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Winter Crossing

June 2024
16min read

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.

JOHN ADAMS REACHED HIS HOME IN BRAINTREE, MASSA- chusetts, by horseback in the last days of November 1777 and for two weeks did little but relish the comforts of his own fireside. He was home to stay, by preference and of necessity, he said: “It was my intention to decline the next election, and return to my practise at the bar. I had been four years in Congress, left my accounts in a very loose condition. My debtors were failing, the paper money was depreciating. I was daily losing the fruits of seventeen years’ industry. My family was living on my past acquisitions which were very moderate.... My children were growing up without my care in their education, and all my emoluments as a member of Congress for four years had not been sufficient to pay a laboring man on my farm....” But, on November 28, Congress named Adams a commissioner to work with Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee in negotiating a French alliance.

A packet of letters and Adams’s official commission to the Court of France reached Braintree in mid-December, at about the time Washington’s army was on the march west from Philadelphia to take up winter quarters at Valley Forge. Adams was away at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, representing a client in what was to be his last appearance ever in court as a private attorney. Thinking the packet must be urgent business, Abigail opened it and was stunned by what she read. Furious, she wrote straight away to James Lovell, the most active member of the Committee for Foreign Affairs, demanding to know how he could “contrive to rob me of all my happiness.” The thought of John braving the North Atlantic in winter, and the very real possibility of his capture at sea, horrified her. No one put to sea from Boston in winter if it could possibly be avoided, even in peacetime.

News of his appointment had already reached Adams in New Hampshire. Thus, the day he dismounted from his horse at Braintree, December 22, he and Abigail knew they had reached one of the turning points of their lives. What was said between them, neither divulged. But the decision, difficult as it was, Adams made at once. There was no hesitation, no playing out the ordeal of deciding. If nothing else, he was decisive. They both were. Within twenty-four hours he had written his letter of acceptance. The question of whether Abigail should accompany him was discussed, and for a few days, it appeared she might go, great as her fear was of crossing the water. It was the risk of capture by the enemy that weighed heaviest in the balance. But also, the expense of living in Paris was bound to be more than they could afford, and clearly things at home would fall to ruin without her.

She would remain at home, but 10-year-old Johnny, the second-oldest of his surviving children and the eldest son, was to go with his father, as the boy ardently wished. It was the chance of a lifetime for him, an experience of inestimable value, Abigail recognized, her “thousand fears” notwithstanding. Assuredly, he would encounter temptation, she wrote, but to exclude him from temptation would be to exclude him from the world in which he was to live.

They were to sail on the new 24-gun frigate Boston , under the command of Capt. Samuel Tucker of Marblehead. For weeks there was much scurrying to get ready, much ado over packing and estimating the food and supplies to be sent on board for Adams, his son, John Quincy, and a Braintree man named Joseph Stephens, who would be going as Adams’s servant. The completed list included such immediate necessities for Adams as ink, paper, account books, 25 quill pens, a dozen clay pipes, tobacco, and a pocket-sized pistol; but also, two hogs, two “fat sheep,” six dozen chickens, five bushels of corn, fourteen dozen eggs, a keg of rum, a barrel of Madeira, four dozen bottles of port wine, tea, chocolate, brown sugar, mustard, pepper, a box of wafers, a bag of Indian meal, and a barrel of apples.


In view of the number of spies in and about Boston and the certainty of British cruisers in New England waters, departure was to be managed with all possible secrecy. Adams was not to go aboard at Boston. He would be picked up near dark, at a rendezvous on the shore of Quincy Bay known as Hough’s Neck. As little as possible was to be said of the plan. Adams would leave pressing legal matters unattended and without explanation to his clients. Numbers of friends, even members of the family, never knew of his appointment to France until after he had gone.

On a blustery morning in February, the Boston dropped anchor off Nantasket Roads, a few miles northeast of Hough’s Neck. But with snow squalls and winds gathering to gale force, it was not until two days later that a barge was lowered.

Abigail did not go down to the shore to see her husband and son depart. The goodbyes were said at home.

They crossed through gray twilight and blowing snow to a house by the shore, where sailors from the Boston were waiting, out of the bitter wind. It was the home of a distant cousin of Adams whose wife, afflicted by “hysterical complaints,” accosted Adams with a warning. He was embarking under bad signs. “The heavens frown, the clouds roll,... the waves of the sea roar upon the beach,” she declaimed. He was not enough of a Roman, Adams later said, to take this as an ill omen. But then, neither was he a New Englander of the kind bred to the sea, for all that he loved its proximity and bracing air. He had never in his life sailed on a ship. His one venture had been by small boat in boyhood, and then only to go fishing at nearby Cohasset Rocks.

Now he was embarking on a 3,000-mile voyage on the North Atlantic in its most treacherous season, the risks far greater than he knew. The difference between what he understood of the perils to be faced and what the captain understood was hardly less than the difference between his understanding and that of his small son. A hardened seaman like Captain Tucker knew what the Atlantic could deliver up in February: the chance of being hit by a northeaster and driven onto the shoals of Cape Cod, graveyard of ships; the sheer terror of winter storms at sea when freezing spray aloft could turn to ice so heavy as to cause a ship to capsize; navigation, never a simple matter, becoming difficult in the extreme from a violently pitching deck and with a horizon distorted by breaking seas, or, in the absence of sun and stars, quite impossible.

Adams was leaving his wife, children, friends, his home, his livelihood, everything he loved. He was risking his life plus his small son’s, risking capture, and who knew what horrors and indignities as a prisoner, all to begin a new job for which he felt ill suited, knowing nothing of European politics or diplomacy and unable to speak French, the language of diplomacy. He had never in his life laid eyes upon a king or queen, or the foreign minister of a great power, never set foot in a city of more than 30,000 people. At age 42, he was bound for an unimaginably distant world apart, with very little idea of what was in store and every cause to be extremely apprehensive.

But with his overriding sense of duty, his need to serve, his ambition, and as a patriot, fiercely committed to the fight for independence, he could not have done otherwise. There was never really a doubt about his going.

If Adams was untrained and inexperienced in diplomacy, so was every American. If unable to speak French, he could learn. Fearsome as the winter seas might be, he was not lacking in courage, and besides, the voyage would provide opportunity to appraise the Continental Navy at firsthand, a subject he believed of highest importance. And for all he may have strayed from the hidebound preachments of his forebears, Adams remained enough of a Puritan to believe anything worthy must carry a measure of pain.

“The wind was very high, and the sea very rough,” he would record in his diary, “but by means of a quantity of hay in the bottom of the boat, and good watch coats with which we were covered, we arrived on board the Boston about five o’clock, tolerably warm and dry.”

Continuing high winds and steep seas kept the ship at anchor in the roadstead another 36 hours. Then, once under way, on a morning with the temperature at 14 degrees, the Boston went only as far as Marblehead, where a sudden snowstorm blotted out all visibility, and two days passed before Captain Tucker could put to sea. The weather was no warmer but fair at last, and the wind out of the northwest, exactly what was needed to clear Cape Cod on a broad reach.

The date was Tuesday, February 17, 1778, and, as Adams had no way of knowing, it marked the beginning of what would become a singular odyssey, in which he would journey farther in all, both by sea and land, than any other leader of the American cause.

By those who knew, the Boston was judged a pretty ship. One of the smaller of 13 frigates commissioned by Congress, she had been built and launched at Newburyport in 1776. One hundred and fourteen feet on deck, and 514 tons, she had a theoretical complement of 200 men. As it was, there were 172 crowded on board, counting officers, crew, and 36 passengers, mostly French officers returning after service in the Continental Army. Of this French contingent, Adams took an immediate liking to an Army surgeon named Nicholas Noël, who spoke English and thought well enough of the young John Quincy to begin schooling him in French.

As for Captain Tucker, Adams considered him able and attentive, though, to judge by the few books in his cabin, no doubt lacking in erudition. The son of a Marblehead-sea captain, Tucker was 30 years old, a square, solid-looking man with a booming voice who had been at sea since the age of 11. But the Boston was a new command with a green crew, and the official instructions Tucker had received concerning his highly important passenger were unlike any in his experience. He had not only the responsibility of ensuring safe passage to France, but he was to consult with the Honorable John Adams on all important decisions: “You are to afford him on his passage every accommodation in your power, and to consult him on all occasions, with respect to your passage and general conduct, and the port you shall endeavor to get into, and on all occasions have great regard to the importance of his security and safe arrival.”

Adams showed an immediate interest in seeing everything about the ship and how it was run, and except for the tiny, snug cabin that he and Johnny shared, little met his approval. Nor, characteristically, had he the least hesitation about letting Tucker know.

There was too much informality, too little discipline, and a “detestable” use of profanity that should never be tolerated. The men were insufficiently practiced in use of the guns, and many hardly knew the ropes. Most disturbing was the same appalling indifference to sanitation that Adams knew from his friend Dr. Benjamin Rush to be the scourge of the Continental Army. Once, walking through potter’s field in Philadelphia the previous April, Adams had been overcome by the thought that more than 2,000 American soldiers had already been buried there, nearly all victims of smallpox and camp diseases. Dirty frying pans slayed more than swords, he had told Abigail. “Discipline, discipline is the great thing wanted.” There could be no cleanliness without discipline, and death from disease among seamen was, he knew, exceedingly high. (For every sailor in the British navy killed in action or who died of wounds in the era of the American Revolution, 17 died of disease.)

Meals on the Boston were wretched and served at the cook’s pleasure. The reek of burning sea coal and the stench of stagnant water belowdecks were dreadful and contributed to everyone’s misery when, after the first full day of “rolling and rocking” at sea, every passenger and half the crew became sea-sick.

Under ideal circumstances, a crossing to France could be accomplished in about three weeks. As it was, the voyage would take six weeks and four days—excellent time, given that eight to ten weeks was the usual run in winter, and quite remarkable considering all that happened.

In the first faint light of morning, their second day at sea, with wind and weather holding fair, from the masthead came a call of three ships bearing east on the northward horizon—three British frigates, as another hour would tell—that soon gave chase. After consultation with Adams, Captain Tucker determined to stand away from them. Two of the three ships eventually fell off, but one, the best sailor, kept in pursuit. “Sometimes we gained upon her, and sometimes she upon us,” Adams recorded. The chase went on all day and for two days following, when they crossed into the Gulf Stream and lost sight of the enemy ship.

“When the night approached, the wind died away,” Adams would write of the close of the third day, “and we were left rolling and pitching in a calm with our guns all out, our courses ... all drawn up, and every way prepared for battle; the officers and men appeared in good spirits, and Captain Tucker said his orders were to carry me to France ... he thought it his duty, therefore, to avoid fighting, especially with an unequal force, if he could, but if he could not avoid an engagement, he would give them something that should make them remember him.”

In the night, a sudden, violent storm struck with a blinding cannonade of thunder and lightning. The ship “shuddered ... darted from side to side ... all hands were called, and with much difficulty the guns were all got in and secured.... It was with the utmost difficulty that my little son and I could hold ourselves in bed with both our hands, and bracing ourselves against the boards, planks, and timbers with our feet.” There was a horrendous, terrifying crash as a bolt of lightning hit the main mast, very near the powder room. Twenty seamen were injured. One man, a hole burned in his shoulder, would die “raving mad.”

The storm raged on. “The sea being very cross and high, forced me to scud before the wind under my foresail,” recorded Captain Tucker. “Heavy gales and a dangerous sea running,” he wrote the next day; “one thing or another continually giving way on board.... Pray God protect us.. . .”

Adams wanted to keep a running account of all that was happening but found it impossible. He was so drenched, everything was so soaking wet, that pen and paper were useless. “No man could keep upon his legs, and nothing could be kept in its place,” he later wrote. “The wind blowing against the current [of the Gulf Stream], not directly, but in various angles, produced a tumbling sea, vast mountains,... sometimes dashing against each other... and not infrequently breaking on the ship, threatened to bury us all at once in the deep. The sails were all hauled down but a foresail... and we were left with bare poles entirely at the mercy of wind and water. The noises were such that we could not hear each other speak at any distance. The shrouds and every other rope in the ship exposed to the wind became a chord of very harsh music. Their vibrations produced a constant and a hideous howl....”

Later, in his autobiography Adams would confess to moments of severe regret that he had ever brought his son, but he wrote also of his extreme pride in the boy. His “behavior gave me a satisfaction that I cannot express. Fully sensible of our danger, he was constantly endeavoring to bear up under it with a manly courage and patience, very attentive to me, and his thoughts always running in a serious strain. In this he was not singular.... I believe there was not a soul on board who was wholly thoughtless of a Divinity.”

Appraising his own performance, Adams felt more than a little pleased, even some surprise, it would appear, that he had remained “perfectly calm.”

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.”


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...”

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.

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