24 August 2011

For Love and Country: John and Abigail Adams and the United States of America, part 11

1788 - 1796 

I long to be at home, but I dare not ask leave to go. The Times are too critical for any Man to quit his Post without the most urgent necessity.”
--John Adams to Abigail Adams from Philadelphia, April 1, 1794 (Adams Family Papers, Correspondence)

The new government of the United States was being established as John and Abigail were arriving back home.  John served as the first Vice President of the new nation under George Washington.  The capital was first in New York City, then in Philadelphia.*  Abigail was with John for his first four years, setting up the houses and entertaining guests.  John was dissatisfied with his position, but he served a second term after being elected.  Abigail remained in Massachusetts for the entire second term as Vice President to save money and to avoid endangering her often fragile health. 

Upon their arrival back in Massachusetts, John and Abigail moved into a new home in Quincy (which is now part of the Adams National Historical Park).  Their furniture arrived from Europe, but soon after it was unloaded from the ship and moved into the house, John was on his way to New York.  In March 1789, John Adams was elected to be the first Vice President of the United States of America, second only to George Washington, the great victorious general of the Revolution.  He took the oath of office on April 21 in New York City.  By May, he was writing to Abigail of the problems he was facing.  “I have as many difficulties here, as you can have; public and private, but my Life from my Cradle has been a series of difficulties and that series will continue to the Grave,” he wrote on May 14th.  Two weeks later, he complained that he must live “in a Style much below our Rank and station” because of the high costs in the city (Adams Family Papers, Correspondence 14 May 1789, 30 May 1789).  A week onwards from there, John wrote to Abigail again.  “I must now most Seriously request you to come on to me as soon as conveniently you can,” he told Abigail.  “Never did I want your assistance more than at present” (Adams Family Papers, Correspondence 6 Jun 1789).  Not only was John occupied setting up his house, entertaining guests and fulfilling the demands of his job, but he was also unwell.  Abigail did go to New York, and she followed to Philadelphia when the United States capital was moved to there in 1790 and would remain with John through most of his first term as Vice President.

John was never happy with the position of Vice President.  He found it a superfluous position and he aimed for the Presidency.  “Four years more will be as long as I shall have a Taste for public Life or Journeys to Philadelphia,” he wrote to Abigail just before he was re-elected to the Vice Presidency.  “I am determined in the meantime to be no longer the Dupe, and run into Debt to Support a vain Post which has answered no other End than to make me unpopular” (Adams Family Papers, Correspondence 28 Dec 1792).  After John’s re-election to the post, Abigail remained in Quincy (as Braintree had been renamed) throughout the entire term.  John was able to be home half of the time, as Congress was only in session about six months of the year.  The state of their health as well as the high cost of living in Philadelphia were both considerations for this choice (Withey 223, McCullough 440). 

During his second term, with Abigail away from him, the letter-writing between them picked up again.  John wrote of how he wished to be home with Abigail, but he also wrote detailed directions regarding the running of the farm or other business.  She, in turn, wrote of how she missed him and included her own detailed responses of information regarding the business at home. 

Halfway through his second term, John wrote home, “My forces of Mind and Body are nearly spent. Few Years remain for me, if any. In public Life probably fewer still, If I could leave my Country in greater Security, I should retire with Pleasure.”  Another letter followed, with John wishing to leave, but excusing himself for staying, until at least the fourth of March lest “I shall be charged with deserting the President, forsaking the secretary of State, betraying my friend Jay, abandoning my Post and sacrificing my Country to a weak Attachment to a Woman and a weaker fondness for my farm” (Adams Family Papers, Correspondence 16 Jan 1795, 2 Feb 1795).  As he had for the past twenty years, John was claiming he was almost done with the political life; he was ready to come home.  Yet he maintained that he had to delay that wish in the name of serving his country that needed him.

The next year, when John found out that George Washington was most likely stepping down after his term was over, John wondered what his duty would demand of him.  “It is no light thing to resolve upon Retirement,” he wrote to Abigail.  He continued, “I love my Country too well to shrink from Danger in her service provided I have a reasonable prospect of being able to serve her to her honour and Advantage,” meaning that if he won the Presidency, he must take it, but if he won a lower position, especially the Vice Presidency again under someone he did not agree with, he should refuse in the interest of the country.  “The Probability is strong that I shall make a voluntary Retreat and spend the rest of my days in a very humble Style with you,” he wrote to Abigail. “Of one Thing I am very sure. It would be to me the happiest Portion of my whole Life” (Adams Family Papers, Correspondence 7 Jan 1796).  This was not to be.  John Adams would be called on to serve his country one last time.

* The federal capital was in New York City from George Washington’s inauguration as President of the United States on March 4, 1789 until August 1790, when it moved to Philadelphia.  The capital moved again in 1800, this time to the newly created city on the banks of the Potomac River, which is present-day Washington, D.C.

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