01 August 2011

For Love and Country: John and Abigail Adams and the United States of America, part 5

1775 - 1776

“Oh that I was a soldier!–I will be.–I am reading military Books.–Every Body must and will, and shall be a soldier.”
--John Adams to Abigail Adams, May 26, 1775 (Butterfield, I. 207)

            From May 1775 to October 1776, John was home for a total of about two months.  He spent the rest of his time at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia where he was among the few men who were trying to decide the future of the American Colonies.  Abigail served her country these years as well, mostly assisting soldiers in the area.  In a letter that John wrote to Abigail he noted that his health, as well as her health, should be hazarded for the cause of the country (Butterfield, I. 213).  Abigail did not disagree. They both knew that either one of them, or both, at any moment, might face the prospect of death.  At the same time, they must do what was their duty to their Country. 

On April 19, 1775, British soldiers and Colonial militiamen exchanged shots on Lexington green, about thirty miles to the north of the Adams home in Braintree.  Later in the day, the militiamen chased the British from Concord, two miles further up the road.  Congress was to meet in May.  “I wish you was nearer to us,” Abigail wrote despairingly on the 24th of May.  “We know not what a day will bring forth, nor what distress one hour may throw us into” (Butterfield, I. 206).  In June, while John was proposing that George Washington be chosen as Commander of the Continental forces, Abigail wrote him requesting that he be as careful as he possibly could while doing the duty that he owed to his country, “That consideration alone prevailed with me to consent to your departure, in a time so perilous and so hazardous to your family” (Butterfield, I. 217). 

            On June 17th, Abigail could hear a battle in the distance.  She and her son, John Quincy, went to the top of nearby Penn’s Hill where, at about twelve miles distant, they could clearly see the smoke of war and men rowing in the harbor between Charlestown and Boston.  They were watching the Battle of Bunker Hill.  She could not see the many casualties, but when the reports came in, she reported them in a letter to John, who, in turn, informed the Congress, using the report to argue that it was now time for the Colonies to break from England (Coit 3).  Abigail would continue to update John about events, always assuming that he would have better and more up-to-date information from other sources.  “Your Description of the Distresses of the worthy Inhabitants of Boston, and the other Sea Port Towns, is enough to melt an Heart of stone,” John would reply back in the beginning of July.  To which he added,

Our Consolation must be this, my dear, that Cities may be rebuilt, and a People reduced to Poverty, may acquire fresh Property: But a Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored.  Liberty once lost is lost forever.  When the people once surrender their share in Legislature, and their Right of defending the Limitations upon the Government, and of resisting every Encroachment upon them, they can never regain it. (Butterfield, I. 241)

John was willing to lose everything - his possessions, property, even entire cities and towns in his beloved country - in order to maintain liberty and freedom.  He feared if the Colonists lost even a small part of their rights they would never get them back.

            This, of course, was no consolation for Abigail.  “I have not ventured to inquire one word of you about your return.  I do not know whether I ought to wish for it,” she wrote.  She was always hoping for his return.  “I wish I could come and see you.  I never suffer myself to think you are about returning soon.  Can it, will it bee?  May I ask?  May I wish for it?” (Butterfield, I. 232, 240).  This would be her recurring thought any time John was away.  She knew he had to go and never tried to hold him back, but once John was gone, Abigail always wanted him back immediately.  It hurt her even further when John wrote infrequently.  Abigail sent him letters sometimes complaining of the short and unsentimental letters she had received from John, although she knew he was busy.  John would return shortly in August (for about two weeks), after a three-month absence, but it would be for only a short time, as Congress was to meet again in September.

            In the time John was away, Abigail allowed the local militia to practice movements in her yard.  She provided food and drink, and even melted down her pewter utensils to form into musket balls (John).  Abigail sacrificed her personal possessions and her time to do what she thought was her duty to her country.  When John was preparing to leave for Phialdelphia at the end of August, Abigail wrote to Mercy Otis Warren, “I find I am obliged to summons all my patriotism to feel willing to part with him again” (Butterfield, I. 276).  She loved John so much that she did not want him to leave.  She had to remind herself that although John would be absent from her at home, he would be doing his duty by serving his country.  Adams’ biographer, David McCullough, wrote that being apart under these circumstances was the paradox of their lives.  Though they would never become comfortable being apart from each other, neither would have it any other way; they each knew John must do whatever he could for their country (144).  John was truly torn between the two throughout his life, however, because Abigail never once asked John to choose between her and the country, his conflicting emotions were somewhat eased.

            As the second Continental Congress was winding down in Philadelphia, John wrote to Abigail that he would never leave her to go to Philadelphia again, but would go if she came with him. This, they probably both understood, was a lie.  John wrote to her, “Whom God has joined together ought not to be put asunder so long with their own Consent” (Butterfield, I. 332).  Of course, he was being somewhat dramatic.  At any time he could have turned down his election to Congress and stayed with his wife.  That would not be fulfilling his duty however.  Abigail understood, writing to John, “I hope the publick will reap what I sacrifice,” about three weeks before he was to arrive back in Braintree, where he would stay for a month. (Butterfield, I. 329).  These early years that John and Abigail spent apart found both of them wanting each other’s company, but also wanting to serve their country.  It was during this time that they received a window into what they would face over the next decade.

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