29 July 2011

For Love and Country: John and Abigail Adams and the United States of America, part 4

1764 - 1774

“We live my dear Soul, in an Age or Tryal.  What will be the Consequence I know not.”

--John Adams to Abigail Adams, May 12, 1774 (Butterfield, I. 107)

            From the middle of the 1760s, John and Abigail, as well as many others in the American Colonies, grew conscious of the problems that might occur with the actions of Great Britain.  What the Adamses were not aware of was that the crisis would take John from his family and put his life at risk.

 The British passed the Stamp Act in 1765, creating a stir in the Colonies.  It was repealed only months after its passage.  In the interim, John was directly affected, as all of his law documents were subject to the tax.  Business in the courts slowed to a trickle.  John joined an organization at this time that would later call themselves the Sons of Liberty.  At meetings politics were discussed, and John would inform Abigail of the sentiments of the men in the meetings.  Both John and Abigail started to become aware that the Colonies and Britain were heading towards an impasse (Coit 3).  The following year, 1767, the Townshend Acts were passed in Britain.  The acts taxed items such as lead, paper, paint, glass, and tea, but unlike the Stamp Act, only imported items were taxed.  The Sons of Liberty, led by Samuel Adams, called for a boycott on these items from Britain.  The Townshend Acts were repealled in 1770, except for the tax on tea. 

Throughout this period, John Adams was involved with the Sons of Liberty and his opinions were shaped by those of the other members.  Abigail was influenced by John when he brought those opinions home.  In a letter written on December 5, 1773 to her good friend Mercy Otis Warren, Abigail clearly shows that, if not of her own mind and opinion, she was surely influenced in her opinion (as well as highly informed) of current events by her husband and their close friends.  She wrote,

The Tea that bainfull weed is arrived.  Great and I hope Effectual opposition has been made to the landing of it[. . . .]The flame is kindled and like Lightning it catches from Soul to Soul.  Great will be the devastation if not timely quenched or allayed by some more Lenient Measures.  Altho the mind is shocked at the Thought of sheding Humane Blood, more Especially the Blood of our Countrymen, and a civil War is of all Wars, the most dreadfull Such is the present Spirit that prevails, that if once they are made desperate Many, very Many of our Heroes will spend their lives in the cause, With the Speech of Cato in their Mouths, ‘What a pitty it is, that we can dye but once to save our Country.’ (Butterfield, I.  88)

The next day, angry residents of Boston, organized by Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty, boarded the British tea ships that were in Boston Harbor and dumped the tea overboard.  John predicted the dire repercussions of the actions for the colonists shortly before the British acted.  “The Town of Boston, for ought I can see, must suffer Martyrdom: It must expire: And our principal Consolation is that it dies in a noble Cause,” John wrote just before some of the acts took effect.  He continued, “The Cause of Truth, of Virtue, of Liberty and of Humanity: and that it will probably have a glorious Reformation, to greater Wealth, Splendor and Power than ever” (Butterfield, I. 107).  In essence, John was writing that Boston would be the starting place of the war for independence. 

By the end of March, the British closed the Port of Boston until the damaged tea was paid in full.  The closing of the port was part of British acts which would be called the Intolerable Acts by the Colonies.  Elective government in the Colony was banned and any judge could decide to move a trial to Britain if he pleased.  The acts were aimed at Massachusetts, but were meant as a warning to the other Colonies as well.  

The first Continental Congress, which was to decide how the Colonies would proceed in their relations with their mother country, met in Philadelphia in September 1774.  For the first extended period of time John was away from Abigail. Abigail was aware of the role her husband would have to play.  “Your task is difficult and important,” she wrote days after he left her.  Abigail was already concerned about the worsening relations between Britain and the Colonies.  John’s safety was added to her worries about the family. “The great distance between us, makes the time appear very long to me,” she wrote to John less than a week later.  “It seems already a month since you left me.  The great anxiety I feel for my Country, for you and for our family renders the day tedious, and the night unpleasant” (Butterfield, I. 140, 142).  It was the first time in their marriage that John would be so far away from Abigail for such an extended period of time.

John, for his part, longed to be home, but he knew he would stay in Philadelphia as long as he needed to be there.  “Sitting down to write you, is a Scene almost too tender for my State of Nerves,” John wrote from “Phyladelphia” on September 29th, seven weeks after he left Braintree.  He continued,

It calls up to my View the anxious, distress’d State you must be in, amidst the Confusions and Dangers, which surround you.  I long to return, and administer all the Consolation in my Power, but when I shall have accomplished all the Business I have to do here, I know not, and if it should be necessary to stay here till Christmas, or longer, in order to effect our Purposes, I am determined patiently to wait. (Butterfield, I. 163)

John would return before Christmas that year, but he would be on his horse to Philadelphia again shortly, to attend the second Continental Congress, this time leaving Abigail behind at a time when the war came very close to home.

            As tensions increased, John continued to spend more time away from Abigail and his family in order to contribute to the revolutionary cause.  The 1760s and early 1770s were only a preview of the conflict that was coming.  After 1774, John would spend less time at home and more time in the service of his country.

24 July 2011

For Love and Country: John and Abigail Adams and the United States of America, part 3

Acquaintance and Courtship

“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.  A Wonder if the Fires of Patriotism, do not soon begin to burn!”
--John Adams to Abigail Adams,  April 20, 1763 (Butterfield, I. 5)

John and Abigail had a strong emotional and intellectual attachment.  However, when they first met in 1759, John was not impressed (Withey 13).  John was a twenty-three year old graduate of Harvard studying law.  Abigail was fifteen years old, and seemed always to be sick (McCullough 54).  He was the son of a farmer and she was a well-read daughter of a well-off parson.  When John’s friend, Richard Cranch, began courting Abigail’s sister Mary, John spent more time at the Smiths’ house and spent more time with Abigail, and the two got to know each other better.  An intellectual affinity was part of the attraction.  Edith Gelles, another of Abigail’s biographers, states that in addition it was “chemical, it was physical, it was humor, it was the fact they enjoyed being in one another’s company” (John).  These early meetings laid the groundwork for a lifetime of love and friendship.

In 1762, John and Abigail would exchange their first letter.  The letter, written by John and dated October 4, 1762, was flirtatious and playful and is the first of what would become about 1,180 known letters exchanged between the two lovers (Sikes).  “Miss Adorable” it began,

By the same Token that the Bearer hereof satt up with you last night I hereby order you to give him, as many Kisses, and as many Hours of your Company after 9 O’Clock as he shall please to Demand and charge them to my Account: This Order, or Requisition call it which you will is in Consideration of a similar order Upon Aurelia [Mary Smith, Abigail’s sister] for the like favour, and I presume I have good Right to draw upon you for the Kisses as I have 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, John Adams. (Butterfield, I. 2)

The courtship continued until 1764.  In between, letters flowed from one to the other proclaiming love, affection, and a yearning to be together.  

            Sometimes words were not enough.  John ended his letter to Abigail on February 14, 1763, “Your–(all the rest is inexpressible) John Adams” (Butterfield, I. 3).  That same year, Abigail began to sign her letters “Diana” after the Roman goddess of the moon.  To her, John became Lysander, the Spartan hero (McCullough 55).  Their letters typically began with “My Dearest Friend,” and each of them meant it when they wrote those words.  Before they were married, John wrote to Abigail, describing her as “The dear Partner of all my Joys and sorrows, in whose Affections, and Friendship I glory, more than in all other Emoluments under Heaven, comes into my Mind very often and makes me sigh” (Butterfield, I. 17).

            Over the course of their courtship of nearly five years, John and Abigail came to know each other intimately, both emotionally and intellectually.  In the beginning, politics and humor along with their proclamations of love filled their letters to each other.  They became spouses and lovers, best friends and intellectual partners (Wood 38).  They were married on October 25, 1764 by Abigail’s father at the parsonage.  Afterwards, they moved into the house directly across from John’s mother.  He set up his law office in the front room of the house and was able to find time to spend with Abigail (Withey 25).  John went away every so often, appearing in courts across Massachusetts (which, at the time, included present day Maine).  He was never away long, but approaching events would soon change their happy home.

John and Abigail’s relationship was not love at first sight.  They grew to love each other over the first few years.  They went from having short meetings to longer ones, and when they could not physically be together, they wrote letters to each other to feel closer.  The time was nearing when the letters would be as close as they could get to each other.

20 July 2011

For Love and Country: John and Abigail Adams and the United States of America, part 2


“Your Country is not yet, quite Secure enough, to excuse your Retreat to the Delights of domestic Life.  Yet, for the Soul of me, when I attend to my own Feelings, I cannot blame you.”

--John Adams to Thomas Jefferson,  May 26, 1777 (Cappon, I. 6)

To better understand the Adamses and their deep commitment to each other and their country, a contrast can be drawn between them and their contemporaries.  Men such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, served their country in a political sense during and immediately following the Revolutionary War. *  Though they shared a sense of patriotism equal to John and Abigail Adams, it is impossible to find the same patriotic commitment that the Adamses shared among their contemporaries.  Many of their contemporaries married to consolidate their positions in society, to acquire property or to advance themselves socially (Wood 28).  John and Abigail married out of the love and respect they had for each other.

If any Revolutionary War era couple comes close to John and Abigail Adams, it is the Washingtons.  George Washington married Martha Custis, who was a rich widow.  Martha Washington often followed George Washington during the Revolutionary War, putting herself in danger while doing what she could to help the soldiers (Smith, Presidents 10).  She, however, did not have to spend years at a time away from George as Abigail did from John.  Another difference is that John Adams saw his wife as an equal (as much as a woman could be a man’s equal in that time), speaking and writing to her about politics and other intellectual ideas, among other items.  Martha, on the other hand, did not participate in political or intellectual conversations with George Washington (Smith, Presidents 10).

Another contemporary, Thomas Jefferson, was married to Martha Wayles Skelton, a rich widow in 1772.  When Martha was weak (especially after child birth), Jefferson would leave or decline political duties assigned to him in order to be with his wife.  John Adams never left his posts, even when Abigail or another family member was sick.  John wrote, in 1775, “If I should hear more disagreable Advices from you I shall certainly come home, for I cannot leave you, in such Affliction[. . .]unless there was an absolute Necessity of my staying here, to do a Duty to the Public” (Butterfield, I. 291).  Abigail, their children and Abigail’s mother were all sick, as were many others in town around her.  Abigail’s mother would die; still John would not come home, despite what he wrote.   Jefferson was extremely distraught at his wife’s passing in 1782.  He spent her final months at her bedside, and after she died he spent three weeks in his room and five months further without communicating with anyone (Padover 111).  He, unlike Adams, was willing to forgo public duty for private matters.

Benjamin Franklin married Deborah Read, but it was more of a pragmatic arrangement.  In fact, historian Gordon Wood suggests that the real reason Franklin married Deborah may have been because Franklin had a son from another woman and Deborah would raise him (40).  Franklin spent much of his marriage (fifteen of the last seventeen years) in Europe and was especially fond of the women of Paris, and they of him.  Franklin’s friend in England, William Strahan, even wrote to Deborah to try to persuade her to join Ben in Europe, even going so far as to allude to him possibly being unfaithful (Isaacson 178-179).  Deborah still would not leave America.  Franklin’s letters to Deborah have little intellectual or emotional content, being mostly concerned with business matters at home, while his letters to women friends show much more playfulness, emotion and intellect (Isaacson 180). 

The other leading couples of the time may have been patriotic and committed to each other, but no couple of the time displayed the level of commitment to both family and country as did the Adamses.

* Other leading couples of the period, such as James and Dolley Madison and James and Elizabeth Monroe, took part in Revolutionary events, but were not married until after the Revolution had ended.  During the Revolutionary War, James Madison served in the legislature of the state of Virginia (1776-1779).  He was a delegate to the Continental Congress from 1780 to 1783, as the war was coming to a close.  At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Madison drafted the basis of what was to become the Constitution that the United States has today.  It was not until 1794 that he married Dolley Payne Todd.  James Monroe joined the military as a sixteen year old and saw action as a soldier during the Revolutionary War.  He fought in numerous battles and was seriously wounded at the Battle of Trenton.  In 1780, he studied law under Thomas Jefferson, and from 1782 onward, he served in government positions.  In 1786, three years after the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the Revolution, he married Elizabeth Kortright.

For Love and Country: John and Abigail Adams and the United States of America, part 1

The following posts are taken from research done for my graduate thesis in 2007.  In this thirteen-part series I used primarily the letters written between John and Abigail to demonstrate how the Adamses reconciled their intense love for each other with the love they had for their country.

“Letter-Writing is, to me, the most agreable Amusement I can find: and Writing  to you the most entertaining and Agreable of all Letter-Writing.”

--John Adams to Abigail Adams,  April 12, 1764 (Butterfield, I. 24)

The love that John and Abigail Adams shared was boundless and has since become celebrated, but that love for each other was intricately woven with the love each spouse had for his or her country.  The letters they exchanged with each other in the time that John was away, riding the court circuit in New England, attending meetings of Congress in Philadelphia, on diplomatic missions in Europe, and while he was Vice President and President, provide an insight into the two intense loves that they both maintained throughout their lives. It was never thought that John was abandoning his marriage or family.  Rather, his time away in the service of his country was viewed as a sacrifice that the family had to make.  Their letters reveal the deep and passionate love between John and Abigail as well as the love they had for their country. 

Many writers have depicted John as a man searching for fame and power, but there is more to him than that.  That is John Adams on the surface and in his public life.  Beneath this, however, is someone entirely different.  He was a caring man who deeply loved his wife, his family and his country.  In his day, John was recognized for the love he shared with his wife as well as his love for his country.  Recent scholarship, however, has emphasized only one aspect of John.  This representation does a disservice to John Adams, as the entire individual is not revealed.

Although love is a difficult thing to define, most people know love when they see it.  In reading the letters that John and Abigail wrote to each other as well as ones they wrote to their friends and contemporaries, the intense love they had for each other and for the country come out in unmistakable fashion.  Since love is difficult to measure, a better word to use may be commitment.  In this text, the words will be used interchangeably.  Love does not need to be quantified though in order to see that these two different loves are of equal importance to both John and Abigail.  Their letters bear this out. 

A comparison with some of their contemporaries will help to better understand the unique love shared between John and Abigail and the commitment they had to their country.  No other leading couple of the Revolutionary period carries such a claim.  The Adamses had an acquaintance and courtship of five years before marrying, but the following year the America Colonies would begin their break from Great Britain, and John would be a major player in the action.  Over the next ten years, John would take an ever-growing role in Colonial attempts to reconcile with Great Britain.  His role would take him ever further from his home and from Abigail.  The war began while John was in Philadelphia to debate actions the Colonies could take.  Soon, John was helping to draft a document that would declare the Colonies free of British rule.

The new freedom would take John even further from home than before.  Before 1777, the farthest John had been from his home in Massachusetts was Philadelphia, a few days coach ride from home.  In 1777, John made a voyage to Europe to serve his country there as a representative of the government, and was to see home only once in the next 10 years.  He and Abigail would see each other for only about three months over the seven years between 1777 and 1784, before Abigail would spend four years with John in Europe.  They arrived home in 1788, but less than a year later, John was elected the first Vice President of the United States under the newly approved Constitution.  After serving eight years in that capacity, John was elected second President of the United States.  Abigail spent some of those years traveling with John, but other years she would simply stay home to conserve money or because she was ill.  In 1801, John found out he had been defeated by his old friend Thomas Jefferson* for the Presidency of the United States.  He traveled home to Abigail, where they enjoyed the next 17 years together and with family until Abigail’s death in 1818.  John lived until 1826, never forgetting the one he loved or all he had done for his country.

* John Adams and Thomas Jefferson met at the Continental Congress and were good friends through the war, with the Adamses even watching Jefferson’s daughter for some time in Europe.  When John became Vice President, his view of the Constitution was different Jefferson’s view.  It is from this time that the Adams-Jefferson rivalry begins.  It continued as Adams defeated Jefferson by a margin of three electoral votes to become the second President of the United States.  Four years later, Jefferson defeated Adams.  Jefferson was upset at some last minute judiciary appointments that John Adams (legally) made before leaving office, further fanning the flames.   John left the city of Washington in the early morning hours on Jefferson’s inauguration day.  After Jefferson served two terms as President, he retired to Monticello.  A mutual friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, attempted to mend the friendship sometime around 1809.  With both men out of public life, their correspondence renewed and their friendship grew again.