavour’d to answer them.—I have wrote several answers, but upon a review, they appear’d to be such I could not send. One was angry, another was full of Greif, and the third with Melancholy, so that I burnt them all.—if you write me in this style I shall leave of writing intirely, it kills me. Can Professions of Esteem be Wanting from me to you?Can Protestation of affection be necessary? can tokens of Remembrance be desir’d? The very Idea of this sickens me. Am I not wretched Enough, in this Banishment, without this. What Course shall I take to convince you that my Heart is warm? you doubt, it seems.—shall I declare it? shall I swear to it?—Would you doubt it the less?—And is it possible you should doubt it ? I know it is not?—If I could once believe it possible, I cannot answer for the Consequences.—But I beg you would never more write to me in such a strain for it really makes me unhappy.
Be assured that no time nor place, can change my heart : but that I think so often & so much, of the Blessings from which I am seperated as to be too unmindful of those who accompany me, & that I write to you so often as my Duty will permit.
I am extremely obliged to the Comte D’Estaing and his officers for their Politeness to you, and am very Glad you have had an opportunity, of seing so much of the french Nation. The accounts from all hands agree that there was an agréable intercourse, & happy harmony upon the whole between the inhabitants and the Fleet, the more this Nation is known, & the more their Language is understood, the more narrow Prejudices will wear away. British Fleet and Armys, are very different from theirs, in Point of Temperance and Politeness there is no Comparison.
This is not a correct Copy, but you will pardon it, because it is done by an Hand as dear to you as to your