09 August 2011

For Love and Country: John and Abigail Adams and the United States of America, part 7

1777 - 1779

“You wish you had ventured with me–I wish you was here–no I don’t, I wish I was there.” 
--John Adams to Abigail Adams from Passy, France, Dec 10, 1778 (Butterfield, III. 134)

            John was in Europe from 1778 to 1788, except for a brief three-month return to Massachusetts in 1779 (as well as three more months for travel time).  Abigail did not arrive in Europe until July 1784.  The six years of almost total absence strained the marriage briefly, especially during the first year and a half before John came back to Massachusetts.  This year and a half was particularly difficult for Abigail because she was not receiving correspondence from John on a regular basis the way she had when he was in Philadelphia.  It was also more treacherous to travel over the ocean, particularly during war time.  Interception and loss of letters was far more common at sea than on land during this period.  The gaps in communication led Abigail to gloominess and complaints.

On November 27, 1777, John Adams was elected by Congress to be a commissioner to France, along with Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee.  John spent the remainder of his time before his voyage with Abigail.  On February 14, 1778, John boarded the frigate Boston with his son, John Quincy, to sail for France.  Abigail was aware that his position was an important one both for the country and for John’s career. The next day she wrote to John Thaxter, a former law clerk of John’s and a tutor to the Adams’ children, “Your Friend might be more extensively usefull to his Country in this Department at this perticuliar time, than in any other.  I resign my own personal felicity and look for my satisfaction in the Consciousness of having discharged my duty to the publick” (Butterfield, II. 390).  John and Abigail were willing to suffer some personal unhappiness for the sake of John’s political career.  Their love was strong enough to endure the separations, and their belief in the revolution and their formidable sense of public duty allowed their marriage and their country to survive (Withey 75).

Other Congressmen declined to stay longer than one or two terms.  Other men representing the United States overseas cared little for their families, or simply did not have a family (Benjamin Franklin is a good example of the former, Thomas Jefferson of the latter after the passing of his wife).  John, however, accepted every appointment, near and far.  Abigail never attempted to convince him to decline any public position.  The couple was committed to the country and its cause and John was tied to its failure or success.  Should the revolution fail, John would be sought by the British and tried for treason, the penalty being death.  But should the revolution succeed, John would be a hero for his service, exalted and rewarded.  Still, John could have declined appointments and remained in service to his country in some other way.  John, however, felt that if his country asked him to serve in a particular capacity, he must do his best in that role, and Abigail agreed wholeheartedly. 

As John was leaving for France, the couple could not foresee that they would spend most of the next ten years apart from each other, suffering private wants for the sake of the public good (Withey 115).  While Abigail was cheerless at John’s absence, she took pleasure in knowing that she was John’s best friend and confidant.  Abigail kept abreast of events by writing correspondence to many people, including members of Congress, her good friend Mercy Otis Warren, and political figures.  They would keep her informed of the events in the States, in Europe and with John, especially when his communication was wanting, which would become often (Gelles 26).  Correspondence that John and Abigail sent to each other while John was in Philadelphia faced the dangers of interception or loss.  It also took time for letters to reach their destination, as they could only travel as fast as the rider carrying them.  The time and the dangers were nothing compared to what the couple would face after John boarded the Boston to sail for France.  Delays were the norm.  Storms kept ships in port; if an enemy ship came in for an attack, the letter-carrying ship usually threw all letters overboard to avoid the interception of sensitive material and letters were simply lost.  Moreover, even in peacetime, it took a letter months to cross the Atlantic instead of the days it took to go from Philadelphia to Boston.  John, being “so sensible of the Difficulty of conveying Letters safe,” was afraid to write anything more to Abigail then to tell her that “after all the Fatigues and Dangers of my Voyage, and Journey, I am here in Health” (Butterfield, III. xxviii, 9).  All of the letters John had written to Abigail while at sea were most likely lost for Abigail heard nothing of John for over two months.

As September rolled around, Abigail had scarcely heard from John.  The little she knew about him was what she heard through friends.  She wrote to John Thaxter in the beginning of September that she had only heard from her husband twice, and both of those letters came in April.  By the end of that month, Abigail wrote again to John; she acknowledged that four vessels bound from France to Boston had been captured, supposing that some letters from John had been lost in the process.  “If I had realized before you left me that the intercourse between us would have been so hazardous,” Abigail wrote to John on the twenty-ninth of September, “I fear my magninimnity would have faill’d me”  (Butterfield, III. 94-95).  Abigail was impatient and nervous.  She was also upset that John had gone, or that she had not gone with him and let him know this in the letters she wrote to France.  By November, Abigail would receive three letters from John.  “I cannot discribe the Effect they had upon me,” she wrote of his letters.  “Cheerfullness and tranquility took place of grief and anxiety” (Butterfield, III. 109). 

John was to receive the letters of complaint from Abigail the following month.  In what would be the only time in any of the letters that either John or Abigail showed any anger towards the other, John would send Abigail two separate letters chiding her for her complaints.  “For Heavens Sake, my dear dont indulge a Thought that it is possible for me to neglect, or forget all that is dear to me in this World,” John wrote on December 2.    “It is impossible for me to write as I did in America.  What should I write?  It is not safe to write any Thing.”  John wrote to her again on December 18th after receiving another letter from Abigail complaining that John had not been writing enough, or with enough feeling.  This time, he responded more heatedly,

This is the third Letter I have recd. 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….Am I not wretched Enough, in this Banishment, without this….I beg you would never more write to me in such a strain for it really makes me unhappy.

He closed his letter, however, on a more loving note.  “Be assured that no time nor place, can change my heart…& that I write to you so often as my Duty will permit” (Butterfield, III. 124, 138).  The time it took for letters to travel allowed for some of Abigail’s complaints to come through after John had sent his two letters in December.  In February 1779, the final angry letter between the two would be sent.  “For Gods sake,” John wrote, “never reproach me again with not writing or with Writing Scrips [scraps].  Your Wounds are too deep” (Butterfield, III. 174).  Abigail and John never mentioned the incident again, nor did the letter-writing relationship come close to breaking down ever again.
            In February, John learned that Benjamin Franklin had been appointed minister to France,

superceding the joint commission that Adams was serving on.*  With no further instructions sent to

him, John wrote home to tell Abigail joyously that he would soon be making his way back to her. 

Abigail responded days before John was to board the French frigate La Sensible back to Boston, that

the ship  “may bring me comfortable tidings from my dear dear Friend whose welfare is so essential to

 my happiness that it is entwined round my Heart, and cannot be impared or seperated from it without

 rendering it assunder” (Butterfield, III. 200).  She knew, however, that John would not remain at

home for long if his country needed him.  John arrived back in Boston on August 3, 1779.  A difficult

time, both for the Adamses’ marriage and for the nation, had passed.  The separation, however, would

continue for a few more years as John would only be at home with his dear friend for a couple of

months before his country required his services again. 

* John Adams was appointed to replace Silas Deane to be a joint commissioner of France with Benjamin Franklin to work at attaining an alliance with France.  By the time Adams arrived, Franklin had already obtained the alliance with France.  Adams’ commission was dissolved and no further instructions were sent to him.

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